Hands on with Windows Phone 7 at Tech.Ed 2010

Does the Microsoft device have the goods to outsmart Apple and Google devices?

Windows Phone 7, the saviour of Microsoft's mobile device business is said to launch soon, potentially as early as October. While there has been plenty of information about Windows Phone 7 on the web and Microsoft has lent developers devices, New Zealand media hasn't been let near any handsets.

As expected, there are Windows Phone 7 devices at Microsoft's giant geek fest, Tech.Ed 2010. However, at first, it looked like nobody would be allowed to even touch the Windows Phone 7 devices, let alone take photographs of them at Microsoft's

Luckily, the Tech.Ed 2010 mobile geeks' excitement couldn't be suppressed, and it didn't take long before a Computerworld correspondent held not one but two Windows Phone 7 devices. No, these weren't found in a Sky City bar and yes, they were handed back after a bit of touchy-feely and a features run-down.

The two phones were from Samsung and LG respectively, and looked OK if unspectacular in terms of design. It was stressed to us that neither developer device is representative of any final version. In fact, one person said "don't look at the phone itself; it's crap" to drive that point home.

It's entirely possible that the launch handsets will look and feel much better -- Microsoft's rumoured to have hired the services of well-known designers, in the hope of giving Apple's Jon Ive a run for his iPhone money. Microsoft executives on ground at Tech.Ed 2010 looked like they wanted to reply something else to the designers question than "we do not comment on speculation" but didn't, unfortunately.

Unlike Windows Mobile and PocketPCs, Microsoft has been very strict with the minimum specifications and design requirements for Windows Phone 7. Neither the phone manufacturers nor the carriers will have much to say here, a clear nod to how Apple set the scene for the iPhone success.

The short hands-on trial with the two Windows Phone 7 devices revealed that the user interface is a mix of very pretty and fugly, as seen from overseas reviews. The fonts and borderless fields are pretty, but the coloured tiles on the home screen are not.

Microsoft has worked hard to make navigation and the kinetic scrolling smooth and accurate, and despite this being pre-release software, it certainly was. The "scrunchy" scroll where information compresses as it hits the stops on the screen (so to speak) bears testimony to the amount of detail Microsoft has gone into to make Windows Phone 7 something else.

Navigating around the phone's various features felt natural and the social media aggregation is probably something that will appeal to many people. Oddly enough, Twitter hasn't made it to Windows Phone 7 yet, but it should appear soon.

Windows Live integration with photos, videos and music being uploaded to Skydrive, Microsoft's personal cloud storage service that gives users 25GB of space for free, is ready in Windows Phone 7. Whether or not telcos with their steep 3G data charges are ready for such integration of user devices and services is another matter, but luckily Windows Phone 7 handsets are likely to come with WiFi as well.

Neither the Windows Marketplace nor the Xbox Live games service were activated yet, so there weren't that many apps or games to check out, but the ones we saw seem slick enough, and networked.

How will these apps, videos and music files be delivered? The 'Microsofties' we asked didn't actually deny that they're following Apple's lead again and this means the Zune media player client will be press-ganged into iTunes-like service as a delivery and e-commerce platform. Apparently it will be "like Windows Media Player on steroids."

A number of NZ developers are working on Windows Phone 7 apps and we did indeed see some at Tech Ed 2010, but promised to keep schtumm for now.

Microsoft clearly has the expertise to turn out a good product with Windows Phone 7, especially with its corporate feet held in front of the fire. However, Windows Phone 7 launches into a tough market where Apple sets the tone and Google's Android growing like wild fire. So Windows Phone 7 will have to be better than just good to succeed.

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