Microsoft is the king of incrementalism, a place where compatibility trumps innovation and continuity crushes change. So it was a pleasant surprise today when Microsoft made a dramatic break with the troubled past of Windows Mobile in announcing the radically different Windows Phone 7 Series at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona (video of Steve Ballmer press conference).
The new software, which will be available by yearend on handsets from a variety of manufacturers with service on many leading carriers, discards both the Windows desktop metaphor that has crippled Windows Mobile from the beginning and the grid of apps user interface popularized by the iPhone and adapted by Android. Instead it borrows heavily from the Zune HD with a bit of Xbox thrown in.
It’s dangerous to come to conclusions about hardware based on a demo, a video demo at that. But Microsoft appears to have made a bold move by largely discarding the concept of an app for key functions, organizing the phone;s operations by activity rather than by the piece of software running it. So the “People” functions pulls in contacts from your address book as well as from Facebook and other social networks and “Pictures” combines images on you phone with photos posted to online sites. This combines elements of Palm WebOS’s Synergy and Motorola’s MOTOblur for Android, and it remains to be seen whether it will be more successful than either of those approaches.Because of the drastically different user interface and the reliance on multitouch, existing Windows Mobile apps won’t work on the new phone. This may be a problem for enterprises that have invested heavily in WinMo apps, but it is a cause for celebration for everyone else. For one thing, I can’t think of an existing WinMo app that I would really miss, or that doesn’t exist in better form on another mobile platform. Because of a reliance on resistive touch screens and the stylus, most WinMo apps had the unfortunate feel of a windows desktop application crammed onto a tiny screen. This is a case where being forced to start over is clearly a good thing. And the fact that the phones will not ship until late this year gives app developers time to write for the new platform–and time for Microsoft to get its app store act together.
One intriguing but slightly mysterious aspect of the Windows Phone is its the integration with Microsoft Office, a subject that got only brief discussion in the MWC presentation. Microsoft seems to be staking a claim to the notion that their no longer is a meaningful distinction between a personal and a business device. That’s the right thinking in theory, but may prove very difficult to pull off in practice. Even Windows Mobile didn’t offer the best integration with enterprise Exchange mail systems–BlackBerry did a better job. But Windows Phone seems designed to work closely with the forthcoming Office 2010, including the network-based SharePoint collaborative services. This could either give the platform a big competitive leg up on BlackBerry, or weigh it down with clunky corporate software. The decision to call the phone’s messaging app Outlook, at least, is an unfortunate reminder of Microsoft’s famously bloated desktop mail client.
As a longtime frustrated observer of Windows Mobile, I should have seen this sharp break coming. I think the key step was moving the Windows Mobile operation to Mobile & Entertainment Devices, the Microsoft group responsible for Xbox and Zune and the unit least infected with Microsoft’s cautious corporate culture. Another important move was the assignment of veteran user experience specialist Joe Belfiore to guide the development effort. Belfiore, who had a big hand in the design of the Zune HD and Windows Media Center, also pushed, unsuccessfully for a radical overhaul of the Windows UI in what because Windows XP. Although a Microsoft and Windows veteran, Belfiore is not afraid of change and it shows in Windows Phone 7.
Of course, right now there are still more questions than answers about Windows Phone. A lot more will be revealed before launch, especially at next month’s MIX developers’ conference. But based on what we’ve seen, Windows Phone 7 looks like the most exciting news from Microsoft in some years.