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Home / Articles / News / Tech Today /  Windows Phone 7 puts Microsoft back in smart-phone race
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Wednesday, October 27,2010

Windows Phone 7 puts Microsoft back in smart-phone race

By McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Not that long ago, Microsoft was a major player in smart phones and handheld computers. Now the software giant is an afterthought.

With its recent release of a completely revamped version of its mobile operating system, Microsoft is trying to get back in the race.

The new software, dubbed Windows Phone 7 and debuting next month on three phones running on AT&T's network, is a huge improvement over its predecessor, Windows Mobile 6.5, and one of the most visually appealing mobile operating systems out there. But it lacks key features, includes some frustrating user interface elements and provides access to a far smaller selection of applications than its most notable rivals, Apple's iOS, which powers the iPhone, and Google's Android software.

In developing Windows Phone 7, Microsoft scrapped its old Windows Mobile software. That's a good thing, because Windows Mobile was ugly to look at and difficult to use. The new Windows Phone 7 software, by contrast, is much sleeker and easier to operate.

Microsoft is also keeping much tighter control on Phone 7, limiting the number of manufacturers to a handful of top-tier companies and dictating that phones using the software meet certain minimum requirements, such as having a touch-screen display with three system buttons underneath it and a 5-megapixel camera.

Given the effort that Microsoft has put into revamping the interface for Windows Phone 7, its insistence on uniformity is good. But it means that the new Windows Phone 7 phones — I tested the Samsung Focus and the HTC Surround — are almost interchangeable. The only significant difference between the Focus and the Surround is that the Surround is somewhat thicker, because it has a slide-up external speaker.

The home screen for Phone 7 has a series of tiles. By tapping on a tile, you can launch a program or a "hub" where you can find a group of similar programs, such as games. Other tiles are dynamic; even without clicking on them, they can display helpful information, such as upcoming appointments or recent updates posted by friends on social networking sites.

Once you launch a program, there are other differences from other smart phones. Windows Phone 7 uses clear typography as titles for programs and hubs, so you always know what program you are using. On the iPhone and Android, different screens within particular programs are usually accessed by tapping small virtual buttons or text links. In Windows Phone 7, by contrast, you often have to simply swipe left or right to view different screens of the program. This interface is very slick and works well.

Another compelling feature of Phone 7 is its built-in support for Facebook. Once you sign in to Facebook, the software will automatically link entries in your address book with their corresponding Facebook profiles. Windows Phone 7 takes things a step farther by linking its "Pictures" hub to Facebook also, allowing you to access pictures your friends have posted on the social network and view all the galleries you have uploaded to it.

Windows Phone 7 also provides a link to Xbox Live, Microsoft's online gaming service that it developed for the Xbox game console. On Windows Phone devices, Xbox Live will help connect users wanting to play multiplayer games and will eventually allow phone users to play games against Xbox gamers.

Despite these touches, there are lots of things Windows Phone 7 lacks. It doesn't support copy-and-paste. It doesn't offer an easy way to switch between open applications. And it doesn't have a universal search that allows you to find applications, content, messages or other data stored on your device.

What's more, its Web browser supports neither Adobe's Flash software nor HTML 5, which Apple has promoted as an alternative to Flash. Without those technologies, Windows Phone 7 devices can't display many of the videos or interactive Web sites that you can access from the latest Android devices or the iPhone. It does support Silverlight, Microsoft's multimedia software that is a rival to Flash, though far less popular.

Microsoft says it's working on many of these issues. Copy-and-paste are supposed to be coming in an update early next year. And the company is working with Adobe to develop a version of Flash for Windows Phone 7.

But the lack of such key features makes Phone 7 devices less useful than their Android and iPhone counterparts.

In some ways, the operating system, for all its slickness, can also be more frustrating than its rivals. For example, when you are using the Web browser and rotate the screen so that it's in landscape view, you lose all controls over the browsing experience. Want to enter a new Web address or go to a bookmarked page? You have to rotate the screen back to portrait view first.

The e-mail experience is similarly frustrating. Each e-mail account you set up is represented by a new application tile. There's no way to access all your e-mail accounts by launching one application — much less view the messages from all your accounts in one universal inbox.

But perhaps the biggest problem with Windows Phone 7 is the scant list of programs available for it. Yes, the system hasn't even launched yet, so maybe it's not fair to criticize this. And some of the most popular mobile apps, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flight Control, are already available or soon will be.

But many, many more applications just aren't available on Windows Phone 7. Among the notable omissions: Pandora, LinkedIn and "Angry Birds," the hit iPhone game.

So Windows Phone 7 puts Microsoft back in the smart phone race. But it's still got a lot of ground to make up.

———

WINDOWS PHONE 7

—Troy's rating: 3.5 out of 5

—Likes: Sleek, easy-to-use, visually appealing interface; dynamic application tiles show information without having to launch apps; links to Facebook, Xbox Live and other social networks.

—Dislikes: Lacks key features such as copy-and-paste, universal search and Flash; some features frustrating to use; very few available apps.

—Web: www.windowsphone7.com

———

(c) 2010, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

Visit MercuryNews.com, the World Wide Web site of the Mercury News, at http://www.mercurynews.com.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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