Live

Watch CBSN Live

Windows Phone: May the Most Gorgeous OS Win

Microsoft (MSFT) unveiled a fresh-faced revision of their mobile phone OS on February 15th, and industry reactions have been virtual paeans. But the praise isn't about connectivity or compatibility or multimedia. No, Windows 7 Phone is impressive because it's beautiful -- and it will succeed for the same reason.

The Apple (AAPL) iPhone was the original beauty queen that ripped us from our homely Blackberrys. Distinctive iconography, clean typography and minimalist layout made users eager for any excuse to use their phone. The kind of beauty I'm referring to isn't static; I'm not talking about pretty weather widgets. (If it were that easy, then user interfaces like HTC's TouchFLO would be more popular.) I'm talking about visual design in motion, married to smart interactive design: beauty you want to use.

Windows 7 Phone is following the same track blazed by the iPhone. Look no further than the accounts of people at Mobile World Congress who actually saw and used it. Engadget says:

The phones are really secondary here, and we want to focus on the interface. The design and layout of 7 Series' UI (internally called Metro) is really quite original, utilizing what one of the designers (Albert Shum, formerly of Nike) calls an "authentically digital" and "chromeless" experience... [N]o shaded icons, no faux 3D or drop shadows, no busy backgrounds (no backgrounds at all), and very little visual flair besides clean typography and transition animations. The whole look is strangely reminiscent of a terminal display (maybe Microsoft is recalling its DOS roots here) -- almost Tron-like in its primary color simplicity. To us, it's rather exciting. This OS looks nothing like anything else on the market, and we think that's to its advantage-- The sheer minimalism of the interface is striking, and we're really impressed by how many risks Microsoft is taking here.
The job of the modern smartphone is largely to take the work of a full-sized computer and somehow reduce it to the limitations of a phone -- notably, a small screen and a clumsy pointing device, the finger -- without losing much or frustrating the user. The goal of smartphone beauty isn't just simplicity. It's apparent simplicity. Despite having access to Xbox Live, full Zune functionality and Exchange email, the Windows Phone OS impressed Gizmodo because all that is cached behind a dead-simple grid:
The face of Windows Phone 7 is not a rectangular grid of thumbnail-sized glossy-looking icons, arranged in a pattern of 4x4 or so, like basically every other phone. No, instead, an oversized set of bright, superflat squares fill the screen. The pop of the primary colors and exaggerated flatness produces a kind of cutting-edge crispness that feels both incredibly modern and playful. Text is big, and beautiful. The result is a feat no phone has performed before: Making the iPhone's interface feel staid.
In the past few years, indie Mac developers like Sofa and Delicious Monster have become the gold standard for visual and interactive design. Steven Frank, a well-regarded Mac OS X developer and co-founder of Mac dev shop Panic, goes even further than Gizmodo in his comparison to the iPhone. Not only is Windows 7 the first mobile OS not to bite Apple's layout, he says, but it's also its newness that will take that will Windows 7 Phone so attractive to buyers.
Microsoft has done at least two things right with Windows Mobile 7. First: Recognized that they needed to start over. Second: Not ripping off Apple's UI style as every other vendor has been content to do.
Newness is attractive because it makes you stare. Android is a pretty good looking OS too, but it gives you a certain amount of iPhone deja-vu; it's nothing you haven't seen before. Windows 7 Phone begs you to gawk and touch.

Microsoft didn't whip this beauty out of nowhere; it's been honing its UI skills with the Zune and the Xbox for almost a decade. Smartphone design and video game console design are true kin -- much truer than the desktop PC and the smartphone, which is the usual comparison that analysts make. Both game consoles and smartphones are purpose-built, locked down and reliant on sparse hardware. Achieving usability and appeal under those conditions is hard work. Microsoft did not simply get lucky.

That's because to "win" at smartphone usability, as with a game console, you need to build an interface that sucks the user in with gorgeous visuals and keeps them coming back with frictionless, fluid operation. Making an OS beautiful is important with a phone -- even more than with a desktop -- because beauty encourages you to use the phone at times you'd normally go find a PC. And the more a customer uses his smartphone over his desktop PC, the more apps he purchases and the more data/minutes he burns in the process. Profitability, in the smartphone arena, is a function of how addictive you can make your device. It's a game of visual seduction, and Microsoft has just laid down some serious game.