Overview of Windows Phone 7

One of the best sessions I saw at the recent Microsoft UK TechDays events was when I crossed over to the developer side for a couple of hours and listened to Charlie Kindel (a Group Program Manager for the Windows Phone Developer Experience) giving an overview of Windows Phone 7.

Before he got started, it was interesting to see the audience split in terms of device usage.  Remember, this was a geek audience, there to learn about Microsoft products, and in the UK – so, not really indicative of the broader smartphone scene – but, based on a show of hands:

  • 40% were using Windows Mobile.
  • 40% were using the Apple iPhone.
  • 15% were using Android.
  • A handful of users run Blackberry with a few more for Nokia devices.

Charlie Kindel spoke about how Microsoft is changing their game when it comes to mobile development and how this change manifests itself in a number of ways:

  • Design – the end user comes first. Previously, Windows Mobile was designed for handset manufacturers – even down to important functionality like the phone dialler!
  • Platform – aiming to provide, richer, deeper, easier applications. Windows Mobile was never really a first class citizen in the Windows platform – and the corresponding developer headcount at Microsoft has increased from a handful to a few hundred.
  • Hardware – faster to market, with less heavy lifting. Windows Mobile had many form factors, which could be seen as an advantage but the user experience varied widely.  Microsoft is now taking the view that too much flexibility dilutes the brand and fragments development. As a result, Windows Phone is based on a homogeneous hardware ecosystem.

So, why does heterogeneous hardware work for PCs but not for phones?  Charlie Kindel explained that Microsoft has previously given developers tools for a la carte phone product development – compared with an extensible Windows general purpose operating system - and this fragmented the implementation as developers could not rely on a given feature being present – in effect, they designed applications for the lowest common denominator.

Audience

With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft is looking to “do a few things really well” based on a target market.  For Windows Phone 7 Series, the target market is what Microsoft calls “Life Maximizers” (sic).

So, who are the Life Maximisers?  Microsoft characterises them as:

  • Busy, personally and professionally.
  • Living a rich, active life.
  • Settled in a relationship rather than seeking (i.e. have family pressures, etc.).
  • Juggling priorities.
  • Valuing technology as a means to achieve goals.

In short, the target market for Windows Phone 7 Series is trying to balance an insanely busy personal life with the stress and pressure of work [Hmm… that sounds familiar!] and the things that are important to these people are:

  • Not feeling overwhelmed.
  • Balanced priorities.
  • Growing, personally and professionally.
  • Living life to the full.

Smart design and integrated experience

Windows Phone 7 is about building a product that’s different, for good reasons, considering things like smart design and integrated experiences.

To look at integrated experience it’s worth asking why, for example, can’t Zune and Xbox work together? Why is Office over here and Windows over there?

“Microsoft appears to be pretty good a presenting our organisational boundaries to customers”

[Charlie Kindel, Microsoft, 16 April 2010]

With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft has tried to overcome this to present a unified design that draws on technologies from across Microsoft; producing a phone that’s optimised for the mobile experience but remembering that it’s not a PC – and so it won’t be successful if standard desktop metaphors are applied.  The phone design uses typography, motion, and a light, clean user interface to make it easy to glance at the device and pull out key information.

The Windows Phone design system (formerly codenamed Metro) is intended to provide users with a consistent, and authentically Windows Phone, experience with great information and flexibility, inspired by metropolitan signposting (street signs, transportation, etc.).  There’s a design guide and language for designing applications and their structure, drawing on the concept that many phone usage scenarios are “glanceable” – designed for a quick look, maybe with a few steps to get in, and to get out again and carry on with the things that are important in life.

Indeed, Zune users have enjoyed a similar interface for a while – even here in the UK (where the hardware devices are not available), the Zune software can be used as a media player and Kindel suggests its a way to see where Microsoft got a lot of the experience that led to the Windows Phone design concepts, drawing on a number of principles:

  • The user interface should be clean, light, open, and fast.
  • Celebrate typography – font design and how it’s used is key to the user interface.
  • Motion should be used effectively to “delight” the user (e.g. when something cool happens) without being gratuitous.
  • Focus on the content – not the chrome (indeed, there is hardly any).
  • Authentic experience, whether it’s built in to Windows Phone, or provided by a developer.

Looking at Metro another way, the goal is to focuses on the individual and their tasks, helping to organize information and applications.  This is not a device centric model – it’s very user-centric but there are a number of hubs that provide an integrated experience (together with the panoramic approach used for the user interface):

  • People: a social centre for all contacts and status updates; Facebook, Exchange and Windows Live integration; the ability to update status and photos on multiple networks.
  • Productivity: a hub for handling work and personal e-mail effectively; managing work and personal calendars together; viewing, posting and synchronising documents on SharePoint sites; using pinch/zoom and rich document support to easily view, comment on and edit Office documents (Word, PowerPoint and Excel); taking and synchronise notes with a PC using OneNote ; integrated search including integration with Bing Maps and provision of Deep Zoom capabilities.
  • Pictures: a simple, powerful photo wallet; synchronised with PC over USB or Wi-Fi; the same photo libraries are available on PC, phone and Xbox; with live updates of albums and comments from social network contacts.
  • Music and video: a single media player for music, streaming audio, FM radio, podcasts and video; the full Zune Player experience; music and video libraries available on PC, phone and Xbox.
  • Marketplace: a large selection of applications; merchandised and filtered for simple delivery; a convenient purchasing process; applications connected across PC, phone and Xbox.
  • Games: a destination hub for casual and Xbox live social games; easy to discover new games though spotlight recommendations; Xbox Live avatar and gaming profile available on the phone; ability to play games with friends across PC, phone and Xbox.

The use of these hubs, and the ability to flick left and right between them on a single panorama (with up and down scrolling for more information) is where Microsoft sees the innovation in the Metro user interface and the integration with other Microsoft products drives home the “three screens and a cloud” message that we’ve heard about for a while now in Microsoft keynotes (PC, Phone and Xbox/TV).

Hardware

For the reasons outlined earlier, Microsoft wants to enforce a consistent set of hardware capabilities for Windows Phone 7.  That’s why recent devices such as the HTC HD2 will not be supported, even though they are technically able to run the Windows Phone 7 software.

There are some limited choices such as screen resolution – at launch the will be support for a 480×800 display although a 320×480 option will come later – and the provision (or not) of a hard keyboard but all Windows Phones will share common hardware elements:

  • The same touch input.
  • Consistent CPU/GPU.
  • Same amount of available RAM.

Microsoft’s goal is that the Windows Phone hardware will be made up of common hardware elements, providing a consistent platform so that there can be a focus on quality.

Application platform

Microsoft’s biggest competitor in the market they have selected for Windows Phone is Apple.  The iPhone was innovative when it launched but so may consider that it’s become stale [I would be one].  But Apple has a big advantage over Microsoft – their App Store.  Sure, they’re annoying some developers and alienating key software vendors (e.g. Adobe) but they have a huge market presence.  Coming up behind is Google, with a raft of open source developers looking to build on Android so what has Microsoft got in store for Windows Phone?

As with the rest of Windows Phone, Microsoft has stepped back and taken a look at how to “change their game”.  The came up with new philosophy for the application platform. Most of today’s mobile applications are powered by web services and Microsoft wants to make it easy for developers to create applications with both client and server-side components.  Applications may start with a web API behind a website, exposed via a browser but then along come the optimisations for different clients, for example: a PC with a nice keyboard and a high definition display; a TV with a remote control; or a pocket-device such as a phone that is intended for glancing at information.

The resulting philosophy is about experience, rather than applications, built from a combination of people, standards, server code and client code.  In short, services power experiences.

Microsoft’s platform goals for Windows Phone are about helping end users to personalise their phones, helping developers to be profitable and enabling cloud-powered experiences.  The key elements of the application platform for Windows Phone are:

  • Runtime: code you write on a client.
  • Tools and support: tools you use to design and develop.
  • Cloud services: code you write on a server.
  • Developer portal services: tools you use to ship and sell.

Looking first at cloud services – there are some integration services and frameworks on the device allowing developer to hook into custom web services (e.g. on Windows Azure or another cloud platform), established services using common APIs (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, etc.), or into the services that Microsoft provides as part of the platform (either implicitly, or via an API).  These platform services include:

  • Location - using GPS is slow and power hungry so Microsoft has a location service combining Wi-Fi, cell tower and GPS data to balance power, speed and accuracy.
  • Notifications – exposed as: a live tile (to glance at updated information); “toast” notifications to actively alert a user and allow them to jump into an application; or pushing notifications to deliver updates to an application that is running in the foreground.
  • Xbox Live gaming service
  • Application deployment and marketplace system.

Moving on to the code running locally on the phone – PC, phone and TV do not follow a “write once, run anywhere” model – they have very different user experiences but a lot of the code (business logic, etc.) is the same, so applications can be built and optimised for a particular device.  This leads to two flavours of applications – Silverlight and XNA:

  • Silverlight applications offer a modern XAML/event-driven application user interface framework  for rapid creation of visually stunning apps using the Metro-themed user interface controls (HTML and JavaScript) spanning Windows and the web.  Note that, the Windows Phone browser is optimised for mobile use – but that there is no support for Silverlight in the browser in the initial release [does that sound familiar to anyone?]
  • XNA applications offer: a high performance game framework for rapid creation of multi-screen 2D and 3D games with a rich content pipeline and a mature, robust, widely adopted technology spanning Xbox 360, Windows and Zune.

The Windows Phone application model was designed to provide a user experience that is predictable (consistent), safe high performance and innovative.  This is facilitated using: the .NET common language runtime (all Windows Phone applications use .NET managed code, so they run in a sandbox); the Windows Phone process model for safe, secure and performant access; and service-based application deployment (i.e. applications are loaded via a web service, fronted by Microsoft’s application marketplace).

From a toolset perspective, whereas Windows Mobile development involves a plethora of downloads, there is a single (free) download for Windows Phone that is integrated with all of Microsoft’s main development tools: Visual Studio; Expression Blend; and XNA Game Studio.  The developer tools package includes an emulator (running a virtualised build of Windows Phone 7 compiled for x86 hardware), including support for 3D acceleration and multitouch but without support for an accelerometer in the current CTP release.  Developers will also be able to unlock handsets for development use and there will be packaging and verification tools (e.g. to allow beta testing without applications being verified).

.XAP is the common format for all Windows Phone application (including games), it’s a declarative, manifest-based installation, and it’s integrated into the security model of the phone.

The basic deployment process (accessible via the Windows Phone Developer Portal) is:

  1. Develop and debug – including beta testing on real devices.
  2. Submit and validate an application – Microsoft can crack the application open and validate it.
  3. Certify and sign – a process to ensure that the application meets all policies.
  4. Windows Phone application deployment service – makes the application available.
  5. Marketplace – consumers can acquire the application.

The application marketplace will offer simple, reliable acquisition – including a “try before you buy” API; payment flexibility (e.g. via mobile operator or credit card); and easy application updates.

Summary

To summarise, I’d like to use a quote from Gizmodo:

“Microsoft’s approach is completely different. Instead of becoming another me-too cellphone, like Android and the rest, the Windows Phone 7 team came up their own vision of what the cellphone should be. In the process, they have created a beautiful user interface in which the data is at the center of user interaction. Not the apps—specific functions—but the information itself.”

On the face of it, Windows Phone looks to have brought Microsoft back into the smartphone market, or, as Gizmodo put it, “Microsoft has out-Appled Apple“.

I still have some questions though:

  • If the hardware choices are restricted, what will encourage a manufacturer to produce a device with no obvious means to differentiate themselves from their competition?  How will what’s effectively a v1.0 phone operating system compete with more established smartphones from other vendors?
  • How extensible is the operating system – for example, it integrates with Windows Live and Facebook, but what about the integration of Flickr albums and my Twitter status into the Pictures and People hubs?  Hopefully the application model allows this without requiring applications to be treated as second class citizens (aside from the obvious issues around the lack of multitasking).
  • Indeed, will developers write apps for this platform when iPhone and Android are already well established (and when Microsoft has essentially told developers to throw away their previous investment in Windows Mobile and write something new)?

Most importantly, will people buy this phone? I’ve heard some people (including ex-Microsofties) saying they won’t because it’s not sufficiently business-focused. It’s not for kids either (that’s the Kin) but I sit right in the demographic that Microsoft has designed this phone for and I want one! I’ve also been an iPhone user since it launched in the UK – but I’m ready to jump ship because, v1.0 or not, I think Microsoft has come out with something truly innovative with a gorgeous user interface (just as Apple did when they launched the iPhone).

I really hope that Windows Phone is, as it seems to be, a Phoenix rising from the ashes of Windows Mobile – an operating system that still has its roots in personal digital assistants from the 1990s – and I hope that the platform continues to develop (it needs to if Microsoft is to avoid alienating the business users who have, so far, propped up Windows Mobile).  Maybe we’ll see several concepts, sharing the same basic framework, so Kin, Windows Phone, and whatever Microsoft has planned for business (a tablet?) can draw on the same underpinnings but each can be uniquely tailored to their audience.  For now, I’ll have to wait and see: to wait for Windows Phone 7 to ship; and to see which models are available in the UK, and on which networks, at what price.

Resources

The following resources provide more information about Windows Phone 7:

4 thoughts on “Overview of Windows Phone 7


  1. Great overview Mark,
    I think the power of the Windows 7 Phone is in the apps. The Zune music & the Silverlight games that can be played on your phone as well as your Xbox are really cool.
    This makes me think that Microsoft’s demographic is a little naive. Remember how people said no-one would want an iPhone for business? Although Microsoft has said they will continue Windows Mobile 6.5 for business orientated users I can see a lot of scope for crossover.

    I agree there may be an issue with OEMs trying to differentiate themselves. I think it will be helped by only certain OEMs working with certain mobile network operators, each with a particular contract attached (including things like music subscription along with a text bundle).

    The only problem is waiting for them to get into the hands of real people to see if it really delivers all its promising!


  2. Excellent piece Mark. I think you summed up the Windows Phone Developer TechDay completely. The more I read about Windows 7 the less I’m concerned around the business focus angle, especially with the announcement of multiple exchange account support. That will suit me down to the ground!! :-)

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