Windows Phone 7 Is A Half-Step

In the world of those things mobile, today is yet another one of those days where people seem to get excited because a new (set of) toy is on the scene. Windows Phone 7 made its debut today, and aside from the usual fanfare and pandering about a new mobile platform (devices, software, etc.), I’d rather take a look at what Windows Phone 7 means for veteran mobile users and what’s not quite there yet.

Let’s get this much out of the way, the hardware specs around WP7 are pretty decent. We are seeing 1GHz processors, 5 megapixel cameras, and large 800×480 pixel screens as the baseline. At the very least, WP7 starts with where many mid-range and some high-end devices are today.

On the software side there’s a redesigned operating system, a totally revamped paradigm to the user interface (called Metro), and the kind of attention to an integrated and connected experience from WP7 to the enterprise (SharePoint) and gaming (XBox) that wasn’t present without much pain in previous Microsoft mobile platforms.

All in all, this is good. And its still only a half-step.

I’ll begin with where I just ended, the pain of the previous platforms. Even as a user, your use of Windows Mobile devices was wrought with all kinds of pain. It became a “feature” to have a task manager. Being able to customize your experience through ROM hacking was consider actions “power users” do. WP7 removes barriers to just using the device, and these kinds of items are left as relics to those people who think that there’s power in having tons of buttons and knobs.

Previous editions of Windows Mobile could also not integrate well with enterprise platforms without constant resource attention. You either had to have your ducks in a row with Exchange, Active Sync, SQL, and Communication Server – or you played the “give them their own domain” approach and had light integration with products such as SharePoint or Outlook which were in many cases nothing more than badly coded filler content. No matter how cool it was to get your PIM information on your device, the information silo that was the Windows Mobile platform didn’t enable you, it limited you.

Proponents of Windows Mobile commonly touted even the ability for licensees to customize the user interface shell in later versions. From Palm’s outright cleaning of Windows Mobile 5, to the HTC Sense UI that’s now an application layer on several mobile platforms all to itself, this ability to customize was seen as a plus by many. I have always seen it as an ability for MS to get the function right, but not have the visionary to make it relevant.

And so now we have a crowd of sites talking positives and negatives about this new mobile adventure by MS. Unless the writer has gotten some hands-on experience, the opinion is probably not worth even listening to. In my time in Vegas some weeks back, I was given a demo of a WP7 device and from what I was shown and given in terms of understanding of MS’s mind this time around, this is only a half-step towards their overall vision. And it is pretty heady.

Mobile as a Piece of Your Computing Experience

Chances are you might not be reading this post on your mobile device, so pick it up. Unlock it and look at the screen, and tell me if you are being productive. Is your mobile giving you status updates for meetings (and its associated collateral)? It is probably pulling your friend’s social network status updates, but is that contextualized towards those folks you communicate with the most, or is it a fire hose of everyone – waiting for you to filter things out?

If you use your mobile for email, text/SMS, and web at some points of the day, but are using it for a workout tracker, mapping device, or music player (commute, auto, sport, etc.), does your mobile make that contextual switch, or does it need a poke – or several – from you to get into the right mood to serve you?

When I look at Windows Phone 7, I see a half-step towards taking mobile and making it more than just something that does what we say. I see the tiles on the home screen as a contextual user interface – right now only showing limited information in panels, but coded with the ability to be the firehose that learns us before we need to learn it.

I see the (very nicely done) seamless connectivity to an enterprise environment and how Windows Phone 7 changes the question from “can your mobile keep you productive outside of work,” to “does work stay productive when I’m no present towards it?”

What I don’t see is a uber-smartphone. The fact that such high specs are needed for the platform is a clear indicator that we’ve not yet gotten to the point where we code always for resource efficiency. Being a new platform, it would have made a ton of sense, and been a heck of a marketing jab, if MS could have made this platform as usable with half the hardware specs. Though it does seem that MS has gotten the message that not everything on the mobile needs to be tied to a firmware update (ahem, to other mobile manufacturers).

WP7 is going to be a solid play for Microsoft. I’d not even be too far in thinking that it might even be able to be considered a success. No, MS will not get its position as a leading smartphone platform, at least not in the way they think. MS has the potential to make itself the leader in a consumer-facing integrated computing experience. Outside of Apple’s “tie everything you do with us into iTunes” model, MS has probably the best possible position to bring this kind of future to more people (in developed and legacy computing carrying) regions than anyone else.

This doesn’t make WP7 bad or good. It is just a significant enough half-step towards the future of computing that some folks might be better served to wait until the rest of the window shade comes up.