Windows Mobile 7: Microsoft’s iPhone Envy.

I’ve had a good share of Windows Mobile phones over the past few years and, up until recently, never really liked any of them. My first was an O2 XDA Atom Exec which I bought because I’d become one of those super smart IT admin-type guys and I should have a phone to match. It worked well for the first few months before starting to show problems like dropping calls and freezing at random times. After replacing the screen on the Atom it developed the fun problem of randomly turning off if it was bumped in any way and I ended up replacing it just on a year later with a HTC Touch Diamond. I thought that it was a brilliant phone until it decided to mute my speaker every time someone called me so I couldn’t talk to them and no amount of ROM flashing or hacking could convince it not to do it otherwise. My Xperia X1 has managed to avoid developing any show stopping problems thus far, but the hardware keyboard seems to be on the way out, missing keystrokes or repeating them 25% of the time.

I’m not alone with these gripes either and that’s why there’s a massive community dedicated to improving Windows phones by any means possible. Companies like HTC have allowed these things to flourish as they usually end up using many of the improvements that the forum generates (rumour has it their Touch-Flo UI was apparently born out of there). However this just shows how rife with systemic problems the Windows Mobile Platform is when people are that dedicated to making the devices more usable. It’s been the norm for the past 5 years and up until recently Microsoft had shown no signs of changing.

That was however before they announced the Windows Phone 7:

Microsoft really has changed nearly everything. Most obviously, the user interface is new. Touch is mandatory for all 7 Series devices, and the user interface reflects that; it’s touch-driven through and through. No longer will phone users have to use small, fiddly, desktop-oriented scroll bars; smooth finger scrolling with inertia is the order of the day. The finger-friendliness is exemplified by the new start screen. There are large panels in a smooth-scrolling grid. The look is clean and crisp, balancing at-a-glance information—counts of unread text messages and e-mails neatly displayed in their squares, for example—with simple thumb-sized accessibility. Each panel represents a particular “hub”—a place where all related information (be it contacts, photos, music and videos, etc.) is brought together and managed. As you move between the screens of each hub, smooth animations rotate and slide information into place, giving the user interface a kind of cohesive “joined up” feel.

This particular paragraph of the Ars Technica article really hits on the points that have frustrated us Windows Mobile users for years. At its heart any Windows Mobile device is really just a scaled down version of Windows, including the UI. For something that will predominately be used without a mouse and keyboard such a design drastically reduces the usability of the device, relegating many users to a “hunt and peck” style of interfacing with their device. HTC and others tried desperately to improve this by creating their own UIs that were more targeted towards mobile usage but if they didn’t include a certain application in their redesign you were straight back into mobile hell. I won’t even bother with the poor attempts at virtual keyboards.

With the coming of the iPhone and its finger friendly design Microsoft obviously began to reconsider it’s mobile design. Just as the iPod served as a testbed for some of the UI elements that made their way into the iPhone Microsoft is using a similar approach with the Zune. The extremely minimalistic design lends itself much more easily to use without a stylus and is a drastic improvement over what is available now. They’ve steered clear of many iPhone-esque features in order to create their very own look and feel for when you’re on a Windows 7 phone. Additionally they’ve also provided a fairly strict set of minimum requirements for any phone that might run the new mobile OS, which leads me onto the crux of the matter.

Whilst the biggest player in the smart phone market still isn’t Apple (it’s RIM, because of their corporate market capture) they are the largest direct competitor for Windows mobile devices. Additionally with Android on the up and up Microsoft is under incredible pressure to innovate or die and of course they’ve taken the route they always take: clone their best competitor. Sure on the surface the new OS doesn’t look anything like the iPhone but in reality the differences are quite deep. A minimalistic and finger friendly UI definitely resonates with Apple’s design philosophies and the strict platform requirements, whilst not as closed as Apple’s, are yet another Apple trademark. The icing on the cake is the recent launch of the Windows Marketplace for mobile applications, a direct competitor to the App Store.

For me however all of these are secondary to the biggest feature that the new mobile OS will bring: Silverlight to the mobile market. I was excited at the prospect of them bringing it to all Mobile 6 devices and above however they canned that idea sometime last year in favour of focusing on support for Mobile 7. The introduction of this tech to mobile handsets makes it possible for me to maintain a single code database for both web and mobile application version of Geon with only minor modifications, a significant reduction in coding time. It might sound like I’m just being lazy but the development road map I have requires support for the iPhone, Android, Windows Mobile and Web. If I can combine 2 coding streams into one that’s a reduction of almost 25% of my work with the added benefit of additional features that might not be available in platforms that don’t run Silverlight natively.

The unfortunate thing about this however is the release date for Mobile 7 is “holiday 2010” which basically means the end of the year. I’m sure there will be beta versions of it all over the Internet well before then but I can’t really devote anytime to coding for a product that’s not released and with an unknown user base. So it seems for now I’ll be stuck with my good old Xperia X1 running 6.0 and maintaining 4 separate code bases for my pet application. Still it’s something to look forward to and who knows if Geon takes off maybe they’ll even swing a phone my way for free (oh come on Google did it, why shouldn’t Microsoft!) 😉

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