As the first U.S. Windows Phone 7 handsets go on sale Monday, Nov. 8, Microsoft shrewdly has created an application environment that will make the phones instantly useable for many of the e-mail, social networking, photo, video and work tasks people do every day.
Assuming early adopters like what they experience, their enthusiasm could achieve what seemed impossible to many just a few months ago: user excitement about Microsoft's smartphone platform.
Microsoft has been modest about the number of apps available on Day One, promising "over one thousand." That seems ludicrous compared to the vast number of apps on Apple's iTunes App Store and Google's Android Market, which recently surpassed the 100,000 mark.
But a review of the apps on Microsoft Windows Phone 7 Marketplace, part of its Zune media service, shows the company's approach: focus on a mix of high-profile, highly popular marquis brands, such as Facebook, Flickr, Netflix and Twitter; highlight the platform's power and graphics with a ton of sophisticated games; and exploit its integrated Microsoft Office capabilities and Exchange Server support to appeal to enterprise users. Finally, there's the vastly improved mobile version of Internet Explorer, coupled with the multi-gesture support in Windows Phone 7, which finally makes the Internet readily accessible for mobile Windows users.
Windows Phone 7 apps rolling out
First, although consumers won't be able to choose from hundreds of thousands of Windows Phone 7 smartphone applications, they will be able to choose from some essential ones that target popular social networking, entertainment, travel, finance, and other Web sites and services. Familiar names already on the Marketplace include: eBay, Facebook, a third-party Flickr UI, Foursquare, Loopt, Netflix, Shazam, Travelocity, Twitter and Yelp.
For many of these applications, early reviews on the Marketplace site are favorable, with the style and fluidity of the Windows Phone 7 UI being a key part of those high ratings. Microsoft is finessing the initial absence of Adobe Flash and HTML5 video support with an app that brings up the greatly improved Internet Explorer browser and redirects it to YouTube's mobile site.
A related tactic is Microsoft's heavy promotion of Windows Phone 7 as a mobile gaming platform: there will be scores of games, ranging from the simplistic to the mesmerizing. The phone's Games Hub is tied tightly with Microsoft's popular online Xbox Live social network. Enterprise users may not be a key gaming audience but the ability of the phones to run complex, graphics-rich applications well is a powerful demonstration of the platform's capabilities.
Developers embracing Windows Phone 7
Second, after months of patient work, Microsoft seems to be winning a growing number of Windows developers to the radically redesigned touch OS. Even more importantly, their enthusiasm seems to be growing. These developers can use the same Microsoft tools they're familiar with, all with add-ons to support Windows Phone 7: Silverlight, XNA Studio for games, Visual Basic, the .Net framework and the Expression Blend visual design tool.
Some number of Windows Mobile developers and independent software vendors (ISV) are disappointed or angry that they won't be able to simply run or easily port programs that are mainly written in C/C++. That's mainly because Windows Phone 7 apps are not native applications: they run on virtual machines provided by either the Silverlight or XNA Studio runtimes.
Westtek, which has C++ PDF and print applications for Windows Mobile, won't be supporting the new platform, at least for now, for example. Nor will DataViz, which specializes in supporting Microsoft Office documents on several smartphone operating systems.
Another sore point for some developers is the current lack of multi-tasking support, a feature not enabled in the initial release of Windows Phone 7.
But other Windows Mobile vendors are embracing the new OS. Pageonce, which offers personal finance apps for a range of mobile platforms, will have its Windows Phone 7 app ready for Nov. 8. Panoramic software, which offers a diverse set of mobile games, utilities and tools, will have at least four apps ready for the new phones.
And more Windows Mobile ISVs will be climbing on board in the future. Shape Services is bringing its IM+ application, an all-in-one instant messaging client, to Windows Phone 7 by the end of 2010. VidaOne, which offers mobile fitness and health apps, will add support at some point in the coming months, but currently is focused on meeting surging demand on iOS and Android handsets, says CEO Jean Gareau.
Third, though business and enterprise-specific applications are currently few, Windows Phone 7 handsets have an almost instant usability in the enterprise. The phone's Office Hub (demonstrated in this 80-second YouTube video) is the location for: Microsoft Office, with mobile versions of Excel, Word and PowerPoint; a revamped and expanded OneNote, which is an application for creating and synchronizing notes, written and recorded, and incorporating pictures; Office documents you've saved to the phone; and a native client for sharing, editing and synchronizing documents stored on Microsoft SharePoint Server.
Finally, there's the Internet: the Windows Phone 7 browser is a major improvement over all previous mobile versions. It combines code base from Internet Explorer 7, with some additional code and features from IE 8. Apple's mobile Safari browser was a key element for the original iPhone's instant popularity: it was immediately useful as a full-fledged HTML browser for accessing the Internet, despite the fact it didn't support Adobe Flash-based video
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.
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