Microsoft made its first entry into the smartphone arena eight years ago. It beat Apple to the punch by five years, and it was a fully fledged product before Android was even a twinkle in Google's eye. But after that initial flush of success Microsoft took its eye off the ball, and left its mobile OS to gather dust.
Finally, and not before time, it has gathered its resources and put all its might behind a new mobile operating system.
Designed from scratch in just 18 months, Windows Phone 7 aims to take on the might of Apple's iPhone and Android. And we're pleased to report that it's an impressive first stab.
Keeping it simple
The big thing that strikes you as soon as you start using Windows Phone 7 is how unlike any other mobile OS it is. It's certainly eons away from its predecessor. Gone are the fiddly dropdown menus and checkboxes of old. The tacked-on ugliness of the Windows Mobile 6.5 start grid has been banished and the tangle of settings screens has been shown the door.
Windows Phone 7's front end is a refreshing change, not only from the bad old days of WinMo, but also from the rest of the smartphone industry. It has a clean look that's very different from the iPhone's grid of icons and Android's widget-based approach. The home, or Start Screen as Microsoft calls it, is based on a series of flat-looking "Live Tiles".
The Start Screen is customisable, and you can pin anything to it, from apps through website bookmarks to destinations from Bing maps. We like the size of the icons: they make it easy to tap the item you're aiming for accurately. We also like the live element, which means individual tiles can display rich information right on the home page. A good example of this is the People tile, which dynamically displays an animated grid of photos from your contact lists.
We're not totally convinced by the aesthetics of the Start Screen. Compared to iOS's neat grid of rounded icons and HTC's slick Android customisations, the tiles have a tendency to look messy. The twin-tile layout means the Start Screen becomes very tall once you've added a few apps and items, which means a lot of vertical scrolling.
Elsewhere, however, elegance reigns. All Windows Phone 7 handsets have three buttons, and only three buttons, beneath the screen: Back, Start and context-sensitive Search. And there are a host of neat touches that add to the sense of slick simplicity. You can take a photo, for instance, without unlocking the phone. The small battery life and network status icons at the top of the screen disappear unless you call them up with a swipe, reducing clutter.
Unlike iOS or Android, Windows Phone 7's UI doesn't finish at the Start Screen. Beneath the layer of Live Tiles sits a collection of themed Hubs. There are six to start with - People, Xbox Live (games), Office, Pictures & video, Music and Marketplace - and they all share a similar design. Clean text flows over the top of a background image, which also scrolls as you sweep left and right between the various views offered in each hub, creating an attractive parallax effect.
It looks good, and the way content on neighbouring screens peeks out from the edges of the phone's display to show you where to go is a lovely touch. In the Pictures hub the first view is a series of simple text links to help you drill down into your photos, with a recent photo forming the backdrop. Sweep that out of the way and you reach a horizontally scrolling thumbnail grid of recent shots, then go right again and you'll see photos sucked in from social networking accounts.
The People hub, meanwhile, presents information in a similar way. Again there's a horizontally scrolling grid of thumbnails, this time representing recent contact activity. The All view lists your contacts in a vertically scrolling list, from Facebook, Gmail, Outlook, Exchange, all melded into one, and there's a social network account feed too. It's what Microsoft calls "panorama" view and it works beautifully.
The fly in the ointment is consistency. While many apps are organised by hub, others - such as Outlook - stand alone. Similarly, while some apps provided with Phone 7 adopt the panorama view modus operandi, others ignore it. You might expect the Phone screen, for instance, to offer Text and MMS on a right and left sweep, but this isn't the case. The upshot is it all takes a little getting used to.
Search and maps
Unsurprisingly, where Android handsets sport Google Maps and search integrations, Windows Phone 7 is Bing all the way. The most conspicuous disadvantage of this is you don't get turn-by-turn satnav, but in other ways Microsoft's implementation not only matches that of Google's but surpasses it.
Type a search into the Bing app, for instance, and you get one of those panoramic views. First a list of plain web page results appears, but swipe to the right and you'll see maps results based on your current location, then news results further on. The only disappointment is that, as yet, there's no image search.
Performance and web browsing
It may seem strange talking about performance in a software review, but here it's definitely worth noting. None of the Windows Phone 7 handsets we've played with feels sluggish or tardy in any way. Menus sweep by at the slightest brush of the finger, photos zoom in and out instantly, and panning and zooming web pages is an absolute revelation.
It's worth highlighting at this point that since all Windows Phone 7 handsets have multitouch support, pinch to zoom is enabled as standard, and from our general experience at this juncture the version of Internet Explorer installed on the phones seems pretty reliable at rendering web pages accurately. We enjoyed browsing the web on our review phones.
It's clear that Microsoft has done a lot of work to guarantee responsiveness, helped by a high baseline specification: Microsoft requires that every phone has a 1GHz ARM 7 processor and 256MB of RAM.
It isn't perfect, however. After running it through the Acid3 standards test, however, we were disappointed to find it failed to complete, scoring a mere 12 out of a possible 100. Another let-down is that Flash 10.1 isn't supported, and Microsoft has made no commitment to adding it in the future either.
And, believe it or not, there are downsides to the speedy nature of the OS. In an effort to keep everything buttery smooth, Microsoft has designed out multitasking for third-party apps. You can run the music player in the background while browsing the web, and the phone will alert you to Facebook updates and the like, but if you're streaming a podcast file via the browser and want to skim read a few emails at the same time, forget it.
Phone, text and typing
It's often neglected, but smartphones still have to make phone calls and send texts, and here Windows Phone 7 gets some things right and some things wrong. We like the fact that the phone keypad takes up most of the screen, and that threaded texting is included as standard. Attaching audio and pictures to messages is easy, and it's a simple matter of a long-press to forward messages.
Disappointingly, however, the keypad app won't generate lists of possible matches as you type, and it doesn't let you tap out names on the keypad screen. If you want to delve into your contacts, you have to tap the appropriate icon at the bottom, and all that does is whisk you off to the People hub, where not all contacts have phone numbers associated with them. There's no speed dial facility, either.
Text entry, however, is nothing short of brilliant. The predictive, automatic correction algorithm seems to get it right most of the time, and as with the iPhone's onscreen keyboard, you don't need to bother about being too accurate with which letters you hit. Windows Phone 7's pattern matching seems to tidy errors up pretty effectively, allowing you to type away in a rough and ready fashion without needing to go back and constantly correct yourself.
Social networking and email
It's a bit much to expect perfection right from the start, but we'd have liked a little more in the way of social networking. From launch only Facebook and Window Live feeds are piped through to the People hub. The Twitter app supplied by Microsoft needs a good deal more polish: it's slow and offers no integration with the People hub feed.
Email support is better, with quick setup profiles supplied for Gmail, Yahoo and Windows Live as standard. There's also POP/IMAP and Exchange support through the Outlook app, and you can have as many Windows Live and Exchange accounts running on a phone as you like. Irritatingly, however, we couldn’t log into our Exchange server because our test phone wouldn’t let us type a space in the username field.
Office and Outlook
This brings us neatly on to what has always been a major advantage for Microsoft-based smartphones: the inclusion of Office applications. In Windows Phone 7, Office forms one of six hubs and takes in mobile versions of OneNote, Excel, Word and PowerPoint.
The first three allow you to create and edit documents. PowerPoint allows only basic edits to be made. What's most interesting here is that, as with Office 2010, SkyDrive is tied in closely with Phone 7's Office apps, allowing you to synchronise notes and documents over the air. In a similar fashion, you can pull documents, edit them and save them back to your SharePoint websites.
Slightly confusingly, Outlook isn't an app in the way that, say, Word and Excel are. The Outlook inbox and calendar tiles appear separately on the home screen, and aren't tied together in the way the hubs are. This is also where the lack of cut and paste (Microsoft promises it’s adding it in an update in early 2011) begins to grate. We just can’t understand its absence.
There are elements we like, however: the "I'm late" feature generates a quick template-based email addressed to all meeting attendees to tell them you're running behind. The Calendar view allows different schedules to be displayed concurrently, with each assigned a different colour.
Music, marketplace and games
When it comes to entertainment, Microsoft's experience with Zune has been brought to bear. Again, browsing on-device music is slick, just as with all other elements of the UI, and there are some nice touches, such as the ability to sync with the Zune music library on your PC over Wi-Fi.
But then come the annoyances. In what may be a deal-breaker for many, there's no easy way to sidestep the Zune synchronisation software. Just as iPhone owners are stuck with iTunes, Windows Phone 7 owners will find themselves restricted to the Zune desktop software for the transferral of video and audio files.
Those hunting for references to desktop Outlook synchronisation, meanwhile, are going to be disappointed. Email, contact and office document synchronisation is carried out exclusively via wireless.
And there's more. In the Marketplace, hit the search context-sensitive search button while browsing the music on the device and it launches a Marketplace search. Games and the Marketplace suffer from a similar search problem to the Music hub, in that you can't restrict searches to just apps or just games: tap search anywhere in the Windows Phone 7 Marketplace and the phone performs a universal search.
There are plenty of niggles, then, but the key to the long-term success of Windows Phone 7 will hinge more on the apps available through the Marketplace than fixing a few problems with the underlying OS. Inevitably, there weren't many apps at launch, and games were thin on the ground too – we counted just 581 in total the day before launch, rising to nearly 700 on launch day.
There is hope, however. Apps can be developed using Visual Studio Express and games with XNA (the framework employed in the development of Xbox games), so developers ought to be able to hit the ground running. We like the way you can trial every application and game, downloading and installing them is as straightforward as you'd expect, and prices seem to be largely along similar lines to those on the Apple App Store.
While we don't have a crystal ball, we're confident that apps will come in time, and with them should follow the resurgence of Microsoft in the smartphone space. The new operating system is largely a success, and the handsets it has launched on are impressive pieces of kit.
Microsoft has laid the foundations. It's now time for its hardware partners, and the world's software developers, to pick up the baton. Only then will we know it's on to the next big thing.
This article originally appeared at pcpro.co.uk