Windows Phone 7: Don't bother with this disaster

Microsoft's demos of its great mobile hope shows Windows Phone 7 to be only a tepid knockoff of a 2007-era iPhone

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Also, the big tiles quickly eat up screen real estate (about four fit), so you don't get the compact access to apps that all the other major mobile operating systems provide. I bet this will depress app sales for those poor souls unlucky enough to get seduced by the Microsoft brand or the inevitable discounts at the cellular stores as the carriers try to dump these devices in January 2011 for $25 (shades of the unlamented Kin).

Plus, Microsoft has done its usual trick of gumming up the UI, even though this one is relatively simple. There are two ways to navigate through tiles: in panorama mode and in pivot mode. In both cases, the tile continues to the right, and you swipe to see more. In panorama mode, cut-off text on the right indicates there's more (at Mobile Beat, a developer asked if users knew what that cut-off text was for, and the Microsoft rep essentially admitted they didn't get it was a way to say "more"). In pivot mode, each tile is self-contained, and there is an icon to indicate there is more. It's a subtle difference: Using a panorama basically means the tile continues because it won't fit on screen, while using a pivot means you have a series of what are essentially pages. I bet developers and users will get confused very fast.

Visions of Vista's litter of control panel dialog boxes, Microsoft Bob, the Office ribbon, Clippy, and Windows 3 flew through my head -- not that Windows Phone 7 looks like any of these; it just shares the same flaw of being obtuse.

Once you get past the basic UI, the various apps that Microsoft is showing are not at all encouraging. They have little style and feel very basic. Microsoft has just released a beta SDK for its mobile Silverlight tools, so developers can only now start investigating Windows Phone 7's capabilities. (As InfoWorld's Paul Krill has reported, developers seem tepid about the SDK, too.) Although that might explain the lack of compelling examples from third parties, it doesn't explain the DOS-ness of the Microsoft mail client, which reminded me so much of my green-screen days on VAX. The maps app also had a strong clunkiness to it, both visually (the overly thick borders on things) and operationally (panning and zooming caused a lot of awkward screen redraws).

If the Windows Phone 7's flaws were confined to a poor UI, that wouldn't be a deal-killer for many users. After all, most people run Windows, whose UI has rarely gained acclaim but is generally serviceable once you get the hang of it.

Inexcusably old technology limits Windows Phone 7
But under the hood, Windows Phone 7 gets worse. The core problem is its backward set of technologies, which will fundamentally limit IT, developers, and users alike. Here are some of the more egregious examples of Windows Phone 7's time warp:

  • Its browser is Internet Explorer 7, with some IE8 capabilities added -- that means it does not support HTML5, as the iPhone, Android, WebOS, and Nokia Symbian all do. Didn't anyone on the Windows Phone 7 team know about IE9 and its embrace of HTML5? Why isn't Windows Phone 7 using IE9?
  • It does not support multitasking except for Microsoft's own first-party apps, meaning the browser, email client, SMS client, and other such preinstalled applications. When you switch applications, they shut down -- just like the iPhone did until iOS 4 was released this spring. Android and WebOS, of course, supported multitasking more than a year ago, and Google and Palm mercilessly attacked Apple for not supporting it as well. Yet Microsoft didn't build multitasking into Windows Phone 7 at the outset?
  • This lack of multitasking also means there's no such concept as interapplication communication for third-party apps, not even for a primitive work-around such as the iPhone OS 3.2's "Open In" feature. Thus, apps can't work together à la in WebOS -- even though the UI that Microsoft has shown off seemed designed to do just that. The only thing that Windows Phone 7 will do is let third-party apps call first-party apps, so clicking a URL in a text message will launch the first-party IE browser to show the URL. Of course, doing so closes the app that had the text link in it. (First-party apps can call other first-party apps, and these would all continue to run in parallel.)
  • It doesn't support copy and paste. Here again Apple was a much-criticized laggard, supporting the capability only in summer 2009. Microsoft says it didn't have time to get this feature in for the first release (!) but will have it in a future version. Too bad there's not likely to be a future for it. And how could Microsoft not have copy and paste working in Windows Phone 7? After all, it had copy and paste in Windows Mobile 6.1.

No chance of a come-from-behind victory this time
Microsoft has not only just made an imperfect copy of an old iPhone, it has not kept up with the current mobile OS crop nor moved ahead of any of them. I can't tell you how much Windows Phone 7 feels like the early 1990s' Windows 3.1, a clunky attempt to copy that era's Apple System 7. In the case of Windows versus Mac, Microsoft kept plugging away and ultimately shipped Windows 95, which drew close enough to Apple's Mac OS to end the competition. The same thing happened with the Internet and the battle between Internet Explorer and Netscape, which the company first ignored and then made a successful mad scramble on.

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