So Monday was the big day in terms of Windows Phone 7 (WP7) with the US launch being held alongside a UK specific event. I’ve been mulling the launch over for the last few days and felt somewhat disappointed by Mondays announcement.
Before carrying on its probably best to just expand on my background around WP7, I have always liked (yes liked!) Windows mobile, there was always a good community of people around who could tweak & hack the phone so that it was able to do pretty much anything you wanted. I admit that this wasn’t the most user friendly way of doing things and it did require a fair amount of patience so I understand the almost universal derision that Windows Mobile now receives. My HTC Touch Pro is definitely starting to creak around the seams not helped by the fact that I’m running some custom ROMs that are doing far more than the poor 528 MHz processor was ever designed to handle, but its not just that. I often find myself frustrated now by some of the nuances of Windows Mobile, the way data connections can “hang” requiring you to close the program that was trying to access the internet, reset the connection then try the whole thing again. That sort of stuff is getting boring. Surely modern phones with such a high emphasis being placed on “connectivity” and “digital lifestyles” should just work when connecting to the internet (signal / network allowing!).
So why have I not just bitten the bullet and bought an iPhone or Android device? Well I had some issues with the first few generations of iPhone around missing features (missing GPS, sat-nav support, multi-tasking etc…). I think the iPhone 4 is now at a good place in terms of hardware and the latest version if iOS addresses most of the other problems around multi-tasking but the biggest problem remains, for me, Apples attitude towards developers & its application approval process. It seems so unnecessarily cryptic and hypocritical. You don’t have to look far to find stories of disgruntled developers who have submitted applications for approval only to be told “No.” with no real explanations given.
Ok well that leaves Android as a suitable alternative? Well yes it does. Android OS has a lot going for it, good hardware support with some very compelling phones, mainstream developer support producing quality applications etc… I think there are only two reasons I have not already moved over to the Android platform, the first is down to the confusion / time delay about publishing Android OS updates (the whole time lag can be huge – Sony Ericsson I’m looking at you!) and the second is a Windows Phone 7 feature – OneNote. I started to use OneNote heavily at the start of the year and now swear by it. The integration with SkyDrive is now killer so that I can have up-to-date information about all of the projects and things that I need to remember. I have tried using Evernote which does have an Android client but I find that’s much more useful as a reference library rather than for grouping and organising information into projects. The promise that with WP7 I would be able to have access to all of my OneNote notebooks from wherever I happened to be was really the only thing that stopped me from buying an HTC Desire.
So that’s the angle I was approaching Microsoft’s launch event from on Monday, I was anticipating hearing lots about the new line of exciting programs they had got lined up (esp. given some of the enticements support MS were rumoured to have provided certain developers). There were two main events that I was following, one was the US event with Steve Ballmer and the other was an event held in London for UK journalists. The live stream of the US event was decent quality and started out with Steve B giving a summary of the “vision” behind the product then followed by a “grand unveiling” of the new phones (in reality they whooshed in front of him on a curved platform). None of the audience even seemed to bat an eyelid as the phones appeared in what MS had hoped would be a dramatic manner. Perhaps it was at this point that I should have realised I was in for a disappointment, as the event pressed on it became more and more obvious that the people in the room were not tech journalists but were from mainstream media… After a quick overview by AT&T about the platforms Joe Belfiore (VP for WP7) took the stage and ran through the phones main features. This overview was nothing that hadn’t already been shown before at other more technically orientated events. The UK event was a bit more interesting with a few programs being demoed that looks interesting, a Tesco app for online shopping and a train travel time app – nothing spectacular or killer but still interesting concepts and more than the US had shown! The UK event wrapped up by a bit of free talking by Stephen Fry. Mr Fry is a particularly avid technologist and loves his toys and gadgets so it was interesting to see him giving voice to some impartial (he stressed he had not been paid to appear) views. His summary was basically that MS had got it wrong in the past but looked like they might be onto something now if they played their cards right…
So that’s an over view of the two launch events, and it doesn’t sound too bad does it? Well no not especially bad, products have certainly had poorer launches. However given that this is Microsoft’s last real chance to make an impact back into the mobile space where were the amazing apps (am I alone is disliking that term?) that had been developed for the platform. I was expecting things like LoveFilm (basically Netflix UK) streaming, Sat-Nav programs from TomTom & CoPilot, a plethora of top games from other platforms ported to WP7, Flickr integration etc… Looking through the marketplace via the newly released Zune 4.7 client there are some programs starting to appear but nothing that stands out as being a “must have”. So where are all these things to look forward too? Do they even exist? Well one possibility is that MS has gone for a “soft launch” in Europe and is saving their aces for the 8th November US general availability date? Or of course they could have nothing waiting in the wings to wow us with after all.
If Microsoft is playing the WP7 launch as a “soft launch” it just doesn’t make sense, they really need to make an impact and start providing compelling reasons for people to look at choosing their platform over its rivals. If they do intend to make more of a fuss about the US launch then why bother releasing in the Europe first? You need people who are interested in your devices and who have been following their development to go out and buy the initial batch of phones, but don’t make them feel like they are being treated as less important!
The other disappointing aspect of the launch was the range of devices that will be available. There are three manufacturers producing devices (five in total i think for the UK) all based around the core platform specification. I get that with MS being so strict about the chassis types there is only so much that can be used to differentiate between the devices but none of those that were unveiled I would truly call a “premium device”. The memory provided varied between 8-16 GB and all bar one device had a 5M pixel camera. You could I suppose count screen size as a differentiator between the models but to me when the resolution is the same I don’t really see the point in larger (Samsungs AMOLED screen does seem good however). I suppose that HTC had tried to differentiate itself with the use of the Dolby Mobile sound integration but Samsung and LG’s devices seemed very much like they were going to “suck it and see” how WP7 got on before really committing to the platform with interesting and unique devices. Dell I think were among the most interesting with their device that provides a drop down keyboard (still in candy bar format) but that wont be available from launch.
One area the manufacturers did seem to be trying to separate themselves was by producing custom programs for the phones, like HTC’s sense “hub” or Samsung’s panoramic photo application. Interesting features but at the end of the day nothing that is really going to make consumers differentiate one device over another? Well perhaps that’s MS’s strategy all along, that one WP7 device is much like another but its hard to see why networks & manufacturers will continue to play the game if there’s nothing to let them stand out. With this one again I think time will tell.
So where does this leave me five days on from launch & 5 days left till general availability of hardware? I think the answer is generally a bit disappointed on two counts; Firstly I’m still eager to get my hands on a device but none of the hardware particularly stands out for me, and secondly I’m still waiting for the killer program announcements that will really give me a reason to go out and buy into the platform over and above OneNote integration (turn by turn Satnav would go a long way towards providing that!). I think the platform that Microsoft has created is very interesting. It has good ideas (such as Hubs) and by all accounts seems to perform very well, and Microsoft are hugely committed/ invested in the platform (RIP KIN) unfortunately nowadays having a good platform is not enough. It all comes down to what you can install on it. You’d have thought that Microsoft of all people with its legacy of Windows would understand the power of programs.
(I know the above is quite long winded and rambling but if you did read it then please share your thoughts with me either in the comments or via Twitter)