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Saturday, 27 February 2010

Windows Phone 7 Series: Too little too late?

MWC 2010  is over and the big news this year was undoubtedly Microsoft's re-invention of it's mobile platform with the announcement of the catchily named 'Windows Phone 7 Series' Like Palm's announcement of Web OS at last year's CES, they have a very promising OS with it all to prove...

So what is it?

Well I'll tell you what it isn't and that's like any other mobile platform on the market at the moment.
Microsoft has clearly sat up and taken notice of the rise of Smartphone popularity and the decline of Microsoft's relevance in this area.

Gartner recently released the 2009 Smartphone sales to end users by OS which shows Windows Mobile dropping 3% OS share, becoming the 4th most popular Mobile OS sold last year losing 3rd spot to Apple which gained an impressive 6%

Source: Gartner (February 2010)

The most astonishing thing about Windows Phone 7 Series, is that it is nothing like previous versions of Windows Mobile at all!
It seems Windows Mobile has finally been completely designed for touch and mobile at it's core and not a desktop paradigm retro fitted with touch as an afterthought.
While current Windows Mobile devices are based on Windows CE 5, Windows Phone 7 Series (gotta love that name folks) is based on the same Windows CE 6 kernel that is at the core of the the much praised Zune HD.
While Zune HD has yet to make it over this side of the pond, it is widely regarded as the best iPod Touch alternative and since it's launch stateside has generated speculation and wild rumours about an imminent 'Zune Phone'
Well a quick glance at Windows Phone 7 Series GUI and it is clear that this is the fabled 'Zune Phone'. However while there are obvious similarities to Zune, they haven't simply ported the experience, they have taken it and added many new UI elements that are quite unique, including the dynamic 'Tiles' and application 'Hubs'.

WP7S application Hub

Tiles can be dynamically linked to applications or people allowing more information to be available at a glance.
The Hubs while gorgeously implemented pay homage to the likes of Web OS and MotoBlur by consolidating local and 'cloud' data in various genres such as pictures and people. The idea being by visiting the likes of the pictures Hub you can view locally stored camera phone pics, networked pics on your media player and pics from the cloud on facebook and flickr all dynamically linked and updated in real time.

While the UI looks fantastic (see a gallery here), one of the most interesting facts for me, is the seemingly tight control of Hardware and Software that Microsoft intends to impose on OEM partners.

Microsofts stance in the past has always been, we build the software , you buy a license and you can put it on whatever device you see fit. This model clearly worked for the desktop OS and is in stark contrast to Apple's desktop model, who feel the best user experience is had from 'controlling the whole widget'
Microsofts is now moving away from it's old model and instead opting for a similar Top-to-bottom approach like Apple, RIM and Palm.

Microsoft now requires the following hardware requirements in order to develop a WP7S device, which Steve Ballmer says is "taking responsibility for the experience" :
  • Large WVGA screen with a single aspect ratio
  • Five specific hardware buttons required: Start, back, search (a dedicated Bing button), camera button, and power
  • Capacitive multitouch
  • CPU and GPU requirements (beginning with Qualcomm's Snapdragon)
  • WiFi
  • AGPS
  • Accelerometer
  • FM radio
  • High resolution camera
There are apparently only three chassis available for the handset, full touch, slide out keyboard and an as yet unknown third type that will be allowed for the device.
In addition there will be no 'skinning' of the WP7S devices, which means no more Touch Flo from HTC, TouchWiz from Samsung or any other OEM OS skins.

HTC's TouchFlo

This model, while at first may seem limiting to the Hardware partners (and potentially the consumer), could prove to be the perfect balance between 'controlling the whole widget' and the open approach.

One of the issues Windows Mobile suffered from in the past was the fragmentation of devices, multiple resolutions and multiple skinned versions of the OS made software development and full support a challenge.
Android is already starting to see this type of fragmentation with handsets being released with multiple versions of the OS simultaneously. Add to that the variations in form factor from tablets, netbooks and devices with various resolution means many applications on the market have wildly differing compatibility and user experiences.

While Apple and RIM have proven that controlling software and hardware can give a fantastic (and controlled) user experience, while still being financially successful, they can at times be accused of having limited choices for the consumer to experience their platform.
Apple in particular realistically only has one handset (memory capacity and processor speed are not enough differentiation) available on iPhone OS.

With WP7S devices, Microsoft could 'take responsibility' for the user experience while still providing a choice of handset manufacturers and styles with limited (if any) fragmentation.

With the seemingly logical and up until now elusive convergence of the Microsoft ecosystem, finally bringing together assets like Bing, Windows, Zune, Live and Xbox to one device, add to that the massive potential Xbox could bring to the table and Microsoft could have a very exciting and compelling product on it's hands.
Xbox Live integration

With that said, we have been here before when Palm announced the fantastic Web OS at CES 2009, the media responded with huge praise and headlines like 'Palm strikes Back'. However while the world waited 5 months for the Pre and Web OS to arrive, Palm's sales and market share plummeted.
Microsoft is expected to have it's first devices out by September giving consumers a 7 month wait and with no promise of upgrades for existing (or future) Win Mo 6.x devices, meaning any potential Windows mobile customers could be reluctant to commit to a seemingly dying OS.
7 months is also a long time in the Mobile device world, there will likely be a new iPhone, a new version of Android and accompanying 'Superphones' not to mention the latest from RIM and Nokia all happening while Microsoft's market share will most likely be falling.

Even after launch there is no guarantee. Seven months after Palm launched the Pre stock has crashed due to lower than expected sales and brand adoption taking "longer than expected" Despite having arguably the best Mobile OS out there, a great product and a powerful brand, Palm are now looking for a miracle or more realistically a buyer.

While Microsoft has a potentially great product here and a lot of cash to throw at it, it will be interesting to see if it has a winner on it's hands or if it is too little too late for Windows Mobile.


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