Windows Phone 7 could rival Apple's iOS 4

With all the features of Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 now out in the open -- along with details about the handsets available on AT&T and T-Mobile here in the U.S. -- comparing the new mobile platform to Apple's iOS 4 is a natural. The long-running debate about Windows vs. Mac can now move into the world of mobile operating systems.

Certain things about WP7 were already known well in advance: Its multitouch functions don't require a stylus, only certain models of WP7 phones have virtual keyboards instead of physical ones, there's no copy-and-paste feature in the initial release, and it doesn't support Flash or multitasking for third-party apps.

What's more, it employs a new framework for creating apps that means existing Windows Mobile apps have to be rewritten for the new operating system. This is a real break from Windows Mobile, one that Microsoft needed to make if it hopes to succeed in the fast-growing world of mobile.

These WP7 birth pains have a familiar ring: At one point or another, they were all true of the iPhone. (Some of them still are.) Just as Apple has evolved its mobile operating system over the past three-plus years, Microsoft will evolve WP7 over time. (Copy/paste is already slated to arrive next year.)

The important thing to remember is that Microsoft had to start somewhere while creating a completely new mobile platform from scratch.

Having owned an iPhone since Apple introduced the devices in 2007, I'm eager to see how Microsoft's new platform stacks up based on what I've read about it so far. Some of the features in WP7, which was officially unveiled in New York on Monday, compete directly with features on Apple's iOS platform; others are unique to WP7. Here's a look at where the rival mobile operating systems butt heads and where they take divergent paths.

Home screen vs. Start

All smartphones have a home screen of some sort that serves as a place to launch apps and/or view information such as time, appointments and alerts. The iOS home screen serves a single purpose: viewing installed apps and launching them. Apps can show notifications in the form of badges indicating the number of notifications (unread e-mails or texts, for example), but that's about it. Viewing any additional information about the app requires launching it, something iOS critics often cite as a disadvantage because of the extra steps needed.

WP7 refers to its home screen as Start -- a moniker, no doubt, carried over from the PC version of Windows. Start is filled with a series of tiles that indicate specific apps, "Hubs" of information, photos, contacts, songs or other media files, and just about anything else. These tiles are more dynamic than iOS icons, and they can display information about whatever they reference, such as the number of e-mails or text messages waiting to be viewed, actual photos, or even recently updated details for contacts from Windows Live or Facebook.

A lot of users will appreciate the ready access to specific information on the Start home screen, while those who like Apple's minimalist approach might find the extra options and information a bit overwhelming. However, since you can make Start as feature-rich or as Spartan as you want, I give Microsoft the advantage here because WP7 lets the user decide.

Navigation: Menus vs. sliding

One unique feature about WP7 is the panoramic scrolling view used in Hubs, apps and Start. On an iPhone, as well as on Android phones and BlackBerries, hierarchies of menus that mimic the look and feel of folders in a desktop operating system tend to be the primary means of navigation. WP7's ability to slide left and right or up and down to see additional options and features is an interesting choice for interface design on a phone. The approach is reminiscent of using VNC or a similar remote desktop system to connect to a computer with a higher screen resolution than the one you're working on.

Whether this is the better option is debatable and will probably be a matter of personal preference. It will require a handset's graphics hardware to be able to render the display as quickly as a user scrolls around, and it will depend on how the interface is implemented by developers. On the Start screen in WP7, I find it refreshing. The same is true for some of the Hubs -- Office in particular. But this is more of a personal preference than an outright win for either platform. It's hard at this point to claim one OS does it better than the other.

For now, we'll call it a tie.

Unlock to access vs. access while locked

A common complaint about the iPhone is that you can't see any information -- other than the date and time -- when the device is locked, unless it's been jailbroken. WP7 offers more info at a glance, such as upcoming appointments, new e-mails and messages and status updates from contacts. This is a definite advantage over iOS, since it allows you to get useful information without unlocking the phone. Of course, it also means that prying eyes can see potentially sensitive information, raising security and privacy concerns.

Microsoft also allows certain tasks to be performed while the phone is locked, like answering calls or listening to music. But one unique -- and incredibly useful -- feature is the ability to launch the camera and take a photo without having to unlock the phone. In iOS 4, you need to unlock the phone, type in a password (if you use one), find the camera app and then launch it -- by which time your golden photo opportunity may have passed.

Advantage: WP7.

Apps vs. Hubs and OS integration

Hubs are an interesting concept. In some cases, a Hub is essentially a single application. Two examples of this are the Phone Hub, which corresponds to the iPhone's Phone app and is used to make calls and check voice mail, and Office, which is essentially a mobile version of Microsoft's Office suite.

In other instances, Hubs aggregate content from a variety of sources. The People Hub, for example, pulls together contacts synced to the phone; Facebook friends, their status updates, links and comments; and information from other Windows Live users. On iOS devices, these functions are handled separately by discrete apps from Apple and third parties. The Contacts app contains only contact information synced to an iPhone, while the Facebook app handles Facebook tasks like viewing status updates or posting comments. Though Hubs are versatile, the lack of consistency about exactly what they are or do could lead to user confusion.

It's hard to say whether this form of OS-level integration with social networking services and cloud services -- to enable things like automatic Facebook updates or automatic sharing of photos as soon as they're taken -- is good or bad. It certainly simplifies the workflow for certain tasks, particularly when it comes to seeing status updates. But it could also hinder access to new social media or cloud features because Microsoft will need to issue a WP7 update to enable any new features -- something it might delay doing until a full-fledged WP7 update is ready. A simple update to a third-party app by the developer would be a faster way to roll out minor feature updates. The deep integration also tends to blur the line between types of information (Facebook or contacts) and uses for the device (personal or work).

I'm inclined to see the fuzzy nature of both Hubs and of the OS integration of online services as something of a negative -- particularly in business environments and for non-power users. There's a lot of room for confusion, though I can see that Microsoft was arguably going for flexibility.

App selection and development

Apple wins. No contest. Despite the number of developers who have downloaded software development kits from Microsoft, iOS has a two-year head start on Windows Phone 7 when it comes to app development, and there's a wealth of games and virtually every other kind of app imaginable already available in Apple's App Store. The app development process for iOS is also well documented, and there are tons of resources for iOS developers, including Apple's documentation, books, Web resources, training classes and thriving developer communities.

Microsoft will probably get to a similar ecosystem eventually, but being late to the app party could hurt WP7 in the short term. Fandango found the WP7 development process easy to work within, ranking it similar to Apple's Xcode. And Microsoft has decades of experience creating developer tools and communicating their use. But for now, Apple has a clear advantage here.

Music and media: iTunes vs. Zune

Another area where Apple has an advantage involves music and other media. The iTunes Store is still the biggest online music retailer, and Apple has made iTunes and iOS integration very strong, building on the success of the iPod. Microsoft didn't have nearly that level of success with the Zune as a media player or as an online music/media store. That said, Microsoft does offer support for a decent range of formats from both the Zune store and other online retailers, including Amazon.

Microsoft does have an advantage in terms of the monthly subscription feature known as the Zune Pass. Apple has argued that people want to own their music, not rent it, and that's true for a lot of people. But if a catalog is big enough, and you primarily listen to music on a mobile device or PC, then a subscription service can be an attractive option.

It's a close call, but Apple's iTunes integration in iOS gives it a leg up -- for now.

Game Center vs. Xbox Live

Apple only recently stepped into the multiplayer online gaming arena with the rollout of Game Center in iOS 4.1. Game Center is available to both the iPhone and the iPad, which offers a larger format, and therefore a richer, gaming experience than the iPhone. While Game Center already has a fan base of users, it's relatively new, not all iOS games support it and it's limited to mobile gaming.

Microsoft's Xbox Live is mature, has an installed user base of more than 20 million, offers more features and lets you connect from Xboxes as well as mobile phones. This means that if you're serious about gaming (at home or on the go) and own an Xbox, WP7 is likely to appeal to you as a mobile gaming solution more than the iPhone or iPad.

The real question of who has the mobile gaming advantage will come down to who has the games people really want to play. With limited knowledge of what's coming to WP7, it's impossible to answer that question right now. But it's clear that Microsoft has a significant stake in multiplayer online gaming and has been working with game developers like Electronic Arts (EA) to ensure that WP7 will have serious gaming choices available.

Office, SharePoint and Exchange

Microsoft wins hands-down when it comes to Office apps and integration with SharePoint and Exchange. Yes, iOS has Exchange support built in, but there have always been issues with integration that depend on the Exchange infrastructure in place. By virtue of being developed alongside Exchange, any Windows device -- PC or phone -- is going to have the advantage over anything else, including iPhones and iPads, Android devices and BlackBerries. And access to SharePoint is almost certainly going to surpass any third-party offerings that are out there for iOS.

I also expect a mobile version of Office to generally have better feature compatibility with Office documents than a third-party app. Whether mobile Office is better as a suite than apps like QuickOffice or Documents to Go is less certain.

Advantage: WP7.

Software updates

This is pretty much a wash between Apple and Microsoft. Microsoft is taking Apple's approach of delivering updates directly to customers using its desktop sync solution -- the Zune software, in this case. That matches iOS, which uses iTunes for updates. Both differ from the approach used for Android, which relies on over-the air-updates vetted by manufacturers and carriers.

One manufacturer vs. many

Apple's one model/one manufacturer approach ensures that all iPhones look, feel and work the same. This offers simplicity and consistency, but it limits choice.

Microsoft seems to be taking a middle road between Apple's go-it-alone approach and the general free-for-all of Android. It's offering different handset designs from different manufacturers -- some with physical keyboards, some optimized for entertainment, etc. -- but keeping a tight leash on them when it comes to ensuring consistent performance and general design. It's hard to say yet which approach is better; we'll know better after several WP7 devices have been out for awhile.

Cool factor and business interest

One thing that the iPhone has is the cool factor. Owning an iPhone or iPod can be something of a hipster badge of honor. Granted, that's due to Apple's marketing as much as to product design, but it does influence sales for consumers. It also has a tendency to make the iPhone seem more like a toy than a serious business device (though Apple's phone is very capable in many business environments).

Despite a splashy introduction, it remains to be seen whether WP7 will garner points for coolness. (Certainly, the Zune never did.) Even if it doesn't, it may still be able to gain traction as a more serious business device because it's from Microsoft, integrates well with Exchange and SharePoint, can presumably be managed natively from Exchange, and includes Office out of the box.

Again, it's a bit too early to judge. Suffice it to say that Microsoft certainly has an opening here to succeed, even if Apple retains the cool crown.

Carrier choice

No article comparing anything to the iPhone here in the U.S. would be complete without a look at the iPhone's exclusivity to AT&T, which seems likely to end in the next year or so. Being able to choose carriers is an advantage to WP7 for both consumers, who can pick the best network for their needs, and businesses, which may already have a relationship with a particular carrier.

Initially, however, WP7 devices are limited to AT&T and T-Mobile service. AT&T has had its growing pains with the iPhone, and if WP7 phones do sell well, the carrier may face the same network issues it faced with the iPhone. T-Mobile hasn't had that problem, but it is the smallest national carrier, which could limit how quickly WP7 devices gain ground on that network. Since there are no WP7 phones that work on CDMA networks (the kind of network used by Verizon and Sprint), WP7's ability to gain market share quickly could be hindered. And if Apple does produce a CDMA iPhone for Verizon or some other carrier, all bets are off.

Final thoughts

Overall, I have to say that I'm pretty impressed by WP7 -- more than I expected to be. It has a lot of potential, and adding up the various features listed above shows the two mobile operating systems to be well matched. It's impossible to say definitely that one is better than the other or has more potential than the other; many of the differences between WP7 and iOS make a direct comparison difficult.

Having said that, I do think that WP7 could become the iPhone's most serious challenger yet -- if it manages to get enough market traction and can evolve as quickly as iOS and the iTunes ecosystem have. At the very least, Microsoft is off to a credible start.

Microsoft on Monday showed off the first handsets to run Windows Phone 7, its new operating system for cell phones.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to Peachpit.com. Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress 2009). You can find out more about him at www.ryanfaas.com and follow him on Twitter (@ryanfaas).

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