Microsoft's Windows Phone 7: Wrong name, some of the right ideas

By Rob Pegoraro
Saturday, November 6, 2010; 1:04 AM

Windows Phone 7 may be Microsoft's most-misnamed product ever. That moniker suggests a sequel to its Windows Mobile line of operating-system releases; fortunately, Windows Phone 7 is nothing of the kind.

Not only does Windows Phone 7 look nothing like its doomed predecessor Windows Mobile 6.5, it doesn't feature any windows in its interface. It doesn't require you to run Windows; you don't even need a computer to set up a WP7 phone.

With this smartphone software, debuting Monday on AT&T's $199.99 Samsung Focus, Microsoft did a very un-Microsoft thing: It banished backward compatibility.

By shipping a mobile platform with almost no ties to old software and hardware, the company could finally root out some deep-seated flaws. But its most faithful mobile users might suffer the most pain if they upgrade.

Windows Phone 7's differences surface the moment you awake a WP7 phone. Instead of the Start menu of Windows Mobile or the grid of application icons on an iPhone or Android device, WP7 displays a set of tiles representing the most-used parts of the phone.

Many, including the tiles for the phone itself, text messaging and your e-mail accounts, track how many items await your attention. A flick of the thumb whooshes you up and down these shortcuts, to which you can add such items as an address-book listing, an application or a Web bookmark.

Prioritizing new, relevant information over inventorying the phone's applications (you can see them if you swipe a finger left to right across the home screen) is a smart, thoughtful move.

Including a non-embarrassing Web browser, however, is a matter of simple survival. WP7's version of Internet Explorer doesn't match the current iPhone and Android browsers (both of which benefit from the same open-source code base), but it displays non-Adobe Flash pages generally intact and doesn't stall out with multiple pages open at once.

A Focus lent by Microsoft's PR department exhibited weak battery life in steady use, lasting only about four hours with a constant stream of Web radio playing and the screen mostly lit. (The iPhone 4 and recent Android devices have run six or seven hours in the same test.)

But this sleek device's standby battery life was better than any Android phone I've seen lately; it kept a healthy charge even after being left alone over two nights.

Most WP7 phones, including AT&T's Focus and T-Mobile's HTC HD7, use an onscreen keyboard for text input. (AT&T's upcoming LG Quantum will include a slide-out physical keyboard; its odd HTC Surround looks as if it has one but instead slides open to reveal a set of speakers.) Microsoft's auto-correction software doesn't match the iPhone's but is on par with Android's.

You can also speak to some applications, such as its Bing-powered Web and map searches, but the responsiveness and accuracy lag Android's voice recognition.

Windows Phone 7's sharpest departure from tradition and its most awkward moments come when you connect it to a computer.

Instead of handcuffing users to Microsoft's Outlook for syncing your contacts and calendars, WP7 opens up your choice to such Web services as Microsoft's Windows Live and Google's Gmail and Google Calendar. Facebook is wired so deep into WP7's "People hub" that you might not need to install a separate Facebook app.

But if you still use Outlook and don't have your copy of that program tied to an office's Microsoft Exchange server, WP7 cuts you off. It's an odd state of affairs when it's easier to sync an iPhone than a Windows Phone to Outlook.

Odder yet, syncing photos, music and videos on or off the phone requires either Microsoft's Zune software or a new sync program for Mac OS X. You can't just plug in the phone and treat it like an external hard drive; neither can you beam over files with Bluetooth.

Windows Phone 7 also trails its competitors in the applications department. Its Marketplace, the only way to install third-party software in WP7, hit the 1,300-title mark Tuesday, which sets it about 99,000 apps behind the Android Market and 300,000 or so behind the iPhone's App Store.

More important than numbers, however, are the limits placed on WP7 apps. This operating system doesn't even try to simulate multitasking; if you tap its back or Windows-logo button to return to the home screen, the current program quits and then must restart when you try to return to it.

Some types of programs, such as the clever "augmented reality" apps that overlay information on the camera's view of the surroundings, can't be written yet because WP7 doesn't support that feature.

Application developers, meanwhile, aren't all rushing to support this release. While some name-brand programs - for example, Amazon's Kindle software and Yelp's shop/restaurant/bar finder - will soon feature WP7 versions, others might not for some time. Pandora, for example, says it's waiting to see how much demand materializes for its Web-radio program.

The coming months might see enough support for this platform in the market that developers get on board - while Microsoft delivers promised updates like support for copying and pasting text and for the CDMA wireless standard used by Sprint and Verizon. Or shoppers might avoid the first round of WP7 devices, all priced at $200 or so, while Microsoft's software deliveries fall behind schedule.

That's yet another way that Windows Phone 7 isn't a traditional Microsoft product: Buying one is a bit of a gamble.

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