Just a Glimpse of Windows Phone 7

Roger Kay examines Microsoft’s much-needed new smartphone OS play. I’m delighted to welcome Roger to the blog.

Next Iteration of Microsoft’s Mobile Platform Connects Well with Backend Services

The much-missing Microsoft mobile effort was on display for a brief flash — which you could easily have missed if you sneezed at the wrong moment — during Server & Tools chief Bob Muglia’s speech at TechEd in New Orleans last week.

In his defense, Muglia is a Server & Tools guy and mobile phones are pretty tangential to his main businesses.  But one couldn’t help noticing a scattered quality to his presentation.  He just had so many areas to cover — each of which easily deserved its own keynote, if not a separate conference — that he could only give them the most succinct treatment individually.  But what he did show of Windows Phone 7 indicates that the effort continues apace and we can expect to see a fairly interesting platform later this year.  Microsoft’s position in the on-fire smartphone category has been eroding in recent years, victim of Apple’s success with the iPhone and the arrival of Android as a viable alternative platform.  Elsewhere and later at the conference, other company executives announced new marketplace policies and highlighted the business value of Windows Phone 7 in 10 mobile sessions.

Microsoft is at a particularly low ebb right now.  Windows Mobile 6.5 was not much of an improvement over previous versions, and Windows Phone 7, in order to do what it has to do, breaks the existing programming model, a bedevilment for developers who need to invest in the new platform to obtain its benefits.  From time to time, companies are forced to break their programming model to update their platforms.  Apple did it, at great pain to its developers, in the transition from OS 9 to OS X.  And Microsoft has done it before with Windows.  But this transition comes at a particularly difficult time from a market positioning perspective, when it would be better if the company were building momentum than ripping out existing infrastructure.

What makes the new phone OS worth porting to, or writing original content for, was made apparent — however fleetingly — when Muglia talked about how it fits in with the more enterprise-oriented products that represent his normal stock in trade.

Microsoft is gradually rolling out its vision of unified clients — endpoints, in my parlance — that relate to each other through the cloud, where communications switching, sharing, and access to a common set of services will in time allow users to switch endpoints on the fly.  A desktop PC, laptop, and phone will be nearly interchangeable, at the convenience of the user, depending on whether he or she needs greater mobility or a more comfortable form factor for content creation and viewing.  With data and applications shared through the cloud, switching endpoint devices will be pretty much a matter of “grab and go.”

Specifically, Muglia alluded to the ability of the new phone OS to interact with Exchange Server and SharePoint Server and access the same integrated backend services available to PCs without the need for additional middleware.

He also gave the audience a peek at the phone’s home screen, which is organized into 6 hubs called People, Pictures, Office, Games, Music + Video and Marketplace.  This organization, designed to take users where they want to go in the fewest number of steps, is intuitive and easy to grasp.  The People hub organizes contacts in one place and also acts as a gateway to Facebook and Windows Live, with all its consumer-level services.  A Windows button takes the user back to the home screen.

One of the more powerful features of the phone is its ability to work with SharePoint Server, using a lightweight SharePoint mobile client.  A user can access content on a SharePoint site from the phone, make edits, and save it back to SharePoint or email it to a colleague.  Muglia also pointed out, for the benefit of the developers in the audience, that they would be able to write applications for Windows Phone 7 in Visual Studio and Silverlight, tools with which they are already familiar.

I like what I see so far of the new platform and am looking forward to getting a better picture of it as it solidifies.  As of now, it looks good, has rich features, and a fine development environment.  Market acceptance, of course, will depend on whether all these elements come together with an enthusiastic buying public.  Microsoft is helping itself by playing to its strengths in integrated commercial solutions, a forté that has built the Server and Tools business unit into a datacenter Goliath.

© 2010 Endpoint Technologies Associates, Inc.  All rights reserved.
Roger L. Kay is the founder and president of Endpoint Technologies Associates (www.ndpta.com).

This piece first appeared in the Pund-IT newsletter.
Pund-IT ( www.pund-it.com) emphasizes understanding technology and product evolution and interpreting the effects these changes will have on business customers and the greater IT marketplace.

About Merv Adrian
Gartner Research VP, technology analyst and consultant, 30 years of industry experience, covering software mostly, hardware sometimes.

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