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Early Windows Phone 7 Reviews: Good, but Not Good Enough

When it comes to mobile, Microsoft (MSFT) has been in a long-term losing game. First Apple (AAPL) and then Google (GOOG) rubbed the company's nose in the dirt when it came to smartphone operating systems. Even RIM (RIMM) did. Microsoft buckled down and promised that Windows Phone 7 would fix everything. Now we've got a few first looks at the new operating system. But based on early views from Engadget, Gizmodo, and Boy Genius Report, Microsoft is offering too little, too late.

Let's look at the problem facing Microsoft. It let Windows Mobile toddle along while Google, Apple, and RIM all moved ahead on the smartphone front. As has happened a number of times in the company's history, it could see a developing trend that it either ignored or whose importance it underestimated. This originally happened with graphical user interfaces. Microsoft originally started to develop a GUI to work on top of the text-based MS-DOS operating system in 1981 and announced Windows 1 in 1983. However, the company still didn't come out with a product until 1985, the year after Apple released the Mac. Windows 95 arrived without a browser because, after all, who would be interested in this thing called the Internet that had actually been in continuous development since the late 1960s?

Microsoft was late to game consoles, late to digital music players, late to cloud-delivered office applications. Microsoft has been late so often to critical trends that you'd have to wonder if it would be beaten out on new product were it the only software company in the world. In the past, Microsoft has managed to recover and catch up. But its luck may have finally run out.

It's not that the early looks at Windows Phone 7 are negative. Quite the contrary, there are many favorable remarks. However, good isn't good enough this time. Microsoft wanted to reach consumers and keep hold of its ubiquitous connection to the end user -- the source of its economic might. That meant creating something that could make many forget about iOS and Android. It didn't happen. Look at a wrap-up paragraph from each of the three reviews.

Boy Genius Report: We liked using the OS in general, though the experience for us felt a little too much like our time using the Microsoft KIN 2. The tiled homescreen seems a little too constrained and boxed in for us, and the non-frills design approach actually left the handset menus and navigational elements feeling bare and unfinished, rather than pure and unaltered. Not having any sort of menu for hoping back and forth between applications hampers your every day usage, and the animated transitions also start to feel old pretty fast. For a phone that was made from scratch and started on after the first iPhone was introduced, and for a phone that's not even in market yet, it unfortunately in our view falls short. There's practically no real innovation we can see with Windows Phone 7.

Gizmodo: Windows Phone 7 is good. Really good. It has the raw components needed to build a great smartphone. Or at least, one from 2009. Is that enough? It's starting a generation behind Android and iPhone, which now have tens of millions devices. On top of that, it's behind them functionally, too, missing things that are now table stakes, like copy and paste and multitasking for third-party applications. People might not know what 'multitasking' is, they'll just wonder why they can't play Pandora in the background.

Engadget: What we've been presented with here doesn't exactly feel like a complete mobile operating system in many ways. Some parts of Windows Phone 7 are more like a wireframe -- an interesting design study, an example of what a next-gen phone platform could be. That's both good and bad. On one side, we're still really excited by the prospect of Metro as a viable, clean-slate approach to the mobile user experience, and there are lots of smart moves being made that could lead to greatness. On the other side, Microsoft has to turn this into a viable retail product that can hang with the fiercest competition in the history of the cellphone in just a few months' time, and there are some serious issues that need to be addressed. Frankly, it's a little scary.

I know that this isn't the "final" version of Windows Phone 7. Then again, look at the calendar. Actual phones are expected out starting in October. It's now halfway through July. Hardware manufacturers will need a finished operating system to install on their devices by ... when? Mid-August? Early September? Microsoft has only four to six weeks to make changes, test them, and create a version of the software that is ready for manufacturing. It's not long enough to fill in the holes, and the strategy of releasing something and improving on it over time only works when your back isn't against the wall -- and Microsoft's is.


White rabbit image: Sir John Tenniel, public domain. Phone image: Engadget.