The swagger is back. While it’s easy to call Windows 7 Microsoft’s mea culpa for Vista with some nice surprises thrown in, Windows Phone 7 Series represents a bold new direction for smart phones and the entire company, one that attempts to put the user (instead of apps for apps sake) at the center of attention. And this ambition and vision is matched with a sense of genuine confidence and excitement we haven’t seen from Microsoft since it launched the original Xbox. Aaron Woodman, director of consumer of experiences at Microsoft, talked with us about its built-from-the-ground-up OS, and he had a lot to share about Windows Phone 7′s unique interface, what to expect from Xbox Live and Zune integration, and how partners will (and won’t) be able to differentiate their devices.
Woodman also told us that Twitter integration is coming to the People Hub, which aggregates social networking updates, and that Flash support is a matter of when and not if. And, yes, you’ll also be able to multitask, but it will be limited. Even though Apple has yet to unleash its next iPhone OS and hardware, and Android has serious momentum, Microsoft isn’t acting like an also-ran in the mobile space anymore. As Woodman told us in our in-depth interview, Microsoft feels “very good about its long-term differentiation.” In other words, bring it on.
During the launch of Windows Phone 7, Microsoft seemed to be positioning apps almost like plug-ins for the hubs you’ve created, as opposed to standalone entities. Is that how you look at them?
AW: First and foremost, we are not trying to de-emphasize apps in any way, shape, or form. We have a strong application store built around a new operating system and a new set of tools and new languages that we’ll support, and we’ll announce those at Mix. Second, we’ve actually changed the user experience in a way that we think will be beneficial for both the ISV and for the end user and that comes in two ways.
The way you mentioned where you can plug into the hub, that is absolutely accurate. You’ll see that in music and video and you’ll see that in games and other places where that makes sense. The other way is just thinking about it from the Start experience and live tiles.
How do live tiles make apps better?
AW: To the right of the Start experience is an application list. But I want the most important or most used or the things I care about most up on the Start experience. The difference is that the application list is just a set of general tiles and as you promote them they become live tiles in the Start experience. So they become much more dynamic and have the ability to expose information dynamically and kind of have a heartbeat. We’re changing the ways applications are getting surfaced on the device through the design.
How will you decide what applications can plug into the hubs or become live tiles?
AW: A lot of that will be decided by the ISV. We’ll be pretty prescriptive in terms of what extensibilities will be available in which hubs, and that’s true with the live tiles as well, where we actually have prescriptive ways to build a live tile and making that dynamic and bringing information to it. So we’ll expose that pretty broadly, and ISVs wil ultimately get to decide how best to articulate that. But there are some basic requirements to get into the hubs and we’ll talk about those in March.
Can you clarify whether Windows Phone 7 allows multitasking? Can you play music while you’re surfing the Web?
AW: There’s a lot of sensitivity around multitasking. Joe Belfiore talked about it briefly during his presentation, where he said you’ll be able to listen to music and use other applications. We looked at end user behavior quite a bit in the development of the platform, and I think you will see the right behavior for the actual operating system in terms of multitasking. That being said, we’re really focused on the end user so there’s some trade-offs in the way we implemented that, and we’ll talk about that more in March.
One of the services we didn’t see in the People hub during the press conference is Twitter. Is that coming, and will users have control over what followers they see?
AW: We will absolutely support Twitter, and we’re working through the Windows Live team to do that. We actually have a pretty significant advantage in the sense that Windows Live has in most cases private reciprocal agreements with social networking. The point is that Windows Live actually helps us interact with those social networking feeds. And you’ll not only see Facebook and Windows Live but over 70 other feeds at launch. So you’ll see pretty wide integration.
In terms of contact integration where you see a lot of people show up I think that might be limited to your Webmail bases, so Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Hotmail, and your corporate mail like Exchange, and then Facebook and Windows Live. I’m not sure whether we will pull contacts from Twitter or just feeds.
Can your Windows Phone 7 partners differentiate their devices beyond the physical design?
AW: Our strategy behind Windows Phone 7 Series with our OEMs was to unify the user experience so that there wasn’t any fragmentation, increase the quality of the device, and allow for differentiation in both the hardware ID and some software innovation from the OEM but inside the user experience. So mobile operators and OEMs will get some unique access to the controls and access to the system software that won’t be available broadly to third-party ISVs, and then they have an opportunity to use that to differentiate but inside the user experience. So we think that’s going to be the best balance between the end users and what OEMs want to achieve.
So would something like HTC Sense go too far in terms of redefining the user experience?
AW: With Windows Phone 7 Series we changed our approach to the user experience and are taking accountability for the entire experience. That means you will not see layers, like HTC Sense or TouchFLO built on top of the UI by OEMs or MOs (mobile operators). That said, there will be a number of structured ways that OEMs or MOs can customize within the experience to bring their world class brands and services to the forefront.
How many Xbox Live titles will be available at launch and will they be on a par or better than what’s available on the iPhone?
AW: I don’t want to speculate on what titles you’ll see. We’ll start talking about that at Mix, and you’ll see some partners being announced, but I don’t think you’ll see titles being announced. That being said, I think we have an extremely strong development platform and story to tell developers that will be quite compelling and a little bit surprising. And in doing so I think we’ll incent two things that consumers care about. The first is quality. I think you’ll see incredible games and apps in general. Be we also have to get to the more, and we have plans to achieve both of those things.
What do you mean by more? Will Xbox Live users be able to play against gamers on the Xbox console and Windows PCs?
AW: I don’t know if we particularly announced multi-platform support. And I wouldn’t say multiplayer. I would say turn-based games. That is a long-term strategy. We think that we can differentiate over time. We’ll get the right titles and we’ll get some pretty unique social game solutions out there. And I think that’s where we’ll start.
Many Zune Pass subscribers swear by the service, but it’s for music only. Would you offer a service that covers both music and video?
AW: I don’t know to be honest with you. We’ve seen people who use the Zune Pass on Zune HD be extremely loyal customers and have a lot of passion around that business model. The first step for us was bringing the Zune experience to the phone, and then getting on the same software platform as the Zune HD and what we’ve done there so that it can actually be better than the sum of the parts. We’ll continue to innovate there. As a company we have some of the greatest media relationships than any other phone manufacturer out there, primarily due to the relationships we have through Xbox, through the PC, through Media Center, and through Zune. So we’re not backing away. In the same way that the Xbox supports multiple services and is a powerful playback device we want to achieve that with the phone as well.
So there’s no reason why there wouldn’t be a Netflix option in the music and video hub?
AW: That’s correct.
Can you clarify whether Flash support will be offered in Windows Phone 7 at launch?
AW: The Flash question is a good one but there are two types of “Nos.” “No we think it’s bad for the end user” or “No we just didn’t get to it.” Flash is in the second camp. The reality is that we have a very good working relationship with Adobe. Adobe announced that they are working on bringing Flash to a future version of Windows Phone. I fully expect that to be something that we support. It’s a really a question of time and how, not a question of whether we think it’s a good thing for end users. We do and we want to get it there. It’s just not there yet.
Do you think that Windows Phone 7 could scale up to work on Tablets, or do you not want to compete against Windows 7 in that market?
AW: We are very much focused on being successful in the phone space. I think the competition is extremely tough. There are some very respectful competitors and that’s our first and foremost prioritization. I don’t think there are any resources or expectations or desire to move beyond that.
Given that your new OS won’t reach consumers until the end of the year and that we will likely see significant enhancements from Apple, Google, and RIM before then, do you think Windows Phone 7 will seem as advanced when it launches? How well have you positioned yourself for the next stage of the smart phone wars?
We talk a lot about this internally. We will continue to see competitors march. We’re announcing early so that we can motivate and move the developer story forward and be ready at GA (general availability) for a powerful experience for end users with applications. And that’s an important part of the strategy. In a perfect world we’d launch with all of our partners including ISVs at GA and no one would know about it, but I don’t think that’s reasonable.
The second thing I would say is that we feel very good about our long-term differentiation. I think we have a very unique perspective about how to build a phone around putting end users and building the user experience around the task rather than just access to applications. And the result is a very different look and feel. But those are very, very deep principles. Additionally, we’re bringing to market a set of services and integration that is not easily copied. That’s something that we’ll be able to defend over a long period of time. And if you look at Xbox Live as an example there is nobody else that has an Xbox Live in their back pocket that they haven’t brought to market. That sort of differentiation is something that is going to sustain us over a long period of time.