I often get asked to comment on “why Windows Phone 7” and it’s taken me a long time to put together a response to this question that I’m happy with. If you look at the major smartphone platforms they all offer very similar capabilities from a hardware and core operating system perspective. They all have an integrated camera, 3G connectivity, capacitive screens, WiFi, application marketplace and so on. Whilst there are significant differences between the technologies used to build applications between the platforms, they all offer very similar services. For example they all offer basic UI controls such as buttons, labels, selection controls, as well as a navigation system, and they all offer the ability to connect with some of the device capabilities, such as the camera and contacts.
I’ll break this discussion into two halves as users will base their decision on which platform to use on their personal experiences. There are users who are already existing smartphone users and have experience with either iOS or Android. Then there are users who have come from what I’ll call feature phones. These are users who may or may not own a smartphone but only use the core platform capabilities. They don’t download or use third party applications, and have traditionally only used the device for basic phone functions: SMS, phone calls, contacts and perhaps even email.
People Upgrade to Smart Phones
Let’s start with the second group of users. Imagine a customer walking into a phone store and looking at the various phones available. They know they want a smartphone, capable of downloading, installing and using applications and capable of browsing the web. Windows Phone 7 offers a consistent user experience across a number of different hardware devices across multiple manufacturers. There are some with keyboards, some without; there are some with a 5MB camera; others with a 4.3 inch screen. After unlocking the device the user sees the Start experience, which displays current information that the user might be interested in such as upcoming appointments, number of unread email. This experience can be customised to include tiles from applications that the user is interested in. These tiles can be dynamically updated to show information relevant to the user. The overall experience is easy to get started with, is consistent and yet gives the user the ability to select a device that is suited to how they work, and customise it to highlight their information.
Existing Smart Phone People
The experienced smartphone user is slightly harder to convince. They’re used to the features offered by the device they currently have. They might be used to the iPhone simplicity; or they might be able to handle the complexity of Android. Either way they expect the basic smartphone capabilities from a phone platform. The one thing that I believe that differentiates Windows Phone 7 from the other smartphone platforms are the Live Tiles on the Start screen.
Windows Phone 7 Live Tiles
Live Tiles are a slight misnomer in that there is no third party code running in the background. Just because the user has pinned your application to the start screen, doesn’t mean that your application is running in the background. However, the tile for your application can be updated one of two different ways. Firstly, your application can schedule for the tile to be updated periodically. For example you might want to update the tile every hour to show a different image that reflects the status of your application. The second method is via a push notification. A push notification can be sent to the device which will cause the tile to be updated.
Further, there are three aspects of a live tile that can be updated: The background image, the count badge and the title text. You would typically use the count badge to review the number of unread or new items available within your application. Most applications will make use of the background image to reflect the status of the application. As this image can be retrieved from a server it is possible to dynamically create this image to contain both image and text content, giving you total freedom to display whatever information you want to show the user.
At MIX11, held in April 2011 in Las Vegas, Microsoft announced that the next version of Windows Phone will allow third party applications to pin multiple tiles to the home screen. This is a unique feature to Windows Phone 7 and highlights new potential for productivity on mobile devices. Take the Qantas application that was demonstrated. The Qantas application lists the flights that the user has booked. The new pinning capabilities mean that the user can select one or more flights and pin them to the Start screen. As the status of those flights changes, or as the flight nears, different information can be displayed on the tile regarding the flight. This could include flight information, whether the flight checkin is open and when the user could be at risk of missing their flight. Frequent fliers find this information invaluable to scheduling their busy life.
As you can see there are some compelling reasons for both new and experienced smartphone users to pick Windows Phone 7. The application marketplace is rapidly expanding and the integration into both office and personal life leads to a simple, productive experience.
[Ed: Check out the video of the MIX11 Day 2 Keynotes, and jump to around minute 46. There is a demonstration of the Qantas application and the capabilities Nick is talking about]
Nick is a software architect and developer with experience across a range of technologies, and has a particular interest in the future of rich client and mobile device applications. Nick is a speaker, author, a Microsoft MVP and owner of Built To Roam.