This isn’t going to be a story about Microsoft’s return to dominance. Nor is it going to be the story of Microsoft’s failure to compete in the smartphone space. These mobile wars have only just begun and despite the advantage enjoyed by Apple and Google, there is no end in sight. In another twelve months we will see fierce competition from HP, Microsoft and Nokia. There’s a lot at stake, and no company is willing to give up the opportunity to own the next-PC market without a hell of a fight. Today is the beginning of Microsoft’s fight.

In the old days, when Microsoft tried to deliver a prettier UI it would just add lots of blue and make everything huge. That’s how we got XP. We never really lost the blue or hugeness, they were just made more refined through the years.

Windows Phone 7 is a significant departure from anything Microsoft has ever done in the past, from a UI standpoint that is. In my opinion it’s more beautiful than anything else on the market today - including Apple’s iOS. That’s a big statement for anyone to make about Microsoft, a company that has tried so very hard to prevent Apple’s increasing market share but always seemed to be at least one step behind in the user experience department. The Windows Phone 7 user experience is a big enough step forward to not only build a lot of faith in Microsoft’s mobile strategy, but also to give hope that future versions of the Xbox and desktop Windows OSes may be just as impressive.

The underlying architecture is well engineered, high performing and extremely efficient - a testament to the fact that Microsoft continues to employ some of the world’s most talented software engineers. Microsoft’s engineering talent is often masked by the bureaucracy of a company with nearly a hundred thousand employees and multiple billion dollar businesses, but it exists.

From a technical standpoint, Microsoft has never lagged Apple. In many cases, features Apple offered in its Macs were first enjoyed by Windows users. Where Microsoft fell short was in delivering these features in the cleanest way possible. The focus was on functionality, not the best way to use it. I continue to believe that anything you can do on a Mac you can do on a PC, it’s just the manner in which you do it that separates the two. Apple’s growing marketshare is testament to the notion that a significant portion of the population doesn't want to do it Microsoft’s way.

With Windows, Microsoft had to worry about legacy. It had to worry about maintaining a very large existing user base. With Windows Phone, Microsoft began with a clean slate. And it doesn’t disappoint.

Not the King, but a Start

I’ll say it now. Flipping through pages upon pages of square app icons just isn’t the most efficient way to do it. Folders help reduce the clutter, but they don’t fundamentally address the problem.

Microsoft had a similar problem back in Windows 3.x. You had a desktop, groups of application icons and the application icons themselves. Microsoft addressed the growing problem of managing tons of application icons by introducing the Start Menu. You had a way of getting access to frequently used applications without a lot of searching, and you could get to everything else without any clicking.

Apple never really tried the Start Menu approach but it achieved similar functionality in its desktop OSes. OS X gives you access to frequently used applications via the dock and for everything else you can either use Finder to navigate to them or Spotlight to search for them. Apple attempted to bring these features to iOS, but unfortunately not all of them translated well.

Using the system-wide search to launch applications doesn’t work as well on the iPhone simply because typing takes a lot longer on a smartphone than on a desktop/notebook. The dock is nice but it’s not nearly as wide on the iPhone. I’ve got 21 icons in my dock on my MacBook Pro, but you’re limited to 4 on the iPhone.

When you unlock your iPhone or Android phone you’re dropped into what’s effectively your smartphone desktop. In iOS, that’s just a collection of app icons with a 4-icon dock at the bottom. Android gives you more of a modern desktop with icons and optional widgets. Windows Phone 7 effectively drops you into the first layer of a start menu - that’s your desktop.

Microsoft calls it the Start screen. It’s a two page screen. The first page has a collection of square and rectangular tiles. These can be links to applications, web pages or even Bing Maps directions. The tiles can also link to Hubs, which are collections of applications and data under a common genre (e.g. the Xbox Live Hub is where you’ll find all of your games).

By default, the first four tiles are the same on all Windows Phones: Phone, People, Messaging and Email.

The next four are open for carrier customization. Carriers/OEMs can choose to populate as many of the next four as they’d like. While Microsoft won’t enforce a clean install on every Windows Phone, it does ensure that anything your carrier/OEM installs on top of the OS can be uninstalled. My Samsung Focus for example came with a bunch of AT&T apps. Not only can they be unpinned from the start menu, they can also be completely uninstalled. Carriers get the option to differentiate, but users get the option to say no, it’s a win-win situation. If you do a factory reset of your phone however, it will restore the phone to its original state - which will include reinstalling carrier/OEM installed apps.

An example of an OEM installed app

...and the list of AT&T installed apps on the Samsung Focus

The start screen is completely customizable. You can change the order of the tiles and remove any or all of them if you’d like. I found Microsoft’s start screen to be more useful than the default home screen on both Android or iOS. There’s less clutter and more of what you use most frequently is front and center. It’s like the left hand side of your Start Menu in Windows, except instead of automatically populating based on frequency of use it’s static. I suppose at some point we might see a more dynamic Start screen in Windows Phone. The only complaint I really have is that the camera tile isn’t there by default, but a quick pin later and all is well with the world.

The Windows Phone UI is built primarily to be used in portrait mode. While many apps will rotate to landscape, the intended use is in portrait. To deal with the obvious width limitations of a portrait phone, Microsoft made it very clear that nearly every app is wider than a single screen. While Android and iOS treat each screen as a discrete page, Windows Phone gives you a little preview of the next page to help convey the wider-than-visible UI. As far as how it works, the experience couldn’t be more natural. Virtually all apps implement this wide UI, including the start screen.


The start screen is the most traditional of multi-page UIs in Windows Phone. There’s a little animated arrow in the top right telling you that there’s more to be found at the next screen. Tap the arrow or flip the page and you’ll get to the second page of the Start screen: a list of all of your apps on the phone. There’s nothing more to it, just a simple list of everything on the phone. The GPU accelerated UI makes scrolling through the list super fast and smooth. And to be honest, a list of apps in alphabetical order is a lot simpler to navigate through than pages of app icons. I suppose eventually Microsoft may have to introduce another organization element to the app list (nested folders anybody?), but for now it works well.

Embarrassingly Smooth
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  • Shadowmaster625 - Friday, October 22, 2010 - link

    It cant play avi files? What do you call a $500 device that cant play avi files? FAIL.
  • beefnot - Friday, October 22, 2010 - link

    I'm so sick of seeing "fail" in user comments. 99% of the time, it follows a point or points being made that wouldn't have swayed them to deem it worthy anyway. YAWN.
  • mutatio - Friday, October 22, 2010 - link

    I'm glad you guys found it to be as smooth and useful as you did. Based on what you described and the corresponding pictures, however, I'm having a hard time understanding something "just works" when the UI looks like a crap sandwich and almost makes my eyes bleed. "No, we don't use those oh-so-80's icons that graphically represent what the App does. We're much too posh for that, minimalist traffic signs for everything! Brilliant!" Maybe it'll be different with hands on, but it looks like MS went out of their way to try and make this thing look clever and almost abstract. Think myspace made into a smartphone, and if you're like me and think that myspace pages more often look like pop culture chewed up, swallowed, and thrown up onto a web page, then you get where I'm coming from. If that is the case when I get my hands on one of these, I can't see how MS can get any significant traction in the smartphone market. They might get some young emo hipsters who dig the abstract layout, but the appeal thus far of iOS and Android is the overall ease of use. My impression from your review, despite your reassurances, is that MS has again made a product much more complicated than it needs to be. I hope for MS' sake that is not the case when actually using the phone.
  • MacGyver85 - Saturday, October 23, 2010 - link

    You'll just have to try it to appreciate it I guess.
    I can understand people when they say the interface looks bland or overly simplistic based on "screenshots" of the UI. But when you see it in person it's so much better. Really.
    Likewise with how you navigate around it. It's just so intuitive you don't for a second have to think how to do something. Every time someone asks me if what it's like I always respond that they'll have to use it themselves. And everyone that does loves it. Seriously :)
    Dare I use it but what the hell: it just works!
  • DJJoeJoe - Saturday, October 23, 2010 - link

    I don't think any OS at this point can grab a drastic number of market share like we see in the phone space obviously, or even the slightly slower moving browser space. Modern Operating Systems are so mature at this point that there is really little you can do, both Win7 and Snow Leopard were just small refinements to their previous versions.

    I think it's doubtful that even something as force-ably drastic as Chrome OS will do anything to the landscape either, even if Google bucketed down and really nailed it. Sadly the market share is ruled by the people going to costco and grabbing up a pre made pc, or large corps running xp, and I can't see something drastic being sold to either groups in the next handful of years.

    tis all in the phones these days, and I wish I had a time machine so I could get the second wave of hopefully nicer wp7 handsets and maybe a good update to the os itself. Don't got the money to spend on a 'amazing start'.
  • Sabresiberian - Monday, October 25, 2010 - link

    Looks to me like Vista's bad press helped Apple reach 9% market share, but that's as far as they've moved up. Win 7 is sweet and everyone knows it so Apple is no longer making headway.

    I don't want Microsoft execs to think that way though - like was written in the article, I think Microsoft performs better as an underdog, and if they think more in terms of being threatened by Apple or someone else then perhaps they'll be more inclined to put a shining example of what they can do out on the market.

    Glad to see Microsoft did produce a product with some shine.

  • dotroy - Thursday, October 28, 2010 - link

    Windows 7 phone is good ...umm ..some things not as good ..but win7 phone is good, there are somethings done better by others OS but win 7 phone is good. I never felt like this before. This is a paid advertising. Anand is making good money.
  • pete2s - Thursday, October 28, 2010 - link

    Will Windows 7 Phone store apps on the ROM partition? If so, this severely limits the number and size of apps as well as their quality.

    Although Android is evolving past this limitation, Android, Blackberry and Palm phones store the OS and all apps on an encrypted partition referred to in the specs as the ROM. Usually, this ROM is 512MB. After the OS is installed, the phone has less than 300MB for apps.

    Initially, I thought Windows 7 Phone would not store apps on the ROM because of its unified storage system that creates a single volume. If this were the case, however, there'd be no point in having a larger ROM because the ROM would only be holding the OS + the 60MB limit of pre-installed software. Some phones, like the Samsung Focus, do have larger ROMs though (1GB compared to 512MB). The only point of having a larger ROM would be to store more apps because apps are installed to the ROM.

    If the above is true, Windows 7 Phone will be severely limited in app size and thus development.
  • drwho9437 - Monday, November 1, 2010 - link

    "It’s almost as if Microsoft is taking Apple’s approach and simply letting everyone build iPhones."

    Exactly and it is genius, it means the cost margin will vanish and the experience will still be as the software people want, people won't think poorly of these phones just because of a few badly designed devices they used. Let's hope it works out.
  • owbert - Monday, November 1, 2010 - link

    best review of win7 phone amongst others. great work!

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