yARN: Can Windows 7 Phone beat Apple's iPhone?

yARN: Can Windows 7 Phone beat Apple's iPhone?

It's a case of aesthetics versus functionality

  • IN DEPTH: Full wrap of Microsoft World Partner Conference 2010 - news, interviews, slideshows

To answer the question posed in the headline ... In short: I'm not sure.

It's clear that Microsoft, with its new Windows 7 Phone platform, is going after Apple and its iPhone. Speaking at the vendor's Worldwide Partner Conference, Microsoft senior vice-president, mobile communications business, Andy Lees, outlined market trends that were clearly in favour of Apples' marketing model, and in the process admitted it was a trend that Microsoft itself would have to attack.

"90 per cent of smart phones used in business are purchased and selected by end-users," Lees said.

"End-users want an engaging and simple thing that is fun and allows them to be productive at the work. The line between work and play is blurring."

This is, of course, what Apple has shown a remarkable ability to attack in the past with the iPhone and, more recently, recreated the success with the iPad. Consumer devices first and foremost, both have found success in the corporate market simply because users didn't want to manage multiple phones and portable computers. Enterprises found it necessary to find ways to integrate the iPhone into the corporate environment, and the iPad is quickly demanding a similar response.

So Microsoft is attempting to respond after a largely unsuccessful Windows Mobile platform with Windows Phone 7. The vendor made a big showing at the Partner Conference, announcing the immediate availability of the Windows Phone Developer beta tools, and will begin shipping phone units to select developers for testing from next Monday.

The vendor is serious about building a substantial ISV and systems integrator ecosystem. As Microsoft director, Windows Phone 7, Brandon Watson, said: "It's about helping developers make it [the applications] look pretty."

In some ways, they succeeded. From the on-stage demonstration (and bearing in mind I'm a programming dunce) the development tools seem to be easy enough to work with, which should help facilitate the quantity of developers on-board the device, should it proove a popular platform.

The problem is, Microsoft itself hasn't come up with a very pretty device. In fact, compared to the Apple iPhone, the Windows Phone 7 is downright ugly.

Microsoft's user interface uses a similar icon-based format to the iPhone, but changes just enough to stand up and say "we're not doing it Apple's way." Unfortunately, Apple's way is much prettier.

Rather than the sleek rounded-corner icons that are so familiar with the iPhone interface, Microsoft has elected to go with big, chunky, square "tiles" that make poor use of the black space available in the standard, 4.5-inch screen. The aesthetic effect is similar to tilling a kitchen, but leaving gaps near the walls where a whole tile wouldn't fit rather than do something to fill the space in.

Moving into the applications themselves, the effect is similarly unattractive. Microsoft has decided that navigation through the various photo, contacts apps will occur through a panoramic "swiping of the screen". Unfortunately, this means there's some horrible initial cropping of titles and other background elements.

What this means is that when you boot up an application, you're presented with a half cut-off mess that looks similar to those free iPhone apps built by university students.

When it comes to functionality, Microsoft seems to have really nailed it. Everything integrates so seamlessly that the Windows Phone 7 platform seems to be a genuine joy to play with. The calendar naturally integrates with your full list of contacts, who are drawn from your Facebook page, Exchange, and any other number of social networking sources. It takes far less work to get things done - so from a productivity point of view (and judging just from the keynote demonstration), Microsoft seems to have done a great job of oneupmanship.

However, aesthetics are important in appealing to a consumer base, and I just hope what we saw today was an early interface build.

Matthew Sainsbury attended the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference 201O as a guest of Microsoft

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