"What's this?" a girl at a party asked, as I handed her my phone. She touched a square, and everything flipped away. "It's Microsoft's brand new phone. Kind of like a fresh start," I explained. "Oh. It's... neat."
That's the most apt way to describe Windows Phone 7, really. It's a fresh start, and it's neat. It's a clean slate that Microsoft can use as a foundation to build something entirely new, and it's not like any other phone you've used. It manages to do something that's sadly rare for Microsoft, which is to leverage all of these different Microsoft products and services - Bing, Xbox Live, Zune to name a few - and seamlessly bring them together in a single, polished product. Which is exactly what Windows Phone 7 needs to be.
Windows Phone 7 is coming out this in the next few months - October, possibly - and the basic rundown of "What is Windows Phone 7?" can be found here and here. The version that I've been using for the last few days on prototype hardware (a Samsung phone which will never be sold) has been variously described to me by Microsoft as "beta 2", a "close-to-release-candidate build" and a "technical preview". Developers will be getting phones loaded with it shortly in order to have apps ready for launch. It's representative of what the final Windows Phone 7 interface and experience will be like, though two critical parts were missing, because they're still under heavy construction: Xbox Live and the Apps Marketplace.
The phrase "authentically digital" makes me want to barf rainbow pixels, but Microsoft's description of the Windows Phone 7 interface is truth: It doesn't try to feel like anything but a flat, digital interface. There is no attempt to depict three dimensionality or any kind of real-world mimesis. No gradients, shadows, gloss or shading. Everything is crisp and flat. Everything pops, bright primary colours and white text on a black landscape. Touch a tile on the main screen, and the interface flies away like exploding puzzle pieces, revealing the app you wanted to see. Oversized text is the order of the day. (Yes, it still runs off the screen in lots of place.) It feels gloriously modern. I love it. I wonder how gracefully it'll age.
Microsoft doesn't treat the main components of the phone — like Music+Video, People, Pictures, Xbox Live — as apps. They're "hubs". Which means they're panoramas with two or three or even four screens that you swipe left or right to move from one screen to another. For instance! In the People hub, one screen is all of my contacts. Flick to the right, and it's recent contacts. Flick again, and it's "what's new", which is a newsfeed of my friends' updates from Facebook and Windows Live. (Well, it would have Windows Live friend updates, if I had any friends that used Windows Live, or the Twitter service that wasn't turned on yet — but more on that later.) You can get a sense of how developers will be able to expand on hubs in a way that's more integrated than separate apps you install. Overall, the concept works really well, once you get it.
Live Tiles are what make the start screen good and mostly eliminate the need for widgets. They're the giant squares of, um, stuff that make up the home page. The tile for every application is dynamic, so one for my account mail will show me how many messages I have, while the tile for a person I have pinned to the start screen will show me their latest photo. Unfortunately, weather isn't a built in app, so you can't see what's up at a glance - at least not with the early app that Microsoft made available in the Marketplace. But there's a lot of potential in this concept, ridding the need to go through the motions of opening an app when all that's needed is a shot of info.
There are three buttons that'll be on the front of every Windows Phone 7 phone: Start, Back and Search. Start works just like the home button the iPhone - it takes you back to the start page. Back is much like Android - it shoots you back a screen. Search is contextual, which means sometimes you don't know what it'll bring up. In Maps, it looks up where you want to go; in People, it looks through contacts; from the start screen, it's Bing search, which is comprised of a general web search, local listings, and news.
I didn't think to use the search button as often as I should have. Like the Zune HD, WP7 is a very list-oriented interface when it comes to displaying a lot of information or options (versus, say, a grid). The main contacts page in the people is a very long list, since it brings in all of your Facebook contacts, without a way to filter them by network. The right side of the start screen is a long list of installed apps - you get the idea. Microsoft wants you to search for things or use voice commands to quickly get to them, but the most natural reaction would be to scroll for a long time.
Notifications, like for text messages, unobtrusively show up at the top of the screen, where you can ignore them or act on them. It's how notifications should be. Pressing the volume key neatly brings up Zune player controls too at the top of the screen too. There's a few other quirks to Windows Phone 7's deliberately window-less interface. The reception signal typically isn't visible; you have to tap the top of the screen to make it pop up. The indication that it's syncing or updating is subtle, a series of dots running across the top of the screen.
The app bar, seen here, is exemplary of Windows Phone 7's most aggressively iconographic tendencies. It's a small menubar that runs alongside the bottom of many, if not most apps; it's where the buttons to do things are often located, like composing a new message in Outlook. The buttons have no labels, just hieroglyphs. There's an ellipsis in the top right hand corner of the bar - it's supposed to indicate "press here, or drag up", which will reveal the app bar in its full glory, with text labels for the buttons, along with a list of other things you can do, like access settings. While app bar's behaviour will be consistent across every app - kind of like a more obvious, onscreen version of Android's menu button - it's something people will definitely have to learn to use. The major issue is that it doesn't eliminate the need for long presses - pressing and holding down, like on a picture in the gallery app, is still the only way to trigger certain things, and you can never quite tell when to use it.
The touch keyboard looks stark, almost advertising that it's a crappy experience. Tiny little letters set against unforgiving pointy little rectangles. It's deceptive, since in terms of typability, it's second to the iPhone. It's a wonderful keyboard: fast, smooth, intuitive and totally natural, even this phone's narrowish screen. Text selection is weird but workable - pressing and holding over editable text brings up a fat green text cursor that you can slide between the letters, sticking it wherever you need it.
Given that it's a beta OS running on prototype hardware, the interface's speed was impressive. It's exactly like a Zune HD. No stuttering or slowdown, just zoomy flips and swoops, back and forth between apps and the start screen. Of course, it needs this kind of speed, since it like's a return to iPhone pre-iOS4 - there's no multitasking for third-party apps. (No, not even Pandora will run in the background.) It seems appropriate to mention now that there's no copy and paste. A throwback to the halcyon days of 2009, Windows Phone 7 is the only modern smartphone that'll be left in this position. It's clearly going to be painful. Maybe agonising.
The price of Windows Phone 7's modernity, its difference, is something of a learning curve - or at least, that impression was more solidified after I handed the phone to a half dozen or so people over the weekend. All of them were lost, at least for a few minutes. Then I explained things. Then most of them said some variation of, "It's cool, I guess."
But, day to day, Windows Phone 7's interface does work. Well. It's quick, fluid, clean, modern. It's not perfect. It'll take a day to get used to. But I think most people will like it, if not love it. I do. The question is what it'll be like in a year, or two years, when it's more complete and filled out, less of a clean slate.
People and Accounts
People and accounts on Windows Phone 7 is a cross between Android and WebOS. A Microsoft Live ID is the core account that ties everything together. Which theoretically, can be a lot of stuff. It'll pull in your contacts, Hotmail/Windows Live mail, Office Live, Zune, Xbox Live avatar, Pictures, SkyDrive - pretty much all of Microsoft's online services are tied in, one way or another, through the Live ID. The iPhone feels archaic in this regard.
Like a lot of people, I don't use Live except for Xbox and Zune. Fortunately, Microsoft's support for other services, like Google and Facebook is solid. Particularly Facebook, which is the privileged secondary account here. I signed in to Google and Facebook, and magically, the People hub was populated with all of my contacts from both services, neatly linked with profile pictures from Facebook. The result it's a epic list of people, which you can jump between using letters, like in the Zune HD interface, but if you've got a ton of Facebook contacts, you're either going to be tapping search a lot, pinning people to the start menu, or you're screwed. Most recent contacts get another screen.
There's no separate Facebook app - instead, all updates, the newsfeed, if you will, are part of the "what's new" screen in People. If you click on a contact's card (which you can pin to the front page for instant access), you get the same kind of experience - "what's new" will show you everything they're up to, from all of the services you're linked to. Some of the Facebook experience is lost in translation, but overall, the People hub concept works. It feels natural and seamless in the way it aggregates info from multiple services. The major missing piece is Twitter, but supposedly, support is on the way via Windows Live, which'll aggregate Twitter updates and then pipe them down to the phone. It sounds like Google Buzz, but it should be much faster. Twitter support is mission critical for this app-less concept to work - so it has to happen.
Entertain Me: Music, Photos, Video
Music and video on the phone is exactly what'd you hope: It's Zune HD, the app, just like the Kin. And if you have a Zune Pass, you can stream the entirety of the Zune catalogue - the part that's available for streaming, anyway - over 3G, also the Kin. A new version of the Zune app syncs music, videos and photos - it's the only thing that actually has to sync to the phone from a computer, and mercifully, it can be done over Wi-Fi too. Pressing the phone's volume button drops Zune player at the top of the phone, which is slick.
Every phone has to have a dedicated camera button, which launches the app and takes pictures. The interface is blissfully minimal. It's a lot like the iPhone 4's, actually, with a couple controls lining the side for switching between stills and video, and then a gear button for more in-depth settings, like ISO. The breadth and depth of this menu is up to the hardware maker, but they have the option to go fairly hardcore with the level of settings.
Inside the camera, swiping to the left brings you into Pictures, which isn't just the photos on the phone, but also everything your friends have uploaded to Facebook or other connected sites in a "what's new" screen. Photos can be automatically uploaded to Live, if you want - a nice, Kin-like touch. Long pressing will give you the option to upload to Facebook, something that's totally not obvious enough. And yes, there's pinch-to-zoom, which is all over the phone.
Bing, Office, Outlook and the Internet Exploder
Bing Search is thoroughly excellent here. Tapping the search button on the main page launches you into a search hub that includes general web results, local listings - complete with a live map - and news. The problem, as I stated earlier, is that you never quite know where the Search button is going to take you.
Bing Maps, naturally, is the navigation service. It's nice. It's not as straightforwardly easy to use as Google Maps - the icons are confusing, as is the behaviour of the back button - and it doesn't have public transit directions, but it is fully featured and has a few swanky details. When it goes to street view, the roads fade in as the fog clears away, like the fog of war fading in a real-time strategy game. Directions are ace, using a split-screen view that has a map up top and turn-by-turn directions listed below. Tapping on an item in the list shoots you to that part of the map, so you know exactly where to go at that spot. Pinch-zooming is zippy.
The Outlook app might be the best mail app on any phone. Giant black text on a white background, it's actually kind of gorgeous and makes most mail apps feel dated. Swiping to the right left or right takes you through all mail, unread (handy!), flagged and urgent. Unfortunately, starred messages in Gmail do not translate into "flagged" messages at all, so there's no way to dig those out. I haven't tried Exchange, but it's got full support, supposedly. The major problem with mail each email account creates a tile, almost like a separate app, and there's no unified inbox, so you have to go back to the start screen every time you want to switch accounts. The semi-saving grace is that the tiles showing live info means you know how much mail you have before you pop into each account. But nonetheless, frustrating.
Internet Explorer is surprisingly competent, and quick, given that it's built mostly off of the desktop version of IE7. Most of the sites I went to, from Gizmodo to the Atlantic, loaded without any problems, just like you'd expect them to. A few sites rendered poorly, the browser's IE7 DNA showing through, but for most things, it's pretty good - just behind iPhone and Android's WebKit browsers. My major problem with the app is that the address bar never disappeared in portrait mode, so the view of the page always felt scrunched. (In landscape, it fades away, as you'd expect.) Pinch zooming is perfect, better than Android. Overall, I'm pretty happy, especially knowing this came out of Microsoft.
Office on a phone is terribly exciting, if you wear a tie five days week. It's also terribly basic, but slick, more focused on viewing and collaboration - comments and online services like SharePoint and Live - than on actual production and editing. Extant Office files from Word, Excel and PowerPoint render with fidelity to the original, with a table of contents so you can skip around easily. Editing is limited to the most basic of text-y functions. On the phone, you can create elementary Word docs and Excel spreadsheets, though what's more interesting to me is OneNote, which lets you create and sync notes over-the-air - they'll show up automatically in Windows Live, or if you're running the OneNote desktop software, it'll poof into there, too. It's not like running around with Office on your laptop, but cramming that into a phone would be painful anyhow.
Apps Marketplace and Xbox Live
The Marketplace is one big hub for everything you'd buy on Windows Phone 7: Apps, games and music, which is the major distinction, that everything is unified in a single market vs separate stores for apps and music. It seems to make more sense this way. The music store was the only one that's fully armed and operational, but everything seems to work pretty much like Marketplace on the Zune HD, which is just like stores on any other phone - featured things, new things, categories, top sellers - but with a swoopy Windows Phone-style interface, tied to your Live account. Apps have screenshots and ratings, music has 30-second previews. Buy them, and they download over the air and install on your phone. Nothing shocking.
The only aspect of Xbox Live that's working at the moment is that it's showing my avatar and Gamescore - though you can see where friend requests and the games collection is going to live. What's interesting is that the Games marketplace is going to be more tightly controlled than the general app marketplace. Whereas apps will have an objective checklist to pass before being like into the marketplace, Xbox Live games will be subjectively approved by Microsoft, so the idea is that it'll be more like a console experience. In a way, it's one of my biggest unanswered questions about WP7, since it seems like one of the biggest leverage points for people under 30 who haven't bought a smartphone yet. "Buy an Xbox phone!" I wish I knew more of what that meant.
John covered the real questions about apps and Windows Phone 7 back in March, and most of them still remain:
When Windows phone 7 launches later this year, it will face the same Catch-22 as any new app platform does: Without an audience to sell to, why would developers invest in creating complicated apps? And if a platform doesn't have these great apps, why would people switch to it?
The answers from Microsoft have been coming into slightly less-fuzzy focus, there's no way to tell how it's going to shake out. I mean, look at Palm. They had a great new platform too. Granted, we are talking about Microsoft, and the box containing this phone was adorned with Developers! Developers! DEVELOPERS! But it's quite frankly impossible to tell what a major part of the phone's experience is going to be like - maybe the most critical aspect that's out of Microsoft's control. In the meantime, most of what we do know, you can read right here.
The Big Picture
Windows Phone 7 is good. Really good. It has the raw components needed to build a great smartphone. Or at least one from 2009. Is that enough? It's starting a generation behind Android and iPhone, which now have tens of millions devices. On top of that, it's behind them functionally, too, missing things that are now table stakes, like copy and paste and multitasking for third-party applications. People might not know what 'multitasking' is, they'll just wonder why they can't play Pandora in the background.
And apps? iPhone and Android both have over 100,000. Developers go to where the users are; users go to where the content is. Microsoft has to break a vicious, virtuous cycle. If anybody can do this, rebuild an empire from less than nothing, it's Microsoft. Patience is perhaps Microsoft's greatest virtue, but sheer greed is what it needs right now. Making Windows Phone something that people want to buy is going to require the most Herculean effort the company's made in a long, long time. Windows Vista and 7 style onslaughts for mindshare. It has to snag developers and users, by the screaming bucketful. Microsoft has to want it bad enough. Fortunately, Windows Phone 7 might just be good enough.