UPDATED: See hands-on video below.
It’s a total do-over. And now that we’ve seen it in action we think Microsoft is back in the smart phone race, actually putting the likes of RIM and Android on notice when it comes to the user experience. Windows Phone Series 7 has a revamped interface reminiscent of the company’s Zune portable media players, except its been extended way beyond media to include everything from people (social networking) to gaming, photos, and productivity.
With this version of its mobile OS, Microsoft is also insisting on stringent hardware requirements, including capacitive touch and the same three buttons on every device. We just attended Microsoft’s press conference for this new platform, which will be hitting phones at the end of 2010, and came away impressed with the company’s ability to–ahem–think different about smart phones. One thing is for sure: Microsoft is de-emphasizing the need to jump into and out of multiple apps, instead focusing on a more integrated experience.
At the heart of the Windows Phone Series 7 experience are what Microsoft calls “live tiles,” onscreen squares whose information– weather, social networking updates– updates in real time. Users can customize which and how many tiles appear on their home screen, just as other mobile operating systems, such as Android and the new bada OS, let users customize their home screens with widgets. The live tiles Microsoft demonstrated today ran the gamut from professional to personal, including calendar, Outlook, an Xbox live account .
One of the most interesting tiles we saw was the one for people who matter to you. Borrowing language from its Windows 7 operating system, users can “pin” their favorite people, at which point they can see things like their Facebook status updates from the home screen. By tapping on that friend’s tile, you can then, say, reply to a comment or post he made on Facebook, essentially mitigating the need for a Facebook app.
The other design element coursing through Windows Phone Series 7 are hubs: pages that cull information about all sorts of things: your favorite people, your Office documents, and photos, to name a few. The People hub, for instance, pulls in contacts from myriad sources, such as Facebook and e-mail accounts. You can then cut through all this information by selecting just the people you’ve contacted recently, or alphabetically. In a flourish that reminds us of Android 2.1, the text animates as you select letters of the alphabet or a specific friend.
The same organizational philosophy applies not just to contacts, but to photos, multimedia, and Office documents. From the Office hub, specifically, users can create, read, and edit Word, PowerPoint, and Excel files, as well as send to and receive from a SharePoint server.
Confirming those persistent rumors, Windows Phone 7 Series incorporates the Zune experience. Basically, the Zune is to future Windows 7 phones what the iPod is to the iPhone: the interface will be the same. It’s like having a Zune in your phone (minus HD radio).
So, the interface looks exactly the same. Users can also shop for music and other content on their phones, as they would on Zune Marketplace using their Zune player. Microsoft also announced that users can install third-party plug-ins, such as Pandora. Consistent with the rest of the OS, users can pin favorite songs, and access their history, as they would recent contacts. In this case, the music hub is mostly Zune, then, with a dash of other services you might use.
While Microsoft’s mobile OS has always been pitched toward business users, Windows Phone Series 7 makes a serious case for entertainment junkies, too, by allowing users to access and play their Xbox Live games on the device. As far as Microsoft is concerned, the integration with its own gaming platform ensures that “the phones aren’t just effective and functional, but really fun,” said Joe Belfiori, VP of Windows Phone. You’ll be able to see your Xbox Live avatar as well as invitations from others to engage in multiplayer action.
In addition to the Office hub, there are other ways in which Windows Phone Series 7 stays loyal to its professional users. Like the rest of the OS, the calendar draws in appointments from different sources, but it also neatly color codes professional and personal events differently. Users can choose to view their calendars in different ways, such as daily or monthly. As you navigate through the calendar, the screen animates, just like lists of contacts do. Other professional touches include the ability to flag e-mails and delete multiple items at once easily, something users can already do in Outlook 2007.
One of the OS’s secret weapons might be Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, which puts an emphasis on making decisions, such as shopping and restaurant searches, easier. The phone automatically hyperlinks addresses, phone numbers, and other contact information throughout the OS– in e-mails, calendar entries, Web pages. A tap on an address launches Bing Maps, which includes detailed illustrations at the street level.
When it comes to search, the phone uses location to place your results in context. So, a search for “sushi” will yield, first and foremost, local sushi joints. There are three tabs at the top of the search page: local, news, and Web, so, if you wanted to research how to make sushi, you could easily find that information, too. Microsoft also announced partnerships with services such as Yelp, which will help make its contextual results (in this case, restaurant and bar reviews) more useful.
Hardware Requirements and Partnerships
In addition to the stunning, revamped, work-and-play-friendly OS, one of Microsoft’s biggest departures was its insistence on hardware uniformity among its phones going forward. All Windows Phone 7 Series phones must have capacitive touch screens, as well as three buttons for accessing the home screen, navigating backward, and searching. This requirement, in particular, seems to be an answer to Android’s fragmented handset capabilities across different manufacturers.
The hardware partners Microsoft announced today included Qualcomm, Samsung, LG, ASUS, Garmin-ASUS, Dell, and Toshiba. All four major US carriers are on board, among other international ones. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said the company has established particularly strong relationships with AT&T and Orange, working with them so they can add their own software and services.
The first Windows Phone 7 Series phones will be available by the end of the year. In the meantime, check out our hands-on video below.