Mobile deathmatch: Windows Phone 7 vs. Apple iPhone 4

Microsoft has a very slick device, but it can't do nearly as much as the iPhone - especially in business

Deathmatch: User interfaceEven in its early preview versions, it was clear that Windows Phone 7 had an elegant, simple, and usefully different interface. In many ways, it's even simpler than Apple's iOS. It also borrows many UI techniques from the iPhone -- its gestures, its home screen management, and its email management -- and some UI techniques from Android, such as its menu buttons.

I found it easy to use Windows Phone 7 -- about as easy as iOS, in fact, despite differences in their approach. Windows Phone 7, for example, makes you scroll vertically, whereas the iPhone scrolls horizontally. Windows Phone 7 uses "more" (the ... icon) pages for less accessed tasks, whereas the iPhone finds a way to include them or doesn't bother with them at all.

Sometimes, though, the Windows Phone 7 interface is too spare, as if designed by a Steve Jobs wanna-be. The result in some panes, such as the browser's Favorites list and the calendar's list view, with large readable text on long lists that are hard to navigate or parse. Other UI elements cry out for more differentiation. The panels on the home screen, for example, are so similar it's hard to find what you want. They're also bigger than need be, forcing more scrolling than necessary (yes, you can and should rearrange them).

However, the iPhone does more than Windows Phone 7, and Apple's designers have excelled at building interface controls that are invisible until required or until called by a gesture. I haven't yet encountered similar UI approaches in Windows Phone 7, which will need such nuance if it adds more capabilities over time.

Operational UI. Windows Phone 7 is good about not getting in your way as you use the device. As with the iPhone, Windows Phone 7's onscreen keyboard disappears automatically when you click outside of a text field.

The iPhone does a slightly better job of providing visual feedback, though Windows Phone 7 does a good job here too. For example, when you tap and hold to insert the text cursor, the iPhone shows you a zoomed view of your selection area, whereas Windows Phone 7 merely places an icon above your selection point.

Both the iPhone and Windows Phone 7 let you double-tap the Shift key to get a caps lock. Both display accented characters and symbols in a pop-out menu when you tap and hold some keys. Windows Phone 7's symbols keyboard includes a bullet character -- a nice addition -- but in doing so buries the asterisk (*) key. Once you find it, you're OK, but it would've been better if Microsoft had stuck with the standard QWERTY symbol layouts and added the bullet to an unused location instead. Windows Phone 7 also has a whole keyboard of emoticons, a nod to social networking users.

Pinching, zooming, and scrolling, as well as autorotation as you turn the device, work equivalently on the two mobile OSes.

Windows Phone 7's use of the hardware Back button to navigate within apps, though simple to grasp, causes usability issues. If you happen to press the Back button once too often -- to return to a previous state after opening, say, a formatting pane -- you leave the app completely and back up into a previously opened app or to the home screen. You can return to the app and pick up where you left off, but I found myself constantly backing up too far.

Both the iPhone and Windows Phone 7 let you use voice commands to place calls, but Windows Phone 7 also lets you manage your music player via voice. 

Text selection and copying. Windows Phone 7's dearth of capabilities becomes very evident in its handling of text. First, you can't select text ranges. The most you can do is tap and hold a word to select it, then replace it with a suggested alternative word or apply formatting to it in the Office app that comes with Windows Phone 7.

Second, you can't copy text or graphics within or across applications, so you can't copy and paste text into the Search box, or copy information from an email and paste it into your contacts. The basic sharing of information a user today would expect is simply not supported. In effect, Windows Phone 7 is useless for working with text beyond very simple activities such as jotting a note or composing a brief email.

By contrast, the iPhone makes it simple to select, copy, and paste text within and across applications. Tap and hold to move the text cursor anywhere -- fields, Web pages, messages, you name it. You even get a zoom view of the text that you can scroll through, so you never lose track of your cursor. To select text, tap it; selection bars appear, which you drag for your selection. Tap elsewhere in the text, and Copy and Paste buttons appear automatically. It's that easy. The iPhone acts like a computer when it comes to text, which makes it incredibly versatile.

However, I do prefer Windows Phone 7's approach to autocorrection. The iPhone automatically corrects anything it thinks is a typo, unless you explicitly block a suggestion. If you're typing fast and not watching its suggestions, you can end up with some very strange text indeed. (And it always miscorrect the plural of "it" to be "it's" rather than the correct "its.") Windows Phone 7 takes the opposite approach: It shows suggestions for what you're typing as you type it, so you can select one if you want. Otherwise, you get what you type. Windows Phone 7 also lets you wipe out the learned corrections it stores over time; the iPhone does not.

The winner: The iPhone, by a mile. Although Windows Phone 7's usability is strong for the overall UI, it falls down completely in basic text operations, severely restricting what users can do across the device's built-in functions and any apps they may choose to install.

Deathmatch: Security and managementThe painful irony of Windows Phone 7 is how poorly it provides security. It is not usable in most business environments because of fundamental omissions such as lack of on-device encryption. Additionally, Windows Phone 7 doesn't support static IP addresses or VPNs -- two common access control techniques.

Windows Phone 7 does support some management and security policies through the Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) protocol; if your company doesn't require on-device encryption, it can do remote wiping and require passwords to be enabled, for example. And it supports SSL encryption of email traffic over the air.

Still, Windows Phone 7 is less securable and manageable than its Windows Mobile predecessor -- a stunningly bad decision on Microsoft's part. It's also less securable than the iPhone, whose iOS (with version 4) has become the second most securable mobile OS after BlackBerry.

iOS 4 covers much of what most businesses need for security and management. It has remote wipe, certificate-based authentication, and an assortment of password controls (such as requiring a strong password or disabling access after so many failed attempts to log in) that are manageable through Microsoft Exchange, as well as through iOS 4-enabled management tools from companies such as Good Technology and MobileIron. Apple has its own utility to deploy these security profiles, but it doesn't scale well beyond a few dozen users; large businesses will want to look at third-party mobile management tools as they become available. iOS 4 also supports several types of VPNs and SSL over-the-air email encryption.

The winner: The iPhone, by a mile. Windows Phone 7's security capabilities are simply not business-class.

The overall winner is ...No question that the iPhone is far superior to Windows Phone 7, Microsoft's surprisingly well-executed UI notwithstanding. Although Windows Phone 7 offers competitive email, contacts, and calendar capabilities, it falls short in every other category. And that's not counting the extra depth and sophistication of the iOS in niche areas, such as its multilingual support, parental controls (a surprising omission for an ostensibly consumer-friendly device), and ability to search nearly every corner of the device from one location.

If you're looking for a phone for entirely personal use, Windows Phone 7 would be a good choice. But no business beyond a mom-and-pop shop could responsibly allow Windows Phone 7 into its network or rely on it for productivity beyond email and appointments.

Had Windows Phone 7 shipped four years ago, there might not be an iPhone today, as Windows Phone 7 is very similar in strengths and weaknesses to the original iPhone. Had both existed four years ago, Microsoft's market strength would easily have sent Apple's mobile platform into obscurity.

But in those four years, iOS has matured into a powerhouse, and other competitors have strengthened as well. Windows Phone 7 is behind the iPhone, BlackBerry, and even the security-challenged Android. It's ahead of just webOS and perhaps Symbian. Although Microsoft has promised to fix most of Windows Phone 7's major omissions sometime in 2011, that's likely too late for users.

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