My Windows Phone 7 Initial Impressions: Thumbs Up or Down?

I visited Microsoft shortly after Windows Phone 7 was announced at the Mobile World Congress earlier this year. I listened to what the Windows Phone 7 product and marketing teams had to say, looked at Windows Phone 7 on test hardware, and left totally underwhelmed. The list of features that were lost on the way from Windows Mobile 6 to Windows Phone 7 were devastating to me. I was unimpressed by the performance I saw. And, I wondered if there would be any apps for this “brave new platform.” In mid-March I wrote:

Microsoft Attempting to Lead by Following: Windows Phone Abandoning True Multitasking, Emulates iPhone OS 1,2,3

Late last month, a group of U.S.-based Windows Mobile enthusiasts, which included Microsoft Most Valuable Professionals in the Windows Mobile technology area (including me), were invited to visit with the Windows Phone 7 team. We assembled in Bellevue in the dark of night (literally) and then started in earnest with the morning’s light to see what Windows Phone 7 looks like now, shortly before its Fall 2010 launch.

I sat, stood, and generally wandered around with one of the non-production Samsung phones that were provided to developers earlier in the year. It is not, to my understanding, as fast as the production phones that are emerging from hiding outside of the U.S. and will be in the U.S. in a few weeks. And, yet, unlike what I saw in February, Windows Phone 7 seemed to run quite fast on it. It felt much more responsive than either my Motorola Droid or Nexus One (both running the latest Android OS 2.2). It felt as fast and responsive as my iPhone 4. There was one notable exception to this performance comparison: Snapping a photo seemed far faster and simpler than either an Android phone or iPhone.

But, let’s back up a bit and let me tell you a bit about setting up Windows Phone 7. Setting up Windows Phone 7 to link to my Windows Live account, Facebook, Google and my corporate Exchange Server was a very easy and fast. You don’t, however, have to do any of this if you don’t want to. You can use the phone out of the box without doing much at all. I appreciated the ability to pick and choose what could sync to the phone from the various sources. I didn’t, for example, want to merge contacts from Hotmail or Facebook. Sets of simple options let me deal with this very easily.

Configuring information for the various home screen tiles was easy. Arranging the panels seemed easy. The only thing I didn’t like was the choice of available colors. I wanted a fire engine red, but the colors seemed mostly pastel.

I’m still not happy about the lack of multitasking. But, like the pre-IOS 4 iPhone, Windows Phone 7 was very snappy and responsive when switching tasks. I really appreciated the ability to take a photo without unlocking the phone and drilling down through app menus. Just press the camera button and your photo is recorded. Photos can be autouploaded to a free Microsoft SkyDrive account if you like.

Windows Phone 7 has one huge missing feature for me though. It does not have a Bluetooth profile for keyboards. It sees my Apple Wireless Keyboard but won’t do anything with it. Android smartphones share this problem. Pairing with a Bluetooth headset, on the other hand, looked fast and easy. Voice dialing worked through the headset too.

Windows Phone 7 is far from perfect. But, what I saw in September was a huge improvement from what I saw earlier in the year. And, more importantly, I definitely wanted to see and try more when the time came to return my test phone at the end of the day long session.

Quite honestly, I doubt if any current iPhone or Android owners will switch to Windows Phone 7. However, there are tens of millions of feature phone users that may find Windows Phone 7 delivers a simple out of box experience, easy learning curve, rich set of out of box features, simple access to both Xbox Live and the Zune Marketplace, in a variety of appealing hardware form factors. While Apple and the various Android manufacturers have nothing to worry about, RIM and Nokia might want to take a look over their collective shoulders.

Disclosure: Microsoft paid for the September visit in full including airfare.

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