The iPhone and Google Android devices had a few years to refine their user interface and features, which gave them plenty of time to get ahead of Microsoft's ailing Windows Mobile OS. But in a swift turn of events, Microsoft came up with a totally new user interface for the Windows Phone 7 OS, which will arrive on multiple phones November 8.
But Microsoft had to build Windows Phone 7 from scratch, which means that, if it was not to suffer a significant delay in release, the new mobile operating system had to leave out several features that we now take for granted on our smartphones. At the same time, though, Microsoft brings a few interesting new elements to the table with Windows Phone 7, elements that some of you might prefer over the usability of an iPhone or an Android phone.
We've looked at the main differences between Windows Phone 7, iOS, and Android to give you an idea of the state of mobile operating systems today. The chart (at left; click to zoom) gives you an overview of the features of these OSs -- what each one has and doesn't have; after you've looked at it, read on for highlights of the best and worst things about Windows Phone 7.
What's Different About Windows Phone 7
With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft brought a few new concepts to the table. Instead of a noncustomizable home screen (or as Microsoft calls it, the "Start" screen) as on the iPhone, or widgets on Android, Windows Phone 7 uses rectangular "live tiles," a cross-breed of widgets and application icons. The live tiles link to an application, but they also display live information on the Start screen. This gives Windows Phone 7 users an easy way glance at what's happening on their phone, but it could become quite cumbersome when too many tiles are used and a lot of scrolling ends up being involved.
In comparison, the iPhone does not have an active home screen or widgets, while Android employs widgets of all shapes and sizes to display information on the main screen. The simplicity of the Windows Phone 7 tiles wins in this category, while the iPhone is clearly the loser for home screen notifications.
Windows Phone 7 also groups various features of the OS into hubs -- a cross between folders and screens. Each Hub (Marketplace, Office, People, Pictures, Xbox Live, and Zune) has tight integration with both native and third-party apps. For example, in the People Hub, you can see your contacts' Facebook status updates and like or comment on them.
Similarly, the Games Hub is closely integrated with Xbox Live, while the Office Hub lets you create, view, and edit Excel and Word documents. You can also access Microsoft Office SharePoint documents and edit them, but you cannot create PowerPoint files in the Office Hub. The Music & Video (Zune) Hub can also get you through your music, videos, and podcasts, or let you access the Zune store -- it's all within easy reach. Neither the iPhone nor Android has features comparable to these hubs; instead, you have to pick a specific app to open in order to perform most of the tasks the hubs allow.
What's Missing From Windows Phone 7
Windows Phone 7 has rightly received a lot of flak from reviewers for not having some features that many owners take for granted on their current smartphones.
Microsoft's new mobile OS doesn't have copy/paste capabilities. If you remember, the first, the second, and even the third iPhone did not initially have copy/paste functionality either -- but that was over a year ago (copy/paste for the iPhone arrived later as a software update). Android had this capability from day one. So the exclusion of copy/paste in Windows Phone 7 doesn't earn the new OS any gold stars for functionality.
Second on the list of missing Windows Phone 7 features is true multitasking, something that Android also had from day one, and that was later introduced for the iPhone. To be more precise, Windows Phone 7 does not allow third-party apps to run in the background, but pauses them until you return to the app. This puts the OS in the same situation the iPhone was over a year ago, when only Apple's apps could run in the background. But to be fair, iOS doesn't exactly do true multitasking either (read here for a full explanation of multitasking on iOS). Only some apps in iOS can still run in the background and even then, only certain features can continue to work. For example, music from Pandora can play in the background while you're doing other tasks on your phone.
The third debated feature oversight for Windows Phone 7 is the lack of Adobe Flash, Silverlight, or HTML5 support in the browser. Steve Jobs squashed any ideas of running Flash on an iPhone, so Android is the only one left in this round. It took Google and Adobe over a year to come up with Adobe Flash support for Android, but now the latest generation of Android phones has the feature. If Microsoft really wanted to have an edge over the iPhone and fight Android, it should have at least supported its own Flash-competing technology, Silverlight, on Windows Phone 7 devices.
Other feature omissions from Windows Phone 7 include:
- No unified inbox
- No threaded e-mail
- No visual voicemail
- No video calling
- No universal search
- No Internet tethering
- Limited removable storage support
- No Twitter integration
- Alphabetical-only app list organization
Can Windows Phone 7 win over consumers? Or will the iPhone and Android army triumph? Sound off in the comments.