We can't help but be excited about the upcoming release of Windows Mobile 6.5, now known as Windows Phone, but this isn't forgetting the fact that the competition is tighter now than it's ever been for the mobile operating platform. We met with Tony Mestres, general manager for mobile communications at Microsoft, and asked him exactly what everyone is thinking: "Why buy a Windows Phone rather than an iPhone?"
"A Windows phone is more designed for you," says Mestres, "across the range of hardware available, across the range of software that you can put where you like on the device, rather than designed the way someone in Cupertino thinks you should have a phone."
This is a compelling argument for people who hate being chained to a single design aesthetic shared with the millions who also own the iPhone, but it's an empty statement if the new operating platform fails to address the usability issues experienced by owners of phones running previous versions of Windows. This is especially true for touchscreen smartphone owners who have struggled with tiny menu items and scroll bars since the inception of Windows Mobile. Thankfully, the platform appears to be a significant improvement in usability from our brief hands on with an HTC Touch Pro2 running the software.
The Zune-like home screen (pictured above) is finger-friendly, with smooth kinetic scrolling and a fast response to input. We saw the same speedy performance in the phone's photo gallery with lag-free scrolling between images. The email and calendar apps have received an aesthetic overhaul, and while they don't look as sharp as similar apps on the iPhone or Android phone, they are much easier to read and use than in the latest versions of Windows Mobile.
Like Apple, Microsoft sees huge potential in an apps market, and though the soon-to-be released Marketplace for Windows Phone will only feature about 500 apps at launch, Mestres tells us that Microsoft is working closely with developer partners to help devise specific apps to cover a range of useful functionality. Microsoft will also instigate transparent guidelines for developers, outlining how apps should look and behave, and is suggesting competitive pricing for apps in the store.
What's a Windows Phone?
What's in a name? As far as we can gather, this change in title is an effort to create distance between the handsets we buy and the Windows platform running on them. This seems partly out of a professional modesty, the way Google inscribes a simple "with Google" on the underside of Android phones, but is also likely to be a way to distance newer models from the previous negative connotations surrounding the Windows Mobile brand. "People don't buy phones for the operating system," says Mestres, "they buy them for (their usability and customisation)" — features not immediately recognisable in current Windows Mobile phones.
Mestres explains that Windows 6.5 is the beginning of a journey, on which Microsoft's customers can expect not only improvements in future releases of its operating platform, but changes in what customers can expect from a Windows Phone. Microsoft will launch a new cloud-computing service alongside 6.5, which will offer customers an online location to back-up phone data to, but also is a glimpse into the future where Microsoft envisions a "three-screen" ecosystem, where software on your mobile interacts with your PC and home entertainment system through the Xbox or streaming with Windows Media Centre.
"The things we're talking to our OEM and our operator partners about I think are really game changing, when you think about a connected experience across the three screens," says Mestres.
A phone that can act as a window to a desktop computing experience or as a conduit of content streaming to the media devices in your living room is a compelling sounding proposition, and is reason enough to keep Microsoft in mind when thinking about mobile for a few years to come.
Windows Mobile 6.5 will launch globally on 7 October.