Thoughts on Windows Phone 7 Series (BTW: Photon is Dead)

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The real Windows Mobile 7, that is, Photon as it once was called, is dead. Windows Mobile 7 was supposed to be an evolution of Windows Mobile 5 and 6. It was supposed to be built on the paradigm that previous generations of Windows Mobile had been created from: a Start-menu centric application experience, two soft keys on bottom, and applications that acted as they would on the desktop (often with a close button). Well Photon was scrapped, probably around 2008 when the Mobile division of Microsoft saw a big reorganization. With that, Microsoft started from scratch to build the next generation of Windows Mobile, or Windows Phone as they began calling it in 2009. Also at that time, they decided to extend the life of Windows Mobile 6 to buy some time, and a year later we saw 6.5. And despite rampant criticism, 6.5 shipped on a lot of really awesome devices like the HTC Touch Pro2 and HD2, Acer neoTouch, and Samsung Omnia II.

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Back in 2007, as you may or may not recall, I wrote about Windows Mobile 7 after having seen it at a Microsoft event. If you want to go back and see the text, it’s still available at MobilityToday. I contended that what Microsoft had in store for the next version of Windows Mobile was awesome, and that it could succeed. But I also warned that if they didn’t bring the product to market before the target late 2009 launch, it would fail. It would fail because by that time, two years later, iOS, Android, and other mobile platforms would be wildly evolved, and that Photon would seem like more of the same, instead of a breakthrough new operating system that the market would so desire.

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I also saw Photon two years prior to 2007. Back then, it was pretty much the same as we know Photon to be today. It’s very possible that work began on Photon as early as 2004, which begs the question: how could a company with such vast resources and fantastic human talent take nearly half a decade to roll out a product? The answer could come down to mismanagement or lack of investment. My guess is that Microsoft didn’t truly understand how big the mobile category would grow, and how fast it would happen.

Photon or no Photon, Windows Mobile is dead, and Microsoft wants you to stop calling that. They’ve already spent millions building the Windows Phone brand, and that will grow hugely in 2010. But I think that a lot of us have a strong attachment to Windows Mobile (especially if you visit this site). For the devotees among us, the assumed weaknesses of Windows Mobile are also its strengths. For example, some may say that the interface hasn’t changed much over the last ten years. I’d argue that the interface has remained consistent, giving developers plenty of time and flexibility to come up with some killer interfaces. Some may say that platform is too fragmented with too many device choices and different software experiences. I’d argue that this fragmentation has led to a lot of choice and has put the power in the hands of the OEMs like Samsung and HTC. But I’d also concede that this fragmentation has led to dozens of devices that brought poor experiences: slow processors, unoptimized software, and update cycles that never occur.

The list goes on, but in the end, it’s remarkable that Windows Mobile still has market share today given these issues.

Windows Phone Series 7 is Zune Phone

Microsoft Windows Phone 7 Series MWC 2010 official Music hub

The first big surprise on Monday morning was the leak of the “lifted up banner” that revealed the WP7 interface. To be honest, I thought it was a joke. The interface seemed way to crude and…blocky and bland, especially on that Start screen.

I watched the keynote live. It was quickly apparent that we were looking at the true Zune phone. Meaning, Microsoft looked at the Zune HD and probably asked “How could we add a phone experience to this?” The navigation with the big text menus and horizontal screen animations are right out of the Zune HD and accompanying desktop software. In fact, the Zune HD interface scheme is internally known as “Metro” and they use the term to describe both Zune and now Windows Phone 7 Series. But I love the Zune HD, I really do. I find it very satisfying to use, a nice departure from the less fluid interface found on the iPod Touch. And what I know will get annoying is the constant screen to screen animations. We haven’t gotten a look at the Settings of Windows Phone 7 Series, but I’m praying that there is an option to reduce the number of screen animations, as found on some Android phones. If not, I think I may suffer from motion sickness.

Microsoft Mandates

In order for Microsoft to avoid the fragmentation they experienced with Windows Mobile, they must exercise more control over the hardware and software experience, and they’re definitely doing so. Microsoft will specify certain hardware requirements for their OEMs to follow for Windows Phone 7 devices, including screen type and resolution, processor speed, and amount of RAM. Additionally, no third party interfaces are allowed (sorry HTC and Spb) unless they’re adding new tiles. We still don’t know about developer restrictions…whether programs can run in the background, whether there will be a notification service, etc.

These mandates are critical in Microsoft regaining control of its mobile product. I think they striked a good balance between controlling the experience and letting developers work some magic. But again, we’re going to learn a lot more about this at MIX in March.

Start Screen

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I find the Start screen to look unfinished and half-assed. But I like the concept. It’s a good compromise because it allows you to put all sorts of data on your main screen…live data, pictures, indicators, and more. While the list of tiles can get long, I find it easier to scroll down a tad than to swipe several times to the right or left like in Android. The truth is that you probably use your phone for the same five tasks everyday. Maybe on the weekends you dig into some games or spend more time on Twitter, but most people’s Start screen won’t become hugely cluttered. Compared to the iPhone and WebOS, WP7’s main screen is exponentially more useful in my opinion. On the iPhone, you get to see icons and icons and icons. In WebOS, you get to see four customizable icons with one button launching the program menu. I really like that with Windows Phone 7, your Start screen can really fit into your life.

I’m looking forward to seeing what third parties do with the home screen tiles. I would love to have a tile that would tell me whether my favorite show was on tonight and if it’s a rerun or new episode. Or, I’d like to have a tile that alerts me of new deals on a certain product I’m looking to buy soon. There are some really hot possibilities here.

The Hubs

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I like the idea of hubs. They pull data from several places to make for a more seamless experience. HTC does this with their Sense interface. For example, you can click on the name of a contact and see all interaction (SMS, Email, etc) that you’ve had with them, without bouncing around to different areas. What I’m most excited about is to see how third parties customize hubs. I’d love to see a hub for news sites that would allow the user to plug in the name of their favorite sites. Then, the hub would pull those sites’ RSS, Twitter, YouTube, etc. You could view the RSS of all sites in a combined view, or you can dial down per website and find out what’s going on.

Overall

In the end, Windows Mobile, as we know it, is no more. Sure, we’ve got some new 6.5 and 6.5.3 hardware shipping this year, but Microsoft’s focus is now on WP7, as it should be. What they did was right. They started from near scratch (but smartly integrated experiences found on their other successful platforms, like Zune and Xbox). When I think of Windows Phone 7 Series, it’s almost as if a new company has entered the market with an entirely new product (similar to what happened when Palm ditched Palm OS for WebOS). There are good things to come for Windows Phone 7, and of course we’ll be here to cover it for you =D.

But for now, let us pay our respects to Photon. Rest in peace, Photon. You would have been a star (back in 2006).

/end rant

Bonus

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Remember these screenshots we leaked? What the heck were they? My best guess is that these screenshots represented a more mature skin of Photon that was destined to be released if WM7 ever left the gate. Too bad, this was a very slick-looking interface!

(Screenshots via Engadget)

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About The Author
Brandon Miniman
Brandon is a graduate from the Villanova School of Business, located near Philadelphia, PA. He's been a technology writer since 2002, and, in 2005, became Editor-in-Chief of Pocketnow, a then Windows Mobile-focused website. He has since helped to transition Pocketnow into a top-tier smartphone and tablet publication. He's so obsessed with technology that he once entered a candle store and asked if they had a "new electronics" scent. They didn't.