Yes, Microsoft Has Actually Improved Upon the iPhone

Last Updated Oct 25, 2010 1:22 PM EDT

Working with a Windows Phone 7 device is a mind-bending experience that forces to you to reconsider everything you know about Microsoft (MSFT). After a spending week with an HTC device running Windows 7 on AT&T (ATT), it feels as if my head has opened up anew like a split grape. Something arcane, new and fascinating is happening in Redmond, and it should make all of us very interested in Microsoft. It's not that they're copying Apple; they've always done that. It's that they've finally achieved parity with the iPhone-maker. Here's evidence that the company has found some utterly new direction in its consumer-facing products.
  • Mac and Google (GOOG) compatible. Microsoft isn't know for being diplomatic about letting you bring your data elsewhere. Hotmail, for instance, doesn't allow you to forward emails to a non-Microsoft address, fearing perhaps that you're doing this to switch to Gmail. But on a new Windows Phone, you can sync your Google Calendar, Gmail and Google Contacts natively to the phone. You can also pull your Facebook contacts, and mash them all up in one address book. Yahoo (YHOO) is supported too, and updating happens quickly. (It amounts to an address book that is better than Palm's, iPhone's or Android's.) And while there's no full-blown Zune software for Mac, Microsoft is releasing a Phone Connector for Mac app this week that should allow most syncing functionality to happen.
  • Great UI. There's no accounting for taste, so there's no point in arguing that Windows 7's phone interface is the "best" among smartphones. But it suffices to say that layout is logical, navigation is fast, action and menu options are always obvious and set-up is dead simple. Very un-Windows.
  • Great for app-building. It may be too late for a brand-new app store to flourish in this world, but then again, maybe not. There are a lot of Windows developers out there, and many of them haven't bothered to make apps for iPhone, Android or RIM (RIMM) because of the learning curve. Now they can write a mobile app in the comfort of their same old Windows IDE, or developer environment. Not only that, but after speaking with Mark Pendergrast, the senior product manager of the Windows Embedded unit last week, I can say that a lot of the pre-made software tools, or "frameworks," that exist in the desktop Windows 7 also exist in the phone. This means that writing an app doesn't require learning 100 hours of new code. (Whether there's any incentive to making a Windows 7 Phone app is another story, but that depends on how many of these phones consumers buy.)
  • Simple as pie. Right now, there is still a lot that Windows 7 Phone can't do; some options that exist in other OSes simply don't here. Cut and paste, for example, won't be available til next year. And when you're looking at a photo, you can't tap to save it, the way that you could on an iOS or Android device. But Microsoft has already shown that it will be adept at introducing new features without adding complexity. Why? Nothing in the new version of Windows Phone is "hidden," and screens that include options are designed in a way that feels scalable. (The few options or settings that are less-than-completely-obvious are gently surfaced by single, well-timed "hints" that begin to appear a few days after you've been using the device.) In any OS, the big danger is scale; will it still be easy when it does 5x or 10x as many functions? So far, Microsoft appears prepared.
  • Great developer support. When I covered the Windows 7 Phone launch event for FastCompany, I spoke to the head of business development from Fandango.com, which launched with an app in Microsoft's app marketplace. He said that Microsoft has taken their famously awesome style of developer support from the Xbox unit and reproduced it for Windows Phone. Not only that, but they were setting hardware standards for their OEMs on things like screen size and memory. (That means that developers can make one app that fits all Windows phones, instead of having dozens of versions for phones various screen sizes and specs. That's the problem that Android is suffering right now.)
  • Carrier billing. When you buy something on Microsoft's app store like a song or app, it bills the charge directly to your AT&T account. This is a small but significant facility that might become more popular with time. In developing countries, the bill-to-carrier model is popular for e-commerce; people often exchange payments this way because it's simple and hassle-free. If Microsoft wanted to begin using the phone as a purchasing tool in actual retail stores or in e-commerce, the bill-to-carrier method would make an incredibly simple, low-overhead and secure way to do so.
  • Killer visual language. Microsoft has kick-started its app store with apps it built in-house. There is a Microsoft-made app for Netflix (NFLX), Twitter, Facebook, Flickr (YHOO) and Last.fm, among others. They're great apps, but that's not the point -- they also help establish certain visual and interactive standards that third-party developers can work off of, ensuring there's a nice synchronous experience between apps. (This is something that Apple did well, and Google not at all.)
Stay tuned for a BNET slideshow that compares Windows and other smartphones side-by-side doing a road warrior's most crucial work.

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