Microsoft may be late to the game with a consumer-savvy phone OS, but Windows Phone 7 is aiming to do right a lot of what Google is doing wrong. Based on what I saw during a visit to Microsoft’s headquarters two weeks ago, the Windows Phone 7 team may be on the right track to pose a serious threat to Google.
The crucial part of Microsoft’s new phone strategy is the quality control it imposes onto its hardware partners. Rather than code an operating system and allow manufacturers to do whatever they want with it–like Google is doing with Android–Microsoft is requiring hardware partners to meet a rigid criteria in order to run Windows Phone 7.
Each device must feature three standard hardware buttons, for example, and before they can ship with Windows Phone 7, they have to pass a series of tests directed by Microsoft. (As I mentioned in a feature story about Windows Phone 7, Microsoft has created new lab facilities containing robots and automated programs to test each handset to ensure that features work properly and consistently across multiple devices.)
The effort to control quality and consistency may be just what Microsoft needs to regain some ground in the phone battle. In the wake of the iPhone revolution, Windows Mobile saw a serious decline in market share; the computer-ey, feature-loaded interface just didn’t cut it anymore. Windows Phone 7 is Microsoft’s complete do-over on a mobile operating system, with a slick new tile-based UI. The first Windows Phone 7 handsets are due in stores November.
With brand new test facilities, Microsoft is taking on the duty of ensuring that touchscreens and sensors are calibrated properly, for example, and each hardware model undergoes software stress tests to catch bugs and system errors (see picture above). The end result should be getting very close to the same OS on smartphones made by different manufacturers. That in turn could mitigate the issue of fragmentation for third-party developers: They can effectively code the same app for a large party of devices without much tweaking.
By contrast, Google doesn’t subject manufacturers to similar testing criteria. And we’re seeing the consequences: Some touchscreens work better than others, some apps don’t work on one version of Android while they do on another, and some manufacturers are even cramming bloatware onto Android devices.
Most importantly, a consistent user experience will help customers understand what they’re getting when they’re shopping for a Windows phone.
The OS is going to be the same with identical features on every handset, so as a consumer, your decision-making will boil down to the hardware’s look, weight and size. Compare that to the experience of buying an Android phone, which could be running a different version depending on the handset you buy: Donut, Eclair, Froyo, blueberry pie, neapolitan or whatever Google chooses to call it eventually. You won’t have to ask yourself, “Am I going to get X on this phone or do I have to get another one?” because they’re all running the same OS with a few variations in hardware.
The inevitable question that arises is what Windows Phone 7 means as a competitor to iOS. It’s tough to say.
I haven’t spent quite enough time with a final version of a Windows Phone 7 device yet. Still, I think the Phone 7 user interface is refreshingly different compared to the siloed-app experience of iOS. But Apple is so far ahead in terms of cultivating a rich mobile ecosystem that I don’t think Steve Jobs needs to be sweating just yet.
Google, though, needs to get Android’s story together, because the fickle platform gets more confusing and convoluted every day, and it could have the same destiny as Windows Mobile.
Brian X. Chen is author of an upcoming book about the always-connected mobile future titled Always On, due for publication in spring 2011. To keep up with his coverage on Wired.com, follow @bxchen or @gadgetlab.
Photo: Mike Kane/Wired.com
Monday, October 11, 2010
Why Windows Phone 7 Will Make Android Look Chaotic | Gadget Lab