After months and months of waiting, Microsoft has finally kicked its latest mobile operating system out of the nest to see if it can fend for itself in the big, bad world of smartphone rivalries. Alongside the OS itself, Microsoft also rolled out a bunch of new web-based services as well.
What's new in the OS?
On a handset level you can expect a whole lot of surface-level cosmetic changes. The most notable change is to the home screen where the tired white text on a green background aesthetic has been transformed into a sharply rendered list of options, which will look familiar to anyone who has followed the Microsoft Zune MP3 player in the US. The menu is navigated with scrolling finger gestures, and swiping up and down to rotate the list on screen.
The Start menu has also received a makeover, and you now find what Microsoft describes as its honeycomb menu layout. This design spaces out application icons so that every other icon sits just below its neighbour, apparently making the menu easier to navigate with fingers.
Other parts of the OS have also been adjusted to make it more finger friendly. However, we were disappointed at the launch to see quite a few menus remain identical to previous versions of Windows Mobile, which make these parts of the phone difficult to use without the aid of a stylus. If all Microsoft intended with this release was a shift in the aesthetic to complement its shift in branding, then we're confused as to why these new design elements weren't implemented across every screen of the OS.
Windows Marketplace for Mobile
While the step up in OS is significant, today's biggest announcement is arguably the launch of the app store for Windows Phone handsets. The Windows Marketplace is now live and apparently houses approximately 250 applications, though this number is growing as new applications are submitted and signed off by Microsoft.
As with other similar software portals, pricing for the Windows Marketplace will be set by the developers who create the apps. At launch, the apps ranged in price from about $3 to $30, with several apps also being available for free.
One of the key differentiators between the Windows Marketplace to Apple's App Store is the opportunity to refund an app you don't like within 24 hours. This isimplemented, but at the launch today we learned that each customer would only be able to refund one app per month — a limitation which really takes the shine off the offering. While the Marketplace does seem to display clear descriptions and screenshots of apps, the Apple App Store is proof that not all apps are created equal and the chance to waste good money on bad software is quite high. Hopefully, Microsoft extends this refund offer further in future.
While My Phone is not the most exciting part of today's announcements, it is the most interesting precursor of some future developments from Microsoft. At its core this is a free back-up service, letting customers copy contacts, calendar entries, photos, etc from their phone to a Microsoft run website. Each time a Windows Phone synchronises with My Phone its location is recorded and users can trace this location using the web browser on their PC.
The service also offers premium features on subscription letting you lock and wipe the phone remotely, and even make the phone ring loudly when on silent — perfect for when your phone has slipped between the cushions on the sofa.
Telstra will be the first to offer Windows Mobile 6.5 devices, with the HTC Touch Diamond2 being offered from 6 October on $100 plans. The Windows Marketplace is live now, but will only be available on handsets until November when a web-based service will launch.