In the world of smartphones, Windows Phone 7 is barely a blip. It has, by some estimates less than 6% market share. Android now owns half the market and iOS about 26%. This isn’t right. You see, the Windows Phone 7 is a good — possibly great — mobile platform. It’s better, in my opinion, than Android and nibbling at the heels of my favorite, iOS and the iPhone.
To understand why things are so out of whack and why I believe they could change, we need to take a closer look at a Windows Phone—which I did.
It’s now been a couple of weeks since I started using the HTC Radar 4G from T-Mobile. It’s one of the new Windows Phone 7.5 or “Mango” phones. As a phone, it’s good; calls come through loud and clear and the 4G is nice when I can get it. It’s not a beautiful or particularly striking handle like the iPhone 4S or Motorola Razr. Yet the somewhat dull combination of pearl, bushed aluminum and one-too-many rounded corners quickly fade into the background as soon I start using the phone.
Microsoft’s Windows Phone Metro interface is a malleable tower of hubs that brings more sense to your mobile world than virtually any other platform. Yes, it looks good. Windows Phone 7 features one of my favorite mobile interface color palettes–second only to the iPhone’s gray, rain drop speckled backdrop and consistent, brightly colored app icons.
Like the best smartphones, Windows Phone can use what you tell it to organize your friends, family, e-mail, appointments and more. It does a lot of what I like to call “connecting the dots” and creates a variety of serendipitous connections to your disparate world. The “Me” hub is one of my favorite innovations not only because it’s all about me, but because it brings together everything that matters and relates directly to me in one place.
Windows Phone is full of sensible touches and navigation that should make sense to the both smartphone veterans and neophytes. You can swipe up and down to see all of your tiles (or hubs), and once you’re inside a hub, you’re usually scrolling left to right you see different facets of information for that hub. Yes, you can add and remove tiles. I added Gmail and Twitter.
Things don’t disappear on the phone because they often bubble up to one of the hubs. The ever-present picture tile means my photos are one tap away, my always updating e-mail box (which automatically groups emails by sender) means I can find new messages in a tap. The People hub is an ever-rotating patchwork of smaller pictures of the people who are active in my social/digital world. In other words, I can learn a lot with very little effort.
That kind of one-click-away M.O. is evident throughout the phone and it points to Microsoft’s larger strategy: to simplify the smartphone experience. All Window Phones have a Windows Phone home button, a Bing search button and the ability to bring up the camera simply by holding down a physical camera button for a second or two. If I want to share a photo, I simply tap on the eclipses that appear at the bottom of each, picture, I can then share it on Facebook or Twitter, both smoothly integrated into the Windows Phone system.
For the most part, this simplicity matches much of what you can find on the Apple iPhone—which is my main phone, by the way. iOS 5, for example, integrates Twitter, just as smartly as Windows Phone does and the act of capturing—double tap the home button—and sharing out an image feels not dissimilar across platforms. It is notable, though, that the Windows Phone places your pictures not on Twitter’s photo sharing service, but on SkyDrive—the Microsoft’s cloud-based storage and file-sharing service (Apple now uses iCloud and photo stream). And this points to another important, growing similarity between Apple and Microsoft’s mobile platform.
The ecosystem. Yes, with Microsoft Windows Phone 7 you enter what appears to be an impressively well thought out ecosystem, driven largely by your Windows Live or Hotmail account. Once you use this, the Windows phone will bring in whatever contacts, calendar and more it can from your account and then weave it all together with other phone services (like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn). Windows Phone is also, naturally, a perfect companion for anyone who lives in Microsoft Office. Office files you save on the phone are automatically saved to your SkyDrive account. From there you can share them via e-mail or directly from your SkyDrive account. It smart, and well integrated with the broader Windows Phone and Microsoft cloud ecosystem.
This ecosystem, however, is not a perfect circle yet. Windows Phones will still, for example, default to funneling your App purchases through the wireless carrier, unless you proactively add a credit card to your Windows Live account and then choose to use it. With the iPhone, my iTunes account is set-up offline and once I log in with my phone, it knows who I am and who to charge—the carrier never comes into play. I’m certain, though. Microsoft, will eventually match Apple on ecosystem simplicity.
Windows Phone 7.5 is not an iOS 5 doppelganger. The screen metaphors are all different. The keyboard, for instance, has a much sharper, almost sterner look. I’m just as poor a typist on it as I am on the iPhone’s virtual keyboard. The way each phone handles typos differs as well: instead of autocorrect, Windows Phones suggest words in a bar above what you’re typing (I prefer this). Text selection is different and, in some ways, more precise than on the iPhone—no magnifying bubble, just a cursor that sits above where you’re pointing. However, nothing in Windows Phone 7.5 should confuse any current iPhone or Android user.
Microsoft would be happy, I think, being a solid number three in the smartphone marketplace — behind Android and iOS — but why settle for #3? I actually prefer Windows Phone to most any Android device I’ve used and I think the Microsoft Windows Phone ecosystem, though still clunky at times, offers a better, smoother, more extensible experience than anything found on the multitude of inconsistent Android devices on the market today.
It’s true, Microsoft and its partners did a terrible job positioning and promoting Windows Phone over the last 12 months, and it still makes dumb moves. My biggest peeve is the lack of screen capture. Microsoft figures only developers and media folks like me care about it. That may be true, but how do you think we’re going to spread the word on those gorgeous Windows Phone screens if we can’t grab a good copy and post it online? I’m sure this is something Apple considered when including the feature in the iPhone.
Despite this, Microsoft’s approach to marketing Windows Phones is clearly changing. It’s undertaken and aggressive campaign (they threw a huge, day-long-bash in Herald Square New York) and I think the carrier partners may finally be getting behind the platform. Plus, there are now a number of excellent, lust-worthy and super affordable Windows Phone 7.5 devices on the market. The time is ripe for Windows Phone 7.5 to grab the spotlight.