Microsoft was once a leading light in smartphones, but the company’s stock in this area has fallen as that of the Android operating system and iPhone has risen. So Microsoft has been on an eighteen-month development drive in order to produce an entirely new smartphone operating system that it hopes will propel it to popularity again.
The new OS certainly looks very different, but one thing you need to know immediately is that it is not ‘backwards compatible’ with earlier versions. Third party software needs to be reworked to be compatible, and so at the outset, offerings in the on-device marketplace are relatively thin on the ground.
Microsoft’s primary push for Windows Phone 7 is towards the consumer sector, though it also incorporates special features for business users. Whichever you are, or if you cross into both realms, you need to buy into the Microsoft ethos in a big way to get the most from the operating system.
Consumers can take advantage of Xbox LIVE integration for example, with their avatar, leaderboards and achievements among the information available on a handset. For professionals there is integration with SharePoint for access to Word, PowerPoint and Excel documents.
Lots of functions relating to Windows Phone 7 happen in the cloud. You can automatically back up photos to the cloud, import contacts and calendar information from your Windows Live account, use SkyDrive to store up to 25GB of data, even ring and remotely wipe your handset direct from Windows Live if you lose it and want to stop others having access to its data.
Zune software on the PC allows you to synchronise media to a handset, but not contacts or diary information: there is no desktop sync for these items. You’ll need to use either Windows Live or be on a corporate system.
Microsoft has laid down some rules for any hardware partner wanting to develop phones. There are basic technical specifications that ensure all Windows Phone 7 smartphones are at the higher end of the capability range. The specifications even run to the requirement for a camera shortcut button. That is so you can take a photo and share it without actually coming away from the lock screen. Microsoft says we use our phones a huge amount for taking photos and so the company sees this as a key feature.
More obviously, there is to be no skinning of the user interface. This looks very different from all other smartphone user interfaces. It relies on ‘tiles’ and ‘hubs’. Tiles are square or rectangular blocks you can place on the single Start screen. You scroll though them vertically, and you can have oodles of them. Some contain live data, others link you to apps, data or hubs. Hubs are collections of data that you access by pressing a tile. Hubs spread their data over a wide area that you scroll though horizontally.
Windows Phone 7 smartphones have 3G, WiFi and GPS as standard. Manufacturers and operators are adding their own special features to help differentiate their handset. We’ll have reviews as we get hold of the new devices.