When Microsoft debuted its Zune HD last fall, I heaped cautionary praise on the new touch-screen MP3 player, which had even more power and functionality than an iPhone. Only, you know, without the phone part. Microsoft had been getting their butts kicked in the mobile phone space for years, as their Windows Mobile platform had fallen behind the iPhone and Google Android lines; nobody could figure out why this slick Zune HD didn't debut as a phone.
Within weeks, I had friends blowing their non-disclosure agreements to tell me that my wish would soon come true: The "Zune Phone" was a-comin'. Today at a mobile phone expo in Germany, Microsoft finally revealed the Windows Phone 7 Series.
No surprise, then, unless you count the seemingly universal acclaim for the phone so far.
A few tech blogs have rounded up its feature set. Gizmodo's take is easily the most exhaustive, unless you count Microsoft's official, 22-minute reveal video.
Boiled down, the Zune HD's unique interface, including big text and "panoramic" touchscreen sweeps (see the image above), now manages every bit of web browsing, text messaging, map searching, and other goodies you'd expect in a smartphone. The best features—Bing "local" search integration, Xbox Live features, contact lists that update with social networking statuses—aren't truly new ideas. iPhone apps have done that kind of stuff before. What's cool here is that Windows Phones unify all of the useful ideas right out of the box. That's good both for the default user and for any eventual apps that piggyback off the improved design.
Used to be, Windows Mobile phones were too stuck on the Microsoft Office world. Everything had to integrate with MS Word and MS Excel, and everything had to look like your home Windows PC. Dumb! Tiny phone screens and mobile phone chips were never meant for that treatment, and "business" users were hooked on the simpler interface of Blackberries, anyway.
The people who have complained about Windows Mobile finally appear to be in charge. Not that MS Office doesn't integrate—that app suite gets its own Windows Phone tab by default—but this is a lifestyle device first and foremost, and it's slick, simple, and useful in the important ways that Xbox Live and Windows 7 have also proven to be.
All that's left is to navigate the annoying world of cell phone companies by the time the phones launch at 2010's end. AT&T has been announced as the "premiere partner" in the United States, but that's not to say AT&T will have exclusive dibs. T-Mobile, without an iconic phone of its own (unlike Sprint's Pre, AT&T's iPhone and Verizon's Droid), might be in the best position to attach itself to Windows Phone. Plus, T-Mobile has a huge Seattle-area staff. Keep your eyes on how that battle plays out, along with pricing info—nobody knows how much these'll cost yet.
In spite of good hype, it doesn't matter how fast or nice the phones are if they're saddled with bad mobile providers, bad monthly contracts, or bad up-front costs. Microsoft better hope the negotiating team at Windows Phone is as smart as the design team.
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