Windows Phone 7 clears the first hurdle

Dell-Venue-Pro-300x543Well, the Windows Phone cat is finally out of the bag. Microsoft had its big premier of their new mobile OS in New York today and there were no surprises, per se. Most everything about the OS had already been leaked and kicked to death over the last few weeks. We even had a good idea of the devices that would be out at launch.

However, there was one big surprise: Microsoft pulled off the first step in regaining relevance in mobile devices. They cleared that first important hurdle. They got our attention and they did it with style. Ten devices, 30 countries, all out and ready to go over the next few weeks. Those numbers would be impressive enough for a new mobile product roll out, but on top of that the entire event went off without a hitch.

MS even started winning some more begrudging respect from the tech press. The unrestrained mockery that had been coming out of the professional blogosphere just a few months ago has changed to “Actually, it is a nice, innovative OS…too bad it is still going to fail since there is no market available due to iOS and Android.” Reminds me a little of what they all said about the XBox 360.

Of course, this is just the first hurdle of a very long race. We will see what happens once people start getting devices out in the wild, and even more importantly, what happens when the first update rolls around, already promised for early 2011 (cut and paste, dammit!). Microsoft cannot afford to look good but fail at execution. There is no margin for error with this.

Like most of you, I observed the event today from a considerable distance, watching several live blogs at once, but these are my initial impressions.

  • Microsoft definitely managed a unique user experience, clearly a change from the same old same old “Little App Icons” that has become the norm. I and most everyone agreed, on style alone WP7 can really hurt Android. Android still feels like it was designed by engineers, for engineers. It seems cold and a little bit bolted together. Whatever else you may think of it, WP7 feels alive, even in a liveblogging.
  • The GUI is distinctive, innovative, sort of odd, heavily Zune influenced, practically three dimensional in its use of off-screen space…and will be something you either love very much or hate like poisoned brussels sprouts. The user experience will be very polarizing. Expect flame wars and fist fights over this.
  • Some people complained that the devices announced today all looked similar, with similar specs, and I think that is great. Microsoft went for a happy median between the Apple “one device only” school of thought and Google’s “Heck yeah, put Android on everything and let the market decide” attitude. Microsoft had very strict requirements for devices, and all of them, across all vendors, are using the same CPU. There are nuances to each device, and brand loyalty will no doubt come into play, but one basic technical specification to design for means we will see apps and updates much faster. The devices all being different yet the same was a major win for Microsoft and shows that they still have a lot of control over their partners.
  • The apps that were showcased at the event all had a consistent look and feel and really seemed organically suited to the device. The Windows Phone Marketplace is reported to have 2,000 apps, holding to the “quality over quantity” mantra that Redmond started preaching about mobile apps two years ago. Will 2,000 be enough? Maybe, maybe not…but Microsoft had better make sure that each and every one is a winner. See, I am back to that “no margin for error” thing.
  • Where could Windows Phone 7 stumble and not get up? What do I feel is the make or break aspect of the OS, beyond what we have seen so far? Integration, integration, integration! If WP7 works as well with all of these XBox and PC cloud-based services as Microsoft claims it does, it will be smooth sailing for awhile. If it doesn’t? Game over.
  • Lastly, my feeling is that while the OS is a worthy rival to iOS, Apple doesn’t need to worry too much. In fanboys they trust. Android, however, may have to start worrying a bit. Windows Phone 7 could easily start drawing away much of the anti-iPhone crowd that has really boosted Android post-iPhone 4. Beyond an innovative GUI and unique style, WP7 gets right a lot of the things that Android got wrong. Whether that will affect the market at this late date I have no idea, but in a perfect world, it should.
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Zealot Benmergui

Zealot is a former contributing editor at Pocketables.