Microsoft hits redial in phone effort (Q&A)

Microsoft's Andy Lees talks with CNET's Ina Fried about the decision to start over in the phone game and why the company still thinks it can catch Google, RIM, and Apple.

While CEO Steve Ballmer is the one who will get top billing at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, it is Microsoft veteran Andy Lees who is largely responsible for shepherding the long-delayed software project to completion.

Ballmer and Lees, who came from Microsoft's server unit in March 2008, will be showing the fruits of that work--a ground-up redesign of the phone operating system into something that looks a lot more like the Zune HD than it does any prior version of Windows Mobile.

Lees Microsoft

While Microsoft won't be building the phones itself, it is being pretty strict about both the components that must be included (think FM radio and capacitive touch screen) as well as also prohibiting phone makers from putting their own skin over the user interface, something that many had taken to doing to hide Windows Mobile in recent generations.

In an interview just before he headed to Barcelona, Lees talked about Microsoft's different approach with the new software, the role of Zune and Xbox in the product, as well as why Microsoft still believes it can catch up to leaders like Apple, Google and Research In Motion.

There is also a separate Microsoft-designed phone effort, code-named Pink, that is due out this year, ahead of the first crop of third-party Windows Phone 7 Series devices , although Lees wouldn't talk about those.

Here's an edited transcript of our conversation:

Q: So essentially what is Windows Mobile 7, or whatever it's being called?
Andy Lees: Windows Phone 7 Series. As you may remember, we about 18 months ago decided that we're going to re-evaluate our mobile strategy, and what we're doing in the mobile space. That was based on the inflection point that was happening in a number of ways, both in terms of convergence of different industries colliding together, and also the technologies of what is becoming possible, of course, driven by Moore's Law in the hardware, connectivity, and new-user paradigms, people using their phones in concert with the Web, and their PCs, and TVs, and things. And so that really created the impetus to go through it.

What we've done is, we have left no stone unturned going from the bottom right through to the top to say, if you could really look at this as being a new entrant, what would you do? We've changed the core operating-system platform with a new version of the OS, and we have built a lot of software in the phones to enable user experiences inside of it, and the net result basically comes out with three main things.

No. 1 is a completely new user interface that's going to be consistent across all of our phones, that is, we think, solidifies this notion of smart design. You'll see things like these Live Tiles, which provide a very simple way of seeing what's happening in your life, and then drilling to have more detail. It has a very fresh look and feel. It's not a grid of icons, as nearly all phones are basically today, where the user has to poke and hope in order that they find the functionality that they need.

The second thing is that we are building in a whole set of the core things that people want to do with phones. And so things like having Bing built-in in a rich integrated way, having Zune for music and videos built-in in a way, having Xbox Live gaming built-in to be able to do games in a new way. So we have a hub for music, a hub for games, a hub for people, hub for photos and search that's built across the system. And then you also have one for Office.

The third one is about really making sure that the ecosystem is in harmony and that includes hardware, software, applications, and games, and services and this makes it so that the OEMs, ourselves, operators, and developers can work in a way that everybody is in harmony.

The start screen in Windows Phone 7 Series features various "live tiles" that can link to individuals, applications as well as "hubs" for things like people, pictures and applications. Microsoft

Today, there are sort of two models. There is one model which is the, "I'm going to do the hardware and the software and open up some elements of my platform in a controlled way," and it's all about control. The other end of the spectrum is where you have an ecosystem that's chaotic, and the problem with that is everyone is innovating, but you find out that some software doesn't really work well with hardware, or you have great hardware and it's not fully utilized by the software, or every piece of hardware has its own UI. It's confusing as to how it works and things.

I take it you're referring to the iPhone and Android respectively?
Lees: You can choose those as examples, those extremes. You have RIM, and you have Nokia... there's a variety of different ones, and they tend to jump to those two spectrums.

Microsoft isn't making these phones. So, who is going to make these phones and when will they be out?
Lees: The phones will be out for [the] holiday [season] and there's a list of [phone makers] that we'll be shipping in time for [the] holiday [season] and that includes LG, Samsung, ASUS, HTC, Dell, and HP.

Is this a clean break from past versions? Will software written for older versions of Windows Mobile work with the new OS? If not what kinds of apps will run?
Lees: So, we are announcing the product next week [in Barcelona]. The detail on the platform will be given out at a conference called Mix, which happens in March. It's a very sort of advanced platform that really works across PC, phone, and console. And so, we will give out details at the Mix conference. And so you can find out all about that then.

Is this a multi-touch interface. What does it look like?
Lees: To give you the level of detail that we've gone to in this, we don't [just] stipulate that it needs to be a touch interface or not a touch interface. We've stipulated that for this to work properly, we're going to use four-point capacitive touch. And we're that specific, because if you're a developer and you want to write a game, and you know [what] you have. Most capacitive touch screens use two points of touch, but if you make four points a minimum, and it works consistently, then the (software developer) can fully exploit four-point touch. This is why we've worked so closely with Qualcomm, for example, and other chipmakers, other ancillary systems, to make it that we have this level of specificity, so that the people who are writing the Xbox Live games know precisely the characteristics of the graphics, the characteristics of the hardware, so they can fully exploit it.

You talk about this being an 18-month project, but from my recollection you guys have been working on the successor to the current generation of Windows Mobile even longer than that. Why did it take so long to develop?
Lees: We hit the reset button because we're at an inflection point as to the compute power that is available. For example, all of the phones have graphics hardware acceleration. That really is just becoming viable now to guarantee that that's on all the phones that you're going to ship on. Having that as a prerequisite means that the style of what you can design is quite different.

And we're at that point in so many different areas of what the phone hardware can do, and actually what connectivity will do, and also kind of as we're seeing this convergence that's taking place, TV on phones, music on phones, social networking on phones, the hardware that's available and all of those things, we're getting to an inflection point. And you can see that in the numbers. You can see the dramatic change of people flipping over to buy smart phones versus (traditional cell phones). So now is the time to do that.

So why will someone want to buy a Windows Phone 7 Series over, say, iPhone or an Android phone?
Lees: I think they get smart design with things like Live Tiles, and the start screen, and how the UI works. I think they get integrated experiences with things like Zune music and video, the social networking built-in, Bing built-in, Xbox Live built-in, Office built-in, and those things. So they get the integrated experiences, and hubs which are unique. And then the third thing that they get is a choice. But a choice in a way that is in harmony between hardware, software, and services.

And what is the future of sort of the other piece of Microsoft's phone business, the Danger business, and the Microsoft-designed Pink phone I've been hearing about?
Lees: We're not announcing anything.

Will there be a next generation of the Sidekick?
Lees: We're not announcing anything. I don't mean to be sort of nasty and bluffing, but we're just not ready to talk about that.

What's the future for the existing Windows Mobile platform? Will it live on through the holiday time frame or beyond?
Lees: I think what will happen is they'll co-exist for a year, maybe two actually, and I think the reason for that is because, for example, enterprises have standardized on it in a number of places, they'll want to continue to buy what they've standardized on, they'll go through an evaluation period, and so there will be a demand for that crossover.

There are certain price points and form factors that are becoming very popular in some parts of the world, which is slightly different to Windows Phone 7 Series. And so those places we'll see it continue. So, I think what will happen is that they'll continue in parallel for, say, 18 months and maybe two years, and then I think everything will have shifted over by that stage.

It seems like Windows Mobile, sorry, Windows Phone 7 Series borrows a fair bit from the design of Zune HD. Can you talk about the design philosophy a little?
Lees: What Zune was doing is Zune was celebrating the content of the device, rather than the UI. We tried to minimize things. The thing that's front and center on a Zune device is the content. To play something you tap it, to find out about an artist you tap the name of the artist.

Now, on a phone content is richer, because it isn't just about music and video. In fact, music and video is there, but it's absolutely about people, it's about the way they communicate. It's about games in a much richer way. It's about photos in a much richer way. So, we have this project that was internally codenamed Metro, which is really what came up with the user interface.

The "people" hub, seen here, contains people with whom one has recently been in contact, a directory of all contacts, as well as status updates from places like Facebook and Windows Live. The information is presented as part of a panorama, only part of which can be seen on the phone at any one time. Moving from side to side requires the flick of a finger. Microsoft

There are still applications on the system, don't get me wrong, and you can still get a list of the applications on the system and choose "run," effectively. But, we think that it's a different approach that we think people will like.

How important is the Xbox gaming aspect, and what will one be able to do in terms of gaming?
Lees: First of all, it's a powerful software and hardware platform. And, again, we'll outline that at Mix. So, in terms of writing games you've got a lot of flexibility to write very powerful games on the device. A big part of our strategy here is to make it so that it's easy to author software that runs in multiple places, knowing that you want to really optimize for the places where it runs.

A game developer can start to develop these multi-screen games, and because we have the Xbox Live service, we have all of the achievements that you have and the games that you're in the middle of playing, you get to see that, and where you're at from your phone. But also you get the ability to play against other people. What we notice on phones a lot is people like to do casual games, and also games where you just want to kill 15 minutes right now.

So let's say that we were playing Scrabble or something, I'm not sure if we should use that trademark, but just as an idea. If I wanted to play against you, then you want to get a notification on your (Xbox) Live tile that, hey, someone has invited you to play a game. And then I go into the gaming Xbox Live hub, and I see that you've invited me to a game of Scrabble, or in the middle of a game of Scrabble, and it's my turn. I take my turn, and then you take your turn, and you can take your turn on a PC, or you can take your turn on a phone.

So Xbox Live is coordinating all of that--coordinates your achievements, has your avatar across screens, and enables you to have multi-screen, multi-user play, particularly focused on turn-by-turn...Synchronized game play is one thing, but given that people spend less time, really turn-by-turn is, we think, an important element as well.

Does the operating system multitask, or are you typically doing one thing at a time?
Lees: We have scenarios where you can do multiple things. In terms of the platform itself, we will be talking about that at Mix, about how doing multiple things at once is executed, we'll talk about that at Mix.

But it's fair to say I can do at least the basics of, say, listening to music and browsing the Web?
Lees: Yes. And you can be on the phone and check your e-mail at the same time, or check your calendar, or be on the phone and then go and search for a restaurant near you, and then tell the person where we're going, or whatever. Yes, those scenarios, of course, work in a multitasking way.

Obviously a big part of designing a mobile device is not just what you put in, but what you decide not to do, because it's small real estate. What are some of the things where you made conscious decisions this is what we actually want to get away from?
Lees: Well, I think having the UI, you really want the experience to flow so the UI doesn't get in the way. So things like scroll bars aren't there. No one grabs a scroll bar, so we get rid of that. Things like the status bar sort of moves out of the way. If you tap, it will come in and show you, but we really want to get the screen as clean as possible. And then in hubs, one of the limitations of the screen, obviously, is you've just got a whatever it is, 3.7- or 4-inch screen, something. But you know that you want to have more information than that.

So, for example, the way that the hubs work, as you will see, is that it's kind of like having a panoramic view. The user interface will go through and hint that there are things over to the right and to the left.

You go into the games hub, and you see a list of your achievements, but you can see on the edge of the screen that there is something over to the right. And so you pan over to the right, and it sort of moves over and bumps into the zone, and then you get to see games you're in the middle of, who has invited you for that. And then you can flick across, and then you see your collection of games, of things that you currently own and that you might want to just kill some time playing the game.

What should we know about the browser? Does it support Flash?
Lees: We don't support Flash. Performance on Flash is a problem. So we don't do that. We have Internet Explorer. It's halfway between IE7 and IE8 rendering engine. But we also do some cool things about how it works with maps, and how it works with the phone dialer, and how it works with search.

You mentioned Bing being a part of it. What role does Bing play in Windows 7 Series phones?
Lees: All the phones have three buttons on them. We can make it as simple as possible. The center button is the Windows flag, you touch that and you get to your start screen, which has these Live Tiles on it. The button on the left is the back button. People find it incredibly useful to breadcrumb their way back to where they've been. So that is there. And then the right-hand button is a search button. When you hit search, if you're in a place that doesn't have context, then it instigates an integrated Bing search. The first scope of search is within where you are, and then if you tap it again, it then goes to full Bing search.

So, for example, if you're in "people," and you hit the search button, you start typing in the name of people, and, of course, it just filters down to the people who match that, and you can then call them, or e-mail them, or whatever it is, you want to text them, whatever. But if you either tap twice, or if you're in say the start screen or somewhere that doesn't have context, then you go into Bing.

You mentioned mapping. What kinds of services are there? Turn-by-turn navigation, Virtual Earth--what kinds of stuff do you see?
Lees: We're showing that maps are built-in. There is navigation in there, but I don't think we're talking about the specifics at this stage.

What about in terms of Virtual Earth, and some of those investments you guys have made in that kind of imagery?
Lees: Yes. So you'll see maps is a very cool way of zooming in, and zooming out, and it will bring in those views as appropriate in a cool way.

Just to clarify, are you guys pretty sure that Microsoft isn't going to be in the hardware business, because we've seen Google kind of do a hybrid approach, where Android is open, and there are then Google phones. Would we see a Microsoft specified device similar to Nexus One?
Lees: We don't have plans to compete with our ecosystem in that way. They're seeing some of the problems with chaos, and I don't think the solution is to compete with the ecosystem. I think the solution is to find a way to be in harmony with the ecosystem.

What problems is Apple seeing, because it seems like their approach has worked pretty well?
Lees: It's just like the PC was in the late 1980s. And the closed system, control everything means that you don't really bring to market the innovation of an ecosystem. It's about one company, and what they can provide. And that's hard to do over a sustainable period, and so you end up with good times, and bad times. But if you look at the history of PC versus Mac, it's very telling what happened in the end, because it's hard for one company over a period of time to have a sustained level of bringing the innovations all of the time.

 

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