7 Ways Windows Phone 7 Is Cooler Than The iPhone

Windows 7

Photo: Robert Scoble via Flickr

Last week at Microsoft, I had my first hands-on demo of real phones running Windows Phone 7.I spent the most time playing with the Samsung Focus, which is a pretty standard-feeling glass-encased phone like the iPhone, but also the HTC Surround, which is geared for multimedia fans with a pull-out speaker and kickstand so you can stand it up like a picture frame. (See the picture at right.)

The phones are fine, but they’re not going to sell anybody on the new platform. What’s going to get people talking–and, Microsoft hopes, buying–is the experience of using one. Until I actually had the chance to use one for a few minutes, I didn’t understand how carefully the platform’s designers have thought about every little detail. It’s almost like they tried to channel Apple boss Steve Jobs, or at least ape some of his infamous perfectionism and focus on the end user.

This isn’t a full review, but here are seven little things I noticed that could help convert the sceptics.

People Come First

Some commenters have been confused by Microsoft's first batch of Windows Phone 7 ads, which make the pitch that you should be spending less time with your phone. Isn't loving your phone a good thing?

Yes, but Microsoft's making a point about Phone 7's design, which lets you do more stuff without constantly navigating between apps. The best example is the People hub, shown here. This looks like a normal contact list, like the iPhone and every other smartphone has. But each contact's image is automatically updated from their most recent Facebook image. Click on each one, and you get a wealth of options: you can make a call, send an e-mail or text, post on their wall, view pictures they've recently posted, and so on. Everything you want to do is based around that person, not locked up in different apps.

Facebook is Built In

Microsoft's partnership with Facebook pays off in a huge way with Windows Phone 7. There's no Facebook app to download--it's built into the phone already. All you have to do is log on with your Facebook account information, and all your Facebook contacts and pictures will be imported into your phone. This is an example of what my Start screen would look like, with my pictures and my family showing up the instant I activate the phone. This demo page gives you an idea what yours might look like.

The Camera Makes More Sense

Every Phone 7 will have a 5 megapixel camera or better, but once again, the hardware isn't the interesting part. When designing the camera UI, Microsoft specifically targeted one of the most annoying things about the iPhone: when you take a photo, you have to switch over to the photo roll view to see if the shot was any good, then switch back to the live camera to take another picture. With Phone 7, the live viewfinder is integrated right next to all your old shots. So here, that image on the left is an old photo. The image on the right is the live shot I'm taking right now, of a coffee cup on the conference room table.

Documents, Spreadsheets, and Slides, Oh My!

It isn't sexy, but sometimes it would be convenient to be able to get at Word documents, PowerPoint slide shows, and Excel spreadsheets on your phone. (This is a particularly fancy spreadsheet with a chart embedded.) Phone 7 lets you view and edit Office files both on the phone and stored on a corporate SharePoint server, and there are some useful tricks like an Outline mode that lets you quickly jump to headers in a long document.

Xbox Live

Xbox Live is like a social network for hardcore gamers. While the rest of us might not care, a lot of its approximately 20 million users are devoted to the service. Windows Phone 7 is the only phone that will let Xbox Live gamers use their identities and play turn-based games against their friends.

Unlimited Music

For big music fans, the Zune Pass is the best subscription deal around: $15 per month gets you an unlimited number of streams or temporary downloads (that is, downloads that stop working when you stop paying your subscription), plus 10 MP3 downloads you can keep forever and transfer to an unlimited number of devices. It basically turns the millions of songs Microsoft has licensed for the Zune Marketplace into your personal library.

The only problem was that the Zune Pass was available only on the Zune music players, which nobody bought, and which had only a Wi-Fi connection. Now it's going to be available with Windows Phone 7 in the U.S. and most European countries. And unlimited music over a 3G connection is a lot more appealing than having to find a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Falling Through the Clouds

The maps experience on Phone 7 is nothing short of amazing. When you first pick a location, it shows it on a normal grid-like map. As you zoom in, the grid gradually changes to a satellite view. Portions of the image that aren't filled in yet appear grey, as if you're descending through clouds. It's one of those things that sounds trivial, but feels and looks right when you try it in person.

And that's the biggest challenge Microsoft faces with Phone 7: you have to use it to be impressed by it. Demos and photos don't do it justice. Apple had hundreds of Apple stores when it launched the iPhone. Microsoft has four Microsoft Stores. It's relying heavily on AT&T and T-Mobile to provide demonstrations, and even training salespeople in how the phones work. But consumers go to the Apple Store just to browse, and eventually maybe end up buying something they've fallen in love with. Nobody visits the AT&T store for fun.

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