Microsoft announced a broader release of the latest build of its Windows Phone 7 mobile operating system, and it's getting good reviews from developers. The company also says it started shipping thousands of prototype handsets to software developers around the world.
The new release is what Microsoft calls a "technical preview," meaning it's stable enough for use by a larger developer community and reviewers. The developing OS needs to achieve "release candidate" status before being released to manufacturing, possibly in late summer or early fall. The first production smartphones with the new OS are expected to be unveiled in October. Microsoft, through a spokeswoman, declined to be more specific about the next WP7 milestones.
About 1,000 Microsoft employees have been using earlier Windows Phone 7 builds, and early prototype handsets, as their main mobile phone for several months, according to a Microsoft blog post by Terry Myerson, corporate vice president, Windows Phone Engineering, at Microsoft. The company has been putting the OS through continuous tests on over 10,000 mobile devices in the company's test labs, Myerson writes.
The goal of the technical preview is to make the OS available "for the hands-on everyday use of a broad set of consumers around the world," and to factor their assessment and feedback into the final development push before the production release.
Thousands of prototype phones from WP7 hardware partners Asus, LG and Samsung are being distributed to selected developers. Just recently, Microsoft unveiled the beta release of the Windows Phone developers tools.
Reviews of the latest OS version on the prototype hardware are generally positive.
The radically redesigned touch user interface, dubbed Metro by Microsoft, seems to winning a growing number of fans.
"We were extremely surprised and impressed by the software's touch responsiveness and speed," writes Engadget's Joshua Topolsky.
"In fact, this is probably the most accurate and nuanced touch response this side of iOS4. It's kind of stunning how much work Microsoft has done on the user experience since we first saw this interface -- everything now comes off as a tight, cohesive whole. It really put one of our major fears about Windows Phone 7 to rest.”
The stability and maturity of the software is also taking some reviewers by surprise.
"[A]fter using it as my primary device for five days I have yet to see ANY lockups, freezes, or resets on the Samsung device I am testing out," says Matthew Miller, at ZDNet.com. "Actually, I am blown away by how stable this version of the software is because I have seen more issues with shipping devices running the iOS, Google Android OS, etc. than I have with this version of the software."
[ZDNet has an online gallery of about 80 images of the technical preview OS version, the Metro UI and the Samsung prototype phone.]
One of the key things Microsoft has emphasized in WP7 is what it calls "integrated experiences" -- the phone's capabilities, features and applications blend together to accomplish a task or series of tasks, rather than requiring the user to use a series of individual discrete applications.
"With Windows Phone 7 Microsoft wants you to think about doing things naturally and holistically," Miller writes. "They want your phone to model how you would do something in the real world so for example if you wanted to take a photo and then share it you simply press and hold the camera button (even when the phone is locked) to start the camera, take the photo, and then tap and hold to upload. You don't have to unlock the phone, start the camera application and then have to start a social networking application to do this.”
The phone's Web browser, about which Microsoft has been largely silent, is now getting more attention, and generally favorable reviews.
"Web browsing (the technology is party IE7 and part IE8) is, as with most phones of this nature, a strong suit," writes Lance Ulanoff at PC Mag. "Fully rendered sites look great and WAP sites are tailor made for the long vertical screen. In each case, pinching and zooming reveals crystal-clear text, links and images. This is the performance we've come to expect of these large screen slab phones, and Windows Phone 7 delivers."
"[W]e've got to say that web browsing on Windows Phone 7 is actually a really pleasant experience," Topolsky says. He notes that the WP7 browser lacks Flash, Silverlight or HTML5, "which makes the browser situation somewhat painful. There's not even a YouTube app on the phone! Microsoft -- you've got to step it up on the video front if you want to play this game."
"Pages loaded up quite fast, even on the EDGE connection that I had with my T-Mobile SIM card," ZDNet's Miller writes. "On my ZDNet Smartphones blog the entire page appeared on the display (even in mobile mode) and was actually mostly readable with tiny fonts."
Windows Phone 7 groups and integrates apps and information into a series of "Hubs", including one for people (contacts, social networks), for pictures, for Microsoft Office applications, and for the online Marketplace where you find and buy WP7 applications.
The Office Hub is generally impressive, according to these early reviewers.
"Tight Office integration, complete with an awesome on-phone document and viewing experience, stands to be one of the biggest differentiators for Windows Phone 7 -- a feature that could almost singlehandedly make these devices impossible to ignore for serious business users regardless of their seemingly consumer-centric slant," Topolsky writes.
"Microsoft makes Office and should have the best mobile Office solution," Miller writes. "At this time it looks like they have the potential to achieve this, but the creation formatting tools are pretty basic so Office Mobile is definitely focused on the experience where you bring a document in and edit it on the go."
Miller continues: You can view, create and edit Word and Excel files and view & edit PowerPoint files on your WP7 device….In Word Mobile there is a cool tool that automatically creates an outline of your document on the fly so you can quickly jump to different sections of your document. You can add comments, search the document, format the text, highlight the text, and change the font color. Excel Mobile has these same functions with additional function options and cell control options. Excel actually looks to be the more powerful application here…."
The current absence of copy/paste is a sticking point for some. "[T]here's no copy / paste capability -- and in an app like this [the mobile version of Microsoft Word], it's hard to imagine being too productive without any sort of clipboard whatsoever,"Topolsky writes. "Excel seems similarly gimped, though it's got a pretty solid set of built-in functions…."
The Office Hub integrates with Microsoft SharePoint through a local client application. For many companies using SharePoint as a focus of corporate document management and collaboration, this could be a powerful attraction.
Users can expect a different, though not necessarily "bad" experience with Microsoft Exchange.
"You will find that Windows Phone 7 is not as good as Windows Mobile 6.5 when it comes to a complete Exchange experience, primarily due to lack of Task syncing," according to Miller. "Also, you used to be able to sync Notes via a USB connection. The new experience is to sync OneNote [touted by Microsoft as a key element of WP7] notes to your cloud storage, SkyDrive, Windows Live account and actually this should be a better experience for the most part. I suppose you will have to change your habits and move from tasks to OneNote as well."
Engadget's Topolsky found the e-mail setup to be "relatively automated and painless" with support for plenty of e-mail services and options. More advanced features are missing and he's still hoping to see them in the production units. "Overall, the mail experience is solid, but not best in class," he writes "There's a lot here that is laudable (like the sheer snappiness of it), but there's also a fair amount that's missing. We'd really like to see Microsoft strive for threaded messaging, joined inboxes, and an improved server-side search by the time this hits the market, but we're guessing that's asking a lot.
So far, Microsoft has not activated multi-tasking for third-party applications. That's a sticking point for some. Miller had the kind of response that Microsoft is clearing hoping most developers and users will, at least to start: "When the 3rd party application market takes off then the lack of multitasking may be a problem, but at this time I am not concerned with it since the operating system is designed for helping you complete tasks and is not focused on distinct application experiences," he writes.
(Check out our discussion "If you have multithreading in Windows Phone 7 do you need multitasking?")
But one thing almost all these reviewers bemoaned: there's no support yet for Twitter on Windows Phone 7.
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