MWC Microsoft has rewritten its mobile platform at last, but the competition still has eight months before Windows Phone 7 Series handsets slip into pockets.
Microsoft had to do something spectacular at Mobile World Congress; after last year's embarrassing tweaks and another 12 months of losing market share, the company would have to pull Harvey himself out of a hat to impress anyone. Redmond didn't manage that, but it did demonstrate an impressively coherent interface and integrated applications, even if it will be nearly Christmas before we can expect to get our hands on one.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer unveiled Windows Phone 7 in a presentation that was largely concerned with informing the audience just how "super" everything was ("super fast animations", "super easy to use", "super exciting innovations" and so on). Microsoft showed a home screen interface based around animated Tiles which looked suspiciously like the "Panels" demonstated by Sony Ericsson on the X1, only with prettier animations.
Tiles can be linked to third-party information such as Facebook accounts and the like, displaying photographs or textual information retrieved within the Tile - a bit like a web widget only with a different name. Tiles can also be short-cuts to web pages or other applications.
Behind the tiles are what Microsoft calls "hubs", which are sliding walls navigated through a multitouch interface. Hubs are themed and accumulate information about "contacts" or "music" from social networking or music sites respectively, or whatever else the theme happens to be - an Office hub and a Games hub were also demonstrated.
The music hub is integrated with the Zune software on the phone - all Windows Phone 7 Series handsets will be Zune compatible. They'll also be integrated with Xbox Live; the users Xbox avatar is shown in the Games hub along with multiplayer games and messages from the service.
Microsoft promises that third parties will be able to create content for the hubs, as well as Tiles and 7-Series applications, using the SDKs to be announced at next month's MIX conference. But what they won't be able to do is replace the overall user interface.
Microsoft recognises that consistency is one of the killer features of the iPhone, so neither operators nor manufacturers will be allowed to change the Tile-based home screen, or the basic functionality of the hubs. They will be allowed to preinstall tiles, and (probably) add hubs of their own, but only within the user experience defined by Microsoft.
That user experience will have three hardware buttons ("Home", "Back" and "Search" - the latter being very Bing integrated), and a multitouch capacitive screen. There's also a completely new browser, based on the desktop version of Internet Explorer, but there won't be any Adobe Flash at launch, though Ballmer was vociferous in his assertion that Microsoft has no "objection" to anyone who wants to Flash-enable the platform.´
The schedule calls for devices in the shops for Christmas 2010, though if you've got Silverlight installed you can get a taste of it now.
Microsoft is riding on the success of Windows 7 at the moment, and there is an opportunity to create a link in customers' minds between the two products, if Redmond can create a developer community around the platform. We won't know how easy that will be until we see the SDKs next month; but it's unlikely 7 Series is going to be backwards compatible, and pissing off your developer community, by making them rewrite everything, isn't a great way to start out. ®