Windows Phone 7 – An Interface Review

Here’s a nice, detailed review of the Windows Phone 7, which is currently being launched in Europe …

Microsoft’s new mobile operating system will be formally launched next month – but what’s it like to use? A short review of its main features

Microsoft is to launch its Windows Phone 7 series on 11 October, the Guardian understands. Emails inviting the press to a central London location that afternoon have just gone out – meaning that the phone series is ready to roll.

Following the release to manufacture of the phone’s software on 1 September, the company has lined up a number of handset manufacturers, including Asus, HTC, LG, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Toshiba and Dell, each working to a minimum specification where the phone must have a camera, GPS, compass, proximity sensor (to turn touch-sensing off when you’re holding it to your head), a capacitative touch screen and an accelerometer. Physical keyboards will be optional.

In the UK, it will be available through the four major networks – Vodafone, T-Mobile (which also owns Orange now), andO2 (owned by Telefonica. By my calculation that means that only 3 isn’t joining in initially.

Since pretty much everyone won’t have experienced the interface, below is my own evaluation of the experience – as demonstrated to me by one of the Windows Phone team in the UK. I didn’t actually get to lay hands on the phone, which was an LG prototype, but you can see this video from Pocketnow which shows it running side-by-side with an iPhone. The testing is done on a prototype phone – that’s not a finished product, though it is the release-to-manufacture version of Windows Phone 7 running.

Windows Phone 7: what’s it like?

If I were to use one word to describe Windows Phone 7’s interface, it would be: calm.

I saw the release-to-manufacture version of WP7 in a one-on-one demonstration at Microsoft’s offices in London: the phone used was not one of those on which WP7 will actually be sold, but had the equivalent hardware – Microsoft is setting minimum standards for processor speed and memory. And it will also insist on those three buttons – back, home, search – being in place on the front. That in itself is admirable: there’s been a terrible tendency among phone designers to add more buttons to perform software functions rather than design the software well. Though there’s another possibility – that mobile operators have told them to add the buttons so they can boost their own services. (Yes, Orange and Vodafone, I’m looking at you with your buttons which link to walled garden services but whose function can’t be reassigned or deleted.)

Microsoft will also be “taking more ownership of the end-user experience than previously”, I was told by the UK head of consumer marketing for WP7, Oded Ran. He can’t promise that there will be no carrier input into what you get: “we do see the need of the mobile operators and [handset] manufacturers to differentiate,” he said. (This is what is riling people about Android, but Microsoft may avoid the same problem.)

The first thing to note is the typeface, which doesn’t pack many words onto a screen – but doesn’t try to; instead it seems to be chosen to give a feeling of space and, that word again, calm.

In WP7, the emphasis is almost entirely on the home screen, which has a set of tiles showing information from applications such as mail, calendar, or music: you have this many unread Google Mail emails, this appointment today, here’s a link to an album or podcast you like. You can add tiles pretty much endlessly; where with the iPhone (for example) you can add apps to create screen after screen, with WP7 you can add links to elements of apps which will create a long, long scroll of tiles.

You can also get to the (long) list of applications with a single swipe to the right, but the idea is that your home screen will be populated with various people and auto-updating information about them: here’s your partner, here’s their picture, here’s their latest Facebook status. (Twitter support? Probably – Seesmic is developing one.) Ran suggests that this gives you a more direct way to interact with a particular person (click their picture and choose how you’re going to contact them – phone? text? Facebook?) then deciding to contact someone, and then choosing which app you’re going to use to do it with.

An interesting element of WP7 is how it indicates that there’s more to learn about an element: by using text which is cut off by the edge of the screen. So you might see a legend saying Music Vide: the missing “o” indicates that by swiping right you’ll see information about your videos.

Seen statically, in a screenshot, this looks disastrous; but in action it quickly becomes completely sensible. (For vertical scrolling, WP7 does have a scroll bar – though it’s barely visible. Possibly the designers felt this would detract from the uncluttered look. They might have a point, but scroll bars are very useful – arguably, indispensable – UI elements.)

At launch, it will have some notable deficits:

•no Flash, initially;
• no cut and paste, initially;
• no HTML5, initially (and possibly not for longer than either of others: “you can assume that in the future versions we will look at what we can do with the team there as well,” said Ran, which I take to mean “not for quite some time”).
• No multitasking, except between the Microsoft apps themselves.
• No Mac support at launch.
• No support (at present) for Flickr or Google Picasa as a source of pictures; only Facebook and Windows Live.
• No timetable for the addition of Flash, which might make these a tough sell to the more knowledgeable buyer.
• Games you buy on Xbox Marketplace on WP7 will show up in the Games hub, but not in the app list. (There’s no way to control this manually either.)

I was assured that every WP7 phone bought without Flash and cut & paste will be upgradeable over the air (which will be done by Microsoft) at a future date if|when Flash|cut&paste support is added. “We had to make hard choices about what’s in the product and what’s not [in the RTM version]” Ran said. Even so it’s surprising that Microsoft, which built the browser for WP7 from the Internet Explorer 7 branch, couldn’t get a Flash plugin incorporated in time.

And cut and paste? Microsoft argues that the interface dynamic of WP7 should obviate most uses of cut and paste: the system is “aware” of what a phone number is, what an address is, what a URL is, and so on – so that pressing it will bring up an interface which will let you add a contact to your phone book, or call their number, or open the URL.

Overall? Windows Phone is a very interesting interface, and streets ahead of Nokia’s S^3 (see my review). © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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