Yesterday I saw a preview of a Windows Phone 7 (WP7, or #WP7 on Twitter) when Joey deVilla and John Bristowe were in town for a one day coffee and code at a Second Cup in downtown Edmonton.
I'm not going to do a big preview of the phone, I didn't get that kind of access. I tried out a demo phone running Windows Phone 7 software. Engadget did a great preview with lots of details. Is Windows 7 going to kill the iPhone? I really doubt it. Will it kill Android? I think its likely to take a lot of market from Android, but I'll talk about that later.
I'm not interested in Apps. WP7 will have Twitter apps, and has Facebook integration built in. Probably a lot of the popular iPhone and Android software will eventually get ported over to WP7. As a web developer I am most interested in the web browsing experience, and it looked pretty good.
The Web Browser
The WP7 web browser is based on desktop Internet Explorer 7, but it isn't IE7. Joey said he liked to call it IE7.5; it also has a lot from IE8 put in it. He told me Microsoft is working hard on porting a lot of the HTML5 goodness from IE9 onto the phone, but I wouldn't expect that until WP8. I think this is pretty amazing myself, because they are using the same software as the desktop browsers on the phone. Since it is based on the desktop software I'm sure we can expect it to have a lot of the features of the desktop software. Unfortunately IE7 wasn't really all that great to begin with, it was just a marked improvement on IE6.
I am glad it isn't another WebKit browser, the browser engine behind iPhone's Safari and Android's browser and the new browser on the BlackBerry Torch. Why? Just because its good to see competition. WebKit is an excellent browser, but it is lacking HTML5 support in many areas also. Competition will improve this.
The Windows Phone 7 User Interface
The UI is very different from any I'd used before. On computers we are used to scrolling up and down only, and for the most part that is true on phones as well. The iPhone has pages of apps that you scroll sideways on, but it wasn't the same as on the WP7 UI. The WP7 UI is based around hubs, shown as squares on the main page. The biggest difference I saw was just how much side-scrolling was used in the page menus. You could tell each swipe brought you something different, another context. It was very interesting and intuitive.
Predictions: The Future vs. Android
I said earlier that I thought that WP7 could take market share from Android, and I really do think so. Android has good potential as a platform, its open source (sort of) and can be customized by manufacturers. Unfortunately the manufacturers don't do it well. Their software is terrible and this results in an unstable phone that crashes a lot. My brother has told me he can't even take pictures anymore without having his phone reboot! The manufacturers are also tight about allowing OS upgrades because they would rather you buy a new handset from them. With the iPhone 4 coming out, I'm hearing a lot of people say they wish they had gotten an iPhone instead of an Android and will not buy an Android again.
Windows Phone 7 has the potential to break this. From what I understand the basic WP7 OS will be the same across all manufacturers without customization. Upgrades will be via Microsoft (probably like Windows Update). No more TouchFLO, no specific Motorola bits. The main difference between WP7 phones will be in the hardware - cameras, memory, processor speeds. This means a much more consistent look and feel, and hopefully better reliability.
I see most of the WP7 market share being taken from Android.
Predictions: The Future vs. iPhone
I don't think WP7 will beat iPhone right now. Perhaps Windows Phone 8 will compete better, but WP7 lacks too many features that are already in iPhone 4: cut and paste, multitasking and a huge lead in App development. iPhone also has something that neither Android/Google or Microsoft have: fanbois. Sure there are a few Android and Microsoft fanboys out there, but Apple has a rabid and loyal following, whereas Microsoft is mostly derided and Google taken for granted as the search engine and nothing more.
Microsoft didn't buy any loyal fans with their previous generations of phone software. Windows Phone 6 was a flop. Microsoft released the Kin back in June but bailed completely by August. Not enough time to gain a following. But on the other hand, Tony Curtis was buried with his iPhone - inseparable even in death.
Apple's high-price-for-high-quality reputation is starting to get tarnished. Call quality has never been great on the iPhone in the first three generations and with the iPhone 4 "Antennagate" fiasco, I wonder if some people might start to get dissatisfied with Apple and its poor customer support. Apple's first acknowledgment of the antenna problem was to say they were reporting the signal quality wrong this whole time.
Predictions: The Future vs. BlackBerry
BlackBerry is a different kind of animal - its more of a work phone. With Microsoft's strong exchange integration I could see them taking a lot more of BlackBerry's market-share away. BlackBerry doesn't make good consumer phones. The Storm flopped (don't I know it), the new Torch is supposed to be really good, and we'll have to see, but its not making enough of a mark in the market right now. I'm predicting that BlackBerry may eventually start selling Windows Phones because innovating with their OS is too expensive and difficult.
Antenna problems excluded, the current iPhone 4 hardware is amazing: 1GHz processor, 16GB or 32GB of space, an amazing camera and that gorgeous Retina Display screen technology. I'm sure that there will be a lot of comparable hardware for WP7 out there, but will it be significantly cheaper? I believe Android is popular is because the handsets are cheap. If WP7 phones can come out and be $100, $200 cheaper than iPhone then it might compete a little better.
The WP7 phone I saw yesterday had LG branding on it, and the Engadget phone was a Samsung. These are two great hardware brands. I looked closely at the LG screen, and I'm sure it wasn't quite as high-resolution as the iPhone Retina display, but it was still very very good - better than an iPhone 3GS. It was probably in the 800x400 pixel range, where the iPhone 4 has 960x640 pixels in probably the same area.
But the LG did have a slide-out keyboard. While this isn't really that that important, a lot of people want keyboards on their phone - and this illustrates my point: when you buy an iPhone 4 you get the same iPhone 4 as Stephen Fry, Tony Curtis and Steve Jobs. You get the same iPhone on Telus, Bell or Rogers. If you get a WP7 phone you'll get more options, just like with Windows PCs. Do you want one with an 8MP camera, or 5MP camera, or no camera? A slide-out keyboard or not? This is both good and bad because we'll have shop in the WP7 market, and some phones will only be available with some carriers. But we'll probably also see phones from $399 up, whereas with iPhone you get 16GB for $659 or 32GB for $779.
Apple's stand (on all their hardware) has been higher price for higher quality. Apple's quality is questioned a lot more now, but they still have a great reputation. Consumers will not know how reliable their WP7 handset will be.
Developers, Developers, Developers
As usual, Microsoft is betting the bank on developers (developers developers developers) to build compelling apps for their platforms. WP7 uses Silverlight, a simplified version of their Windows Presentation Foundation user interface designed for the web, and now for devices. Any developer using familiar .NET languages like C# and VB.NET can develop apps for the Windows Phone now - without having to pay extra for the SDKs. Even the tools will be free.
To develop on the iPhone you have to own a Mac (expensive) and XCode. You cannot develop for iPhone on Windows or Linux using the Apple tools. Developing for iPhone requires learning a new programming language (Objective-C) and libraries. Objective-C itself is an older lower-level language than .NET or Java and requires memory management and other tools developers really don't do anymore in a 'modern' language, increasing the learning curve.
To develop for Android you only need the SDK and Eclipse, both freely available for Windows, Linux and OSX. Android runs applications programmed in Java, a fairly modern and well taught language (most university Computer Science and Engineering students in the past ten years have had some exposure to Java).
I think Microsoft really has the advantage here. Most Windows developers will be able to easily get into Windows Phone development. Microsoft is also very good at finding ways to help developers use more of their "stack" - and Microsoft has a much bigger programming stack than Apple: Azure for Cloud Computing and storage, tons of Silverlight components from 3rd Party partners like Telerik and Infragistics, ASP.NET for web service development, CodePlex for open-source project hosting - all of this tied together through the Visual Studio platform.
Perhaps only Google has a bigger web stack, but they have nothing tying it all together.
Probably even more telling is the fact that Microsoft has sent out its evangelists even to major Canadian cities to help out developers and encourage them to develop on the platform. As far as I know, Apple does not do that, and neither does Google. Microsoft is pushing hard to succeed here.
Microsoft has probably built a very compelling alternative phone in WP7. I'm looking forward to the launch and the months and years that follow. I'm not predicting the end of the iPhone, but I see the Android and BlackBerry platforms losing a lot of ground to WP7 - provided that Windows Phone can be more stable than Android and a better office/work experience than BlackBerry.