For the first time I can remember, I am excited about a Microsoft product. I'm not a gamer and Xbox lacks a Blu-Ray drive, so 360 did nothing for me. I tried Vista and Windows 7 for a spell but couldn't find a video editor I liked and so went back to my Mac. Zune HD? Nice product, but I listen to music on my smartphone, sorry. But now a Windows Phone preview, of all things, has me excited about Microsoft.
That doesn't mean Windows Phone 7 Series will be any good when it ships. And it obviously suffers from one of the worst names in the history of names (seriously, guys, at least knock it down to "Windows Phone 7"). But it has me excited right now.
Why? Because it's different. What Microsoft showed in Barcelona this week is different from anything else in the smartphone game - at least visually. And what they did in building WP7S is different from how they build ... well, it's just not what Microsoft does. Ever. Steve Ballmer and Co. tied WIndows Mobile up with some twine and tossed it out into the dumpster in favor of a brand new mobile platform built on a new kernel (Windows CE 6) with a new UI (derived from Zune HD).
Different. Totally different. And different, coming from Microsoft, is enough to make me pay attention. Plus, I kinda like the way the UI looks - at least for now, in semi-working, not shipping for 10 months, not tied to any one particular piece of hardware form.
Apple's first iPhone moved smartphones away from Desktop-style Start Menus and directory folders and layers upon layers of lists and menus and towards a simple grid of icons. You want to do something on an iPhone? You look at a grid and choose an icon. You want to do something on an Android or Palm webOS phone? Sure, you can tap a widget or swipe a notification bar, but lurking beneath it all is that grid of Applications, beckoning you to look at it and choose an icon. As Microsoft so unabashedly beat us over the head with it at the WP7S launch, we're living in a grid-of-icons sea of sameness when it comes to our smartphones.
Microsoft is throwing us a new metaphor: Hubs. Hubs that move seamlessly, sometimes seemingly infinitely, from function to function, data point to data point, task to task. There's a People Hub, a Zune (music) Hub, a Messaging Hub ... there are lots of Hubs. Maybe even a Gaming hub that leverages the enormity of the Xbox Live network. And there are photos and icons and sexy-looking text that live in "un-chromed" boxes on the Home screen and all of the other screens. The user interface just plain looks different from anything else on a phone right now.
Will WP7S actually do anything different than other smartphones on the market? Well, yes and no. For all that the UI looks eye-catching, it sounds so far like it'll pretty much do the same things as Android and webOS when it comes to cloud services and unified messaging and integration of social networks with local contacts. But hey, that's a lot. That's state-of-the-art right now in many ways. And it's certainly more than iPhone OS does, right?
Jettisoning the "PC Desktop on a tiny screen" approach that ultimately rendered WinMo 6.x a bloated pile of frustration is a great move. It also was just about the only move Microsoft had, given their fast eroding market share and blatant need to embrace the human part of the user experience that has led Apple to such great success with iPhone. Smartphones have gone mainstream, and mainstream wants a device that's easy, fluid, and maybe even fun to use. They don't want to poke around four layers of triple-tabbed settings screens in hopes of figuring out how to change a ringtone. They want to swipe and move and pinch and zoom - that's the mantra of Apple, Google, Palm and now Microsoft, too, when it comes to the modern smartphone experience.
The path to great reward is often lined with great risk, and Microsoft obviously rolled the dice in a big way in announcing WP7S. First off, the first phone running the new OS won't ship until "Holiday 2010," which means six to ten months from now (rumors have LG releasing a device as early as September, HTC has said "Q4 2010" for their WP7S debut). That's an eternity in cell phone land. What happens between now and then? Does Apple blow everyone's doors off with iPhone OS 4? Does Google takeover the space by sheer volume of Android devices spreading across the globe like a push notification virus?
Do millions of ticked-off Windows Mobile users write MSFT off forever because that Toshiba TG01 they just paid $500 for is now more or less useless because WM7S is literally the end of WinMo?
Seriously, who's going to buy a WinMo phone now outside of certain Enterprise and other users beholden to specific pieces of software, data, and other tech that will only run on their WM 6.x devices? Buying an Android phone is a crapshoot, sure, 'cause you have no idea if or when your myTouch Eric Clapton Special is going to get a 2.1 upgrade. But buying a WinMo 6.5 device is all of the sudden as close to a sure thing as there is: That baby will never run Windows Phone 7 Series. Sure, an HTC HD2 with its capacitive display and Snapdragon chipset might qualify for an upgrade one day. But your Samsung Jack or HTC Pure? Sorry, friend, no seven for you.
Oh, those WinMo legacy apps you and your IT department are so beholden to? We'll know more at Mix 10 next month, but for now there's no indication whatsoever that you'll be able to run those on a WP7S device.
And let's just touch briefly upon the HTCs and SPBs of the world who've made a nice little business out of software like Sense and SPB Mobile Shell that make WinMo phones better by hiding every possible trace of the Windows UI. What do they do now? HTC - and Samsung and LG like them - can continue to innovate on Android devices, but Microsoft has essentially reduced them back to being hardware-only partners in saying that custom skins will not be supported on WP7S devices. Vagaries are being bandied about regarding "extendibility" possibilities, but the days of HTC Sense for Windows are basically over.
But again, Microsoft had no other choice. Tacking modern UI schemes like "finger friendliness" onto aging mobile platforms does not work. See: Nokia and Symbian S60. Or RIM, Verizon, and BlackBerry Storm. Or Microsoft and Windows Mobile 6.5, for that matter. Nokia's trying to figure out what to do with Symbian S60, Symbian^3, Maemo, and now MeeGo, and BlackBerry's now where Microsoft was three years ago (huge US marketshare but all sorts of outdated tech). Microsoft this week said, "Enough already!"
Ballmer and Co. made their stand with the Windows Phone 7 Series launch and have given themselves the rest of this year to get the thing onto phones and into the market. They're also doing that Project Pink (Sidekick Sequel) thing, but that's another story. A lot will happen between now and December, and by then the excitement around this week could well have worn off, leaving Microsoft to start selling a new mobile platform while staring at the business end of Apple and Google - and maybe even RIM, still - holding an insurmountable lead in the US smartphone market. The men and women of Microsoft's mobile division certainly have their work cut out for them between now and then.
But for now, it's exciting. I'm excited. About a Microsoft operating system for phones. Never thought I'd say that. Now if only they'd do something about that name. "Windows Phone 7 Pad" has a nice ring to it, no?