A little while ago my colleague Mat Smith had a few things to say about Windows Phone 7. I didn’t totally agree with everything he said (and judging by the comments, so did a few of you). I think that he made some good points, especially about app pricing and the stigma attached to Microsoft/Windows as a brand. But ultimately I disagree with him on the points that WP7 doesn’t matter and that it’s playing ‘catch up’ with Apple or Google.
Right now, WP7 can’t compete with the iPhone or Android in terms of wow factor. Microsoft’s Mango update doesn’t look to offer anything in the way off oooh and aaah; nothing on par with Google Music or iCloud. But for the moment it’s wrong to compare the three OSs on an equal level, simply because Windows Phone 7 hasn’t been around for that long.
The first iPhone launched in June 2007 and the T-Mobile G1 arrived in October 2008. Since then, there’s been a lot of growth in both platforms. Windows Phone 7 isn’t even a year old.
But even when you consider that, the growth since the platform’s public release in October last year has been commendable. It’s worth pointing out that the cut and paste/NoDo update was pushed out roughly six months after launch. How long did it take for cut and paste to arrive on the iPhone? Microsoft certainly isn’t wasting any time ‘catching up’ with the competition here.
Smartphone functions, done smartly
Windows Phone 7 stands to do well in the long term because it offers a user experience that’s as easy on the eye as it is on the brain. WP7’s Metro UI manages the feat of looking fresh, aesthetically pleasing and easy to navigate while not being a rip-off of the iOS ‘grid of icons’ look.
Post-Mango you’ll be able to send group texts to your friends in a way that’s intuitive and effortless and gather messages sent from email, text and Facebook all under one aggregated stream. We’ve seen similar attempts at social network aggregation done on phones before, mainly on Android devices and mainly not that well. This is the first time we’ve seen something like this that’s made us think; “That’s really useful. Hasn’t Apple/Google done this already?”
There’s also some other neat things like Facebook events integrating with your calendar and the ability to tag friends in photos before you upload them.
Being able to take existing technology, rethink and repackage it in a way that’s appealing and useful to the buyer is one of the reasons why Apple is so successful as a company. I don’t think that it’s too much of a stretch to say that Microsoft has taken a leaf out of the Apple book here with WP7.
Everybody’s crazy ‘bout a smart dressed phone
When I first got some hands on time with the HTC HD7 and Samsung Omnia 7 last year, they both made my Nexus One, which I’d tricked out with all sorts of custom widgets and my own lovingly crafted wallpaper look a bit, well… tatty in comparison.
A well-customised Android phone can be a bit like an amazing vintage/charity shop find that you’ve taken in here and there and customised with various badges and accessorises. Great looking, but not suitable for all occasions. Windows Phone 7’s look, by comparison is more like a made to measure suit. When clapping eyes on the first lot of WP7 devices from last year, I got a distinct impression of the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs.
A more apt analogy would perhaps be to compare the layouts of Myspace and Facebook. Some people’s Myspace pages had god-awful custom wallpapers and eye-stabbingly awful animations. Facebook pages more or less looks the same, boasting a streamlined, conservative design with a uniform blue and white scheme.
Criticisms often levelled at Windows Phone 7 are that the minimum hardware requirements will limit innovation and that there’s a lack of scope for manufacturers to customise the user interface.
They differ only in terms of screens – the HD7 has a slightly bigger screen and the Omnia 7’s is a sharper, more vibrant Super AMOLED.
I think that uniformity of Windows Phone 7 phones is certainly a double edged sword. It’s a bit sad that we won’t ever see full-blown HTC Sense on a Windows Phone 7 device (a la HTC’s Android phones). The best we can hope for are minor ‘augmentations’, as HTC’s Drew Bamford put it.
That said, I’d argue that the minimum spec requirements and the same (or similar) user experience across the board guarantee two things.
Firstly, a level of quality. When you buy a Windows Phone 7 phone, you know that you’ll get 8GB of internal storage minimum. You know that you’ll get a responsive capacitive touchscreen that’s not a pig to use. You know that you’ll at least get a 5-megapixel camera.
Secondly, I’d argue that the uniformity of the user experience will be a good thing for consumers in the long term. Once you’ve gotten used to the WP7 way of doing things, you’d be more inclined to buy one in the future.
‘I already know how to use this’
Back in the day (in the pre-touchscreen era), I would always plump for a Nokia phone time and again. One of the reasons I did this was because, as well as decent battery life and durability, I found that if you’ve used one Nokia/Symbian device before you’ve used them all.
I found it just as easy to use my 6300 when upgrading from my 3220 and my 3310 before that (and my 3210 before that). Why? Besides slightly different keypads, the mobile experience was pretty much the same. I knew that if I did this I’d activate the camera and if I went here here and there on this menu, I’d be able to configure internet settings etc. Each time I got a new Nokia I pretty much knew what I was doing before I got it out of the box.
Compared to Android phones, where the user experience can vary wildly, Windows Phone 7 offers a more consistent experience. I think that this will prove a safer bet for customers. I can imagine people going for Windows Phone 7 phones in the future because they ‘already know how it works’.
Speaking of Nokia…
The ultimate comeback kid?
I’m probably not the only one excited about seeing what Nokia has in store with its first Windows Phone 7 phone.
The constant criticism of Nokia phones over the past couple of years is that while the hardware is generally great, Symbian just hasn’t transitioned to the touchscreen/smartphone world well at all. It’s warren-like system of many many menus was more suited to a 12-key phone with a directional key, but just felt wrong on a touchscreen.
Windows Phone 7 however is the perfect fit for Nokia’s big comeback. Unlike Symbian, it’s dead easy to use and doesn’t look horrible. More importantly, the familiarity of user experience that WP7 offers fits in perfectly with Nokia’s legacy of ‘knowing your way around the phone’ before you’ve opened the box.
Combine this with Nokia’s proven track record for having great cameras (8-megapixels with Carl Zeiss and a xenon flash?) and near-indestructible builds and you’ve got a recipe for greatness.
Perhaps more than Apple and Google, it’s RIM that ought to be most worried about Windows Phone 7. The ease of use combined with the business features of the platform – the ability to work on Microsoft Office docs on the phone, sync with Microsoft Exchange (as well as Gmail, Yahoo Mail and Windows Live) – threatens to take some of the executive lustre off of the BlackBerry platform.
And for physical keyboard fans, there’s phones like the HTC 7 Pro and the Dell Venue Pro. Ok so that’s just a range of two for now. And, admittedly, the Qwertys on these phones aren’t quite as nice as the one on the BlackBerry Torch.
But we don’t doubt that that we’ll see more WP7 phones emerging with slide-out keypads in the future.
OK, so there’s no WP7 equivalent of BBM yet. But for ages now, BBM has been the only trump card in the RIM’s deck – and one that looks a bit flaky now that Apple has announced iMessage.
The Windows Phone 7 app catalog is small – but growing
Of the small (but growing) number of apps out there there’s household names to choose from like Shazam, YouTube, Twitter (official app and Seesmic), Kindle, Abode Reader and the recently launched British Airways app, which allows you to effectively turn your phone into a boarding pass as well as check in from your phone and check live arrival times for incoming flights.
So while we won’t get games of the same calibre as Infinity Blade and Dead Space for a good while, there’s already a healthy selection of decent utility apps. Also remember that the Last.fm Windows Phone 7 app is free, whereas the iPhone and Android equivalents cost £3 a month.
The price is right
I can see more and more people reaching for Windows Phone 7 devices in the future because of price and availability. The iPhone will always be a premium product and will always carry a premium price tag way out of the range of some buyers. Some people just don’t want to stump up hundreds of pounds for a phone or pay £40-£50 a month over two years to get a phone for free. Phones like the HD7 and Omnia 7 can be had for considerably less than an iPhone 4.
Right now, there are WP7 phones available to buy from HTC, LG, Samsung and Dell. In the future we’ll see devices from Nokia, Acer, Fujitsu and ZTE. More manufacters will mean more competition, more choice and presumably lower prices.
Windows Phone 7 phones might not be flying off the shelves yet but it’s way too early to write it off. Considering that its less than a year old and it’s had to shake of the woeful spectre of Windows Mobile 6.5 (which was truly detestable), it’s coming along very nicely. Apple and Google may not have any sleepless nights for the time being, but in two years time there will be three major smartphone ecosystems.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Recombu.