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Q&A: Microsoft talks about Windows Phone 7

Microsoft announced Windows Phone 7 Series at the 2010 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. We sat down with the team from Redmond, Washington, to discuss the new mobile operating system, the phones it will be on, the competition, its services and, of course, the fate of Windows Mobile 6.5.

Microsoft announced Windows Phone 7 Series at the 2010 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. We sat down with the team from Redmond, Washington, to discuss the new mobile operating system, the phones it will be on, the competition, its services and, of course, the fate of Windows Mobile 6.5.

Forget whatever impressions you have of the current Windows Mobile operating system as the new 7 Series is unlike anything we've seen.

The user interface has been completely reworked to feature live tiles, panoramic screens, and an enhanced gaming and music experience. Microsoft knew it had to deliver something with pow at the annual mobile tradeshow and boy did it deliver. While the first devices aren't expected until the end of the year, there's still a lot to know about the new software.

We sat down with the director of Mobile Communications Business, Aaron Woodman, the general manager for Asia in the Mobile Communications Business, Natasha Kwan, and the head of Mobile Services, Manish Ladha, to discuss everything, from the software to hardware and services.

Windows Phone 7 Series

Windows Phone 7's start menu
The new start menu (Credit: Microsoft)

CNET Asia: What is Windows Phone 7 Series and is there a particular significance with the number 7 or the new naming convention? Do you think the new name will confuse users?

Aaron Woodman: There were four big pieces of news [from Monday's announcement]. The biggest was Windows Phone 7 Series and all the changes in the product around smart designs, integrated experiences and the Windows Phone hubs. The second was that we brought Xbox Live and Zune to Windows Phone for the first time, and we will take them internationally. The third was about a specific set of partners, mobile operators and OEMs that have committed to be early launch partners. The last piece of news was on the [launch of product] in the Q4 holiday season.

We started changing the brand strategy with Windows Mobile (WM) 6.5. We announced the new brand as Windows Phone and the OS will remain consistent in terms of naming structure, which is Windows Mobile 6.5. That actually was significant for us because it was really the first time we wanted to market software directly to consumers. So we started Windows Phone and we really shipped two products — MyPhone and Windows Marketplace — which helped us start to have a direct relationship with the customer. That was a big step because prior to that, we simply shipped the operating system, while the OEMs and mobile operators had a relationship with the customer. So WM6.5 was a very small incremental step to start that process.

Windows Phone 7 Series is us front and centre trying to interact with the customers to solve their needs and ultimately taking accountability. I don't think it's confusing. I think it's a change. There are a lot of changes and this is just one of many. In terms of 7, there is no particular significance around 7. There is particular emphasis on Series knowing that we're going to have a selection of phones running a single version of the product.

What took Microsoft so long to publicly announce Windows Phone 7 Series?

AW: I don't know whether I would say it took us so long to announce it. We started to see a pretty significant change in the marketplace three or four years ago and that was driven by three things. The first was customer expectations. Customers have changed pretty dramatically over the last few years. If you looked at the prices of phones and data plans in the late 1990's and early 2000's, it was the businesses that could afford those. There wasn't a lot of end-consumers out there [using] the product.

The second was technology — what was fundamentally possible on the device and at what price points. We started to see processors, chipsets and price points of data plans come down pretty dramatically. The third was competition. There are two types of competitors. Vertical competitors are people who have the ability to achieve quality entirely because they have the software and can achieve economies of scale to drive down component prices. And also people integrating data.

These three things came together at a time which brought a lot of emphasis on how we had to change to be competitive. That change started over two years ago with a shift in leadership. The result was a strategy behind 7 Series. There are not a lot of companies that have the ability to step back from what I would argue was a successful strategy in the mobile phone space. Today, we still sell a tonne of phones.

So I don't feel [that we're] late with it. I always wished I had more innovations sooner, but I think we definitely stepped back, took our time and were willing to make some pretty dramatic changes.

Dramatic it is, since the interface is unlike anything we've seen before. How do you intend to keep up with the competition since the first devices on the new OS aren't expected until Q4 2010?

AW: I think we have a very unique perspective on the business. What we've seen is that most of our competition focuses on just bringing applications to the forefront. They use a very classic design language that we pioneered with a lot of our work on the desktop. Our perspective puts us into a different place because we focus much more on the customer end of the tasks and the ability to complete what you want to do.

We fully expect apps to participate in that new design language. That perspective, I would argue, is quite unique to the marketplace today, and that's what results in such a different look and feel of [our] product. And then we brought some differentiation that I would argue most phone or phone software providers simply don't have. Xbox Live is a social gaming backbone with a community of over 23 million. That's not something Nokia or Apple has. They need to have a partner to do that and that makes it more difficult to do deep integration.

Windows Phone 7's People hub
It's all about hubs now; this is the People hub. (Credit: Microsoft)

I would also argue that the search engine and data behind that allows us to do a very unique implementation of things like maps, search and results. If you look at the competition, there is only one provider which has that same product and that's Google. If you look at the music space, we have the PC desktop software and the ability to think about the rich integration between the PC and the phone, and the only one that kind of does that today is Apple. If you start to add these pieces together, you can identify unique competitors like MyPhone, MobileMe and Ovi. As a whole, there are very few people who have these assets. What I can say about our competitors is that they have great products, but I feel very good about my ability to differentiate both in the short and long term.

Why would anyone want to buy a 7 Series device over an iPhone, Android, Nokia or a BlackBerry?

AW: I think there are two reasons and probably the biggest reason is that people will be drawn to the design. I really do think that's the case when you start focusing on things like the task rather than the applications. I think people will be drawn to the fact that they are able to see their information quickly, easily and in a readable fashion. Also, we thought about the design in terms of the motion and transitions where you see things fly in and out in a very dynamic fashion.

The second thing people will be drawn to is the idea of taking the most common tasks and bringing them together. People are a great example where today you really get fragmented in the people experience. And we start to see some people do some very, very lightweight integration of social networking. We think we are going to deliver that in a way that is going to be quite unique.

What operating system does Windows Phone 7 Series run on? Is there a name for it?

AW: There's product brand and product lines. The brand is Windows Phone and Windows Phone 7 Series is the product line. The OS will be Windows Phone OS 7.

Is the code different from the current Windows Mobile operating system?

AW: Yes, all the software was revisited when we built Windows Phone 7 Series. Nobody felt like an incremental change was going to get us to a point where we felt we would be competitive over the next several years. Across the board, I don't think anyone felt restrained to stay inside our current development model. We'll come back again and talk about that at Mix (a Microsoft web design/development event) in March.

How can manufacturers differentiate their products?

AW: You'll see mobile operators and OEMs bringing differentiation into the software experience through unique access to some tools. That said, you won't see any user experience on top of Windows Phone 7 Series. You won't see any skinning and those sort of things. There is so much fragmentation where the ecosystem is kind of butting heads against the same innovation. You won't see any opportunity for any OEM or third-party app developer to take over the user experience.

Phone hardware

What has Microsoft done since the acquisition of Danger? Are there any developments on that front and what are the company's plans for Danger?

AW: What I will tell you is that the number one thing we got from Danger are the people and their expertise in the mobile phone space. You'll see a lot of benefits here as we start to think about how to structure hardware and work with hardware partners.

Can you give a straight answer on whether Microsoft will release a consumer phone line?

AW: Just answer this straight? (Exasperated laughter) The answer is, I don't really know. And the reason I don't know is we have mobile as a strategy as a company and I will tell you the company is not aggressive in that marketplace. If we felt like there was an opportunity to do something really compelling and different, we would do it. That said, Microsoft has a partner-driven model and we believe in the benefits of partnerships.

Music+Video on the Windows Phone 7
Music and video are now brought together in a Zune-style experience. (Credit: Microsoft)

What's the hardware specifications Microsoft is laying out for OEMs?

AW: We will provide the OS primarily to software developers in March. Every 7 Series device will have a Qualcomm chip. It will be touch based. There won't be any non-touch, but that's not saying there won't be any keyboard devices, so they will all be touch and capacitive. There is a single aspect ratio. It will have Wi-Fi and GPS and other services which we will talk about soon.

Can the users of the current Windows Mobile software upgrade to the new one when it comes out?

AW: I don't know if any Windows Mobile 6.5 device today meets those specifications.

How many 7 Series devices can users expect this year?

AW: A billion! No, I don't know. You saw the announcement of the OEMs and it's really up to them how many devices they release in the different markets.

Windows Mobile 6.x

What happens now to Windows Mobile 6.5, or even 6.5.3? Are you going to completely phase out the current operating system or will it continue with a different proposition?

AW: We don't have a specific timeline for Windows Mobile 6.5. It still has a lot of demand and value for both OEMs and customers today. The reality is that demand will determine the lifespan of Windows Mobile 6.5. So, as long as OEMs and customers find value there, we'll continue to support and sell the product.

Are there going to be new devices coming out this year?

Natasha Kwan: Yes. When we announced Windows Mobile 6.5 in October last year, we said we will continue to have updates. 6.5.3 is an update in terms of added feature functionality. In the WM6 platform, there were a lot of legacy applications that were written with the stylus in mind. So we have the magnifier to enhance the touch experience for these apps. We also anticipate 14 new devices out in Asia in the next six months.

Are the target user groups of Windows Mobile 6.5, 6.5.3 and Windows Phone 7 Series different?

NK: The target audience is similar. Internally, we call it the life maximiser, but that's really about the 23-35 age group. We are talking about a group of people who are actually quite settled in what they do. They are confident people. They have a lot of priorities to juggle at work and in personal lives. Yet, they also want their phone to be able to help them obtain information to make their decision.

With Windows Phone 7 Series, we have built the OS from the ground up. We really want to take a lot of accountability in the user experience. We want to ensure that we build greater quality and consistency with the phone and have an integrated experience. For WM6.5, it is going to be the platform where we allow OEM partners to continue to have their unique user interfaces. It is also a platform today where a lot of enterprise business apps are being built. More and more, we are seeing that the phone is critical for a lot of these enterprise apps. That's where WM6.5 continues to hold a lot of strength in a managed enterprise environment.

Services

Will the entire suite of Live services be available on Windows Phone 7 Series?

Manish Ladha: We will continue to provide the existing experience even as we go into the 7 Series. It's not really classified as Windows Live, but within the People Hub, there will be updates coming from Windows Live or Facebook. Essentially, it's getting all your communication in one place.

Office on Windows Phone 7
Even Office gets its own hub. Road warriors rejoice! (Credit: Microsoft)

Will there be Live services specific to 7 Series?

ML: Xbox Live and Zune are new to Windows Phone 7 Series. On WM6.5, you have Marketplace and MyPhone, and that will continue on for the 7 Series.

What kind of gaming experience can users look forward to on the 7 Series devices? And what do developers have to look out for?

ML: That's still evolving and we will be discussing that in the next conference. You can see your avatars on your Windows Phones. You will get the same experience as on the Xbox, but this question of which games and to what extent is still being defined.

Assuming I have an Xbox and some games, do I have to repurchase the games to play on the handset?

ML: The actual mechanics in terms of which games and the payment process will be disclosed at a later stage.

Which version of the IE browser will Windows Phone 7 Series use?

ML: The IE browser on the 7 Series is not really IE7 or IE8 from the PC but is built specifically for the mobile device. Previously, on WM6.5, we had Pocket IE, so it's an evolution of that. But it also has a lot of elements from the IE7 and IE8 in terms of the experience.

What is the name of this IE browser?

ML: We are not disclosing that right now.

It was said during the press conference that every 7 Series device is a Zune. Does that mean there won't be anymore dedicated Zune media players?

ML: We won't be commenting on that right now. Each and every 7 Series device will have the entire Zune experience in terms of playback and user interface currently available on the Zune HD.

What's the portfolio of Live services?

ML: Hotmail, Messenger and Photos are the more popular ones. There's also Spaces, but it's not that prominent. SkyDrive is a very popular service on the PC. However, we have a similar service which is called MyPhone.

It seems there's some duplication of services. Does Microsoft plan to combine them moving forward?

ML: I won't call it duplication of features. It's just that on the phone, there is no Windows Live SkyDrive for mobile. Instead, it's MyPhone. So it's ultimately performing the same actions.

Via CNET Asia