Good writers borrow, great writers steal, or so the saying goes. Microsoft's new Windows Phone 7 (WP7) operating system borrows heavily from Apple's iOS and Google's Android but then takes the interface and navigation in an intriguing new direction, offering a user experience that at least equals and in some ways surpasses them.
Yet WP7 is very much a work in progress; adopting it out of the gate requires something of the same leap of faith that the first iPhone or Android buyers took. Certainly, there's no expectation at launch that the application marketplace for Windows Phone will be anything like robust, and -- beautiful as it is -- the software doesn't always provide a smooth experience.
WP7-equipped phones are on sale now in Europe. On Nov. 8, three WP7 phones from AT&T -- the Samsung Focus, the LG Quantum and the HTC Surround -- will be available in the U.S., followed shortly by the HTC HD7 and the Dell Venue Pro from T-Mobile.
I was able to take a long look at Microsoft's new operating system on two of the upcoming phones: the Focus and the Surround.
Forget what you know
The first thing you'll see when you fire up a WP7 phone is an interface that will knock your socks off. It's immediately apparent that Microsoft achieved at least three design goals:
1. Forget that Windows Mobile ever existed. Start with a clean sheet of paper.
2. Make a phone that is at least as tied to the cloud with Microsoft tools as anything Google could ever do.
3. Build an interface that's impossible to look at without getting information.
It's that third point that makes WP7 truly different from other phones. Where other smartphones use small icons that, aside from status badges, are pretty much static, Microsoft's large icons, which it calls tiles, are either in motion or tell you something substantive.
An iPhone screen displays a 4-by-5 grid of 57-by-57-pixel icons, some with badges, all with captions. In contrast, WP7 tiles come in two sizes. The smaller is a roughly 3/4-in. square -- only two will fit across a phone's screen. The larger icon is the same height and roughly twice as wide, nearly filling the width of the screen.
Those tiles are more than large enough to describe the information they lead to, are impossible to mis-tap and are easy for grown-ups to see, even with their glasses off. For example, tiles for e-mail accounts show the name of the account and the number of unread messages. The double-wide Calendar tile shows your next appointment.
Tiles don't have to be for applications, either; tiles for people or your Facebook feed are in constant motion, showing a photo on a contact tile or a mosaic of Facebook profile pictures. Tap a person tile, and you'll see a not just a list of phone numbers and e-mail addresses, but actual verbs: "call mobile," "text mobile," "map home address," "send e-mail."
The tiles can be slid around the screen, with the shimmy and tap familiar to iPhone users. Applications not on the Start page can be found by flicking the display to the left, revealing a long list of apps on significantly smaller icons. Any of them can be pinned to the Start page, where the icons become tiles.
When you wake a WP7 phone from sleep, the splash screen shows the time, the day and date, your next appointment, and the number of unread e-mails. Slide upwards to get to the Start page.
Beyond the Start screen
Tap a tile, and the visual show continues -- the screen swings toward you and to the left, as though you were opening a book. It's quite neat. (A nice touch is that the icon you've activated hangs around for a moment before swinging, as if to remind you of what you've asked the phone to do.)
The text in all the apps is an elegant sans serif typeface. At the top of the app's screen, in larger type, is an explanation of what happens when you flick the touch screen left or right. For your calendar, that action lets you switch between agenda and day views; for e-mail, the choices are All, Unread, Urgent, Flagged and so forth.
If there's too much text to fit, the words will hang off the edge of the screen to show that there's some interesting information over to the left or right. It's an awfully smart use of space. Also, whenever you're waiting for a network, a set of five blue dots sneaks from one side of the screen to the other, just to let you know that you haven't been abandoned.
Every WP7 phone has three hardware buttons across the bottom: Back, Windows and Search. The Windows button takes you to the Start page. Searches are performed in the context of the phone's current state; if you're in the address book, the first touch of Search will search there, and the second will search in Bing.
Most app screens have as many as four soft icons (icons that change depending on context) across the bottom, with ellipses that reveal captions as well as additional functions. When you rotate the phone counterclockwise and the screen rotates, the soft icons don't move to the bottom of the screen; they just turn on their axis and stay along the right margin.
Microsoft has obviously looked at what Google and Apple have to offer in the cloud and is willing to tackle them head-on. Microsoft's got Web-based e-mail and calendaring in Hotmail, thank you very much, and places to store your photos as part of Windows Live. It's also got its Zune music software and store. You can locate and remotely wipe your WP7 phone without paying extra the way you do with iPhones. WP7 syncs e-mail, calendar and photos over the air, but music and video require a USB cable.
Set up for most of those applications is quite simple and well integrated. There's some trouble, however, syncing Google Calendars. It seems that WP7 will recognize only one calendar on a Google account -- multiple calendars is a key feature for Google -- and it's not clear which calendar that is. I found the calendar sync with Google to be untrustworthy, though the sync worked perfectly and quickly with my Hotmail calendar.
A big selling point for businesses is WP7's inclusion of Office Mobile, which provides mobile versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and SharePoint. The Office apps look plain but familiar. You won't want to build a big Excel spreadsheet on your phone, but there doesn't seem to be much reason you couldn't.
A major glitch: There is no copy and paste function in the OS, which makes it pretty difficult to create and edit Office documents (not to mention e-mail). Microsoft reports that copy-and-paste is coming next year.
A few more impressions:
* Internet Explorer is unexciting, though it does do tabs and you can turn a bookmark into a tile on the Start page.
* Load up a lot of applications, and the Start screen will quickly become several pages long -- which means it will take longer to find what you're looking for.
* Microsoft made a conscious choice to not provide a universal in-box, opting instead for separate tiles for each e-mail account.
* The soft keyboard is just OK. There's no haptic response, as Android phones have, and there are currently no software hooks for advances such as Swype. Predictive text worked well and in fact offers more options than you get on an iPhone.
The Focus is built on Samsung's Galaxy S platform. Like all Galaxy S phones' screens, the Focus' is brilliant, and the phone is so light that it feels almost like a mock-up of itself instead of the real thing. It's got a 4-in. Super AMOLED screen with a resolution of 480 x 800 pixels, and it weighs less than 4 oz.
The Surround is significantly heftier -- nearly 6 oz. -- due to its slide-out stereo speakers and kickstand for propping it upright. The screen is about a quarter-inch smaller than the Focus' but has the same 480 x 800 resolution. The big features here are audio and video; the speakers have SRS and Dolby certification. Both the Focus and the Surround can capture 720p HDTV, but neither has an HDMI port.
The market segmentation is obvious: Despite the eye candy of the Focus' screen, it's the more business-oriented phone, and the Surround is for play. Each costs $199.99 with a two-year contract.
Both of these phones are really quite good. The Surround is a big hunk of technology, heavier even than the Droid X. But you get a phone that's built for conference calling -- even videoconferencing -- and movie display; that kickstand could come in handy if you use your phone at your desk.
The Focus is the more conventional phone, except it's lighter than most and slimmer than some. Of the two, it would be my choice, but you ought to lay your hands on both of them and make your own choice.
For both phones, the real news is the operating system, and both do perfectly well by WP7.
And WP7 itself? In choosing between the simplicity and elegance of the iPhone and the power and deep configurability of Android, Microsoft has plainly (and perhaps surprisingly) opted for the former. I think that's the right choice, though it'll be rich fodder for debate.
WP7 is a beautiful interface on top of a lot of cloud-based power. It's genuinely innovative, but whether you should buy it on Day One depends largely on your appetite for new things.
Dan Rosenbaum, by day a search strategist and content maven, has been reviewing mobile technology since the 1990s. His MicroTAC and StarTAC phones are still in a box somewhere.