Top 7 Windows Phone 7 Highlights from MIX10

From a scaled-down Office client to the much larger role of Silverlight, here are seven things about Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 preview that stood out at last week's conference.

Having followed Microsoft's mobile saga for years, it is quite interesting to see the company's Windows Phone 7 strategy unfold over the past few months. In a report published earlier this year, the prognosis for Microsoft's mobile strategy was looking bleak. While it remains to be seen if Windows Phone 7 manages to make a major dent in the market, there are many who see an improved prognosis.

"It's a three-horse race between Apple, Google and Microsoft," said Giovanni Gallucci, organizer of the Windows Mobile Developer Camp last year, who said new Windows Phone camps are in the works (more to come about that in the near future).

While Microsoft said it plans to support Windows Mobile 6.x for years to come, developers and partners will have to rebuild their apps for Windows Mobile Phone 7. That is a strategy that appears to have backfired on Palm, which last year released its WebOS platform. Apps developed for WebOS are not compatible with the older PalmOS platform (see "Is Windows Phone 7 Following in Palm's Footsteps"?).

But proponents of Microsoft's moves say the improvements in Windows Phone 7 Series over the existing Windows Mobile platform will ultimately appeal to its huge ecosystem of existing and future partners, which range from hardware makers, wireless carriers and ISVs.

"From the standpoint of partners I think it's positive, its breaths new life to the platform and it allows Microsoft partners to go to clients and customers and say 'hey we've got something sexy we've got something exciting'' said IDC analyst Al Hilwa in a telephone interview from MIX last week. "They've got a phone that can still be tied to the enterprise but it will be fun, exciting and productive. They realized they no longer have to put the PC desktop into a mobile device."

Microsoft revealed Windows Phone Mobile Series 7 at last month's annual World Mobile Congress in Barcelona, but at MIX 10 it put some real flesh on the bone. Here are some things that came to light at MIX (or at least became more clear to a broader audience):

1. Silverlight *IS* the New Platform, and It's Free
While Windows Mobile is based on native .NET code, Windows Phone 7 moves to a Web-centric RIA model. "That's interesting because it's the exact same development platform for Web browsers is now going to be how you develop applications for Windows Phone 7," Hilwa said. "It's a bit of a leap of faith. Remember Silverlight is free [as is the tooling, which consists of Microsoft's Visual Studio and Blend, released at MIX].  They are not going to be making money on browsers and Silverlight and, for that matter, what they make on the phone."

"It's a big jump for them to take their future generation of development to a Web style of computing, that's actually quite a dramatic change for them," he continued.

2. Web Browser Improved but Not Stellar
Gartner analyst David Smith took a look at the new browser at MIX and gave it a C- in his blog post summing up his observations of Windows Phone 7 at MIX. "Nowhere near as bad as what they've had on Windows mobile, nowhere near as good as IE 9 looks to be, and falls significantly short of Safari on the iPhone," Smith wrote. "Without a strong Web browser, they will be at a disadvantage as leading edge HTML5 Web apps become more than a curiosity. I believe that five years from now, the mobile Web (browser apps) will be a major force, accounting for half of mobile apps. That doesn't mean that native apps won't matter. They absolutely will. But less than today And those with strong Web browsers will be better positioned than those without it. Microsoft is clearly years behind Apple (and even Android) in the apps race. They are also behind them in the Web apps race. They would have been better positioned if they were ahead in something."

3. Farewell Active Synch, Hello Zune
In his post keynote address breaking down Windows Phone, Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president for Microsoft's Windows Phone program management, received a rousing applause when disclosing that Zune would be PC-based interface for synchronizing data and content between Windows Phones and PCs. As for Active Synch: "That's gone," he said, though it will be supported for Windows Mobile and other devices. His speech is available for viewing here.

4. Silverlight Initially Won't Run in the Mobile Browser
While developers can build applications with the free Silverlight tooling, it will not run in the mobile browser, noted blogger Mary Jo Foley, pointing to a session she attended led by product manager Mike Harsh at Mix. "What's up with that?" asked Gartner analyst David Smith, in his own critique of Windows 7 Phone.  However in an update to her post, Foley said that a developer found a way to get Silverlight to work using the Windows Phone 7 emulator.

5. Office Will Be Minimalistic
Engadget posted unofficial shots of what Word, Excel and OneNote will look like based on an unlocked version of the Windows Phone emulator. 'While there's a high probability that this a super-early version of the app, it's still revealing in how drastically minimal it is," wrote Nilay Patel in his post.  "Microsoft says most people just want to make minor edits and leave comments to Office docs while on the go, not make large edits with copy and paste, so we'd expect to see track changes in the final version, but something tells us the main interface isn't going to look tremendously different than this."

6. Microsoft To Place Marketplace Controls
Developers will have to host their wares on Microsoft's Windows Phone Marketplace, reported Engadget. Nevertheless Gallucci, who met with Microsoft Windows Phone Marketplace product manager Todd Biggs, told us that Microsoft is taking a hybrid approach to its marketplace. It is less stringent than Apple's but more controlled than Google's, he said. Those using the new Windows Phone emulator tool will have to confirm that it has scanned the app to ensure the app is designed around the hardware limitations of the devices. It will also look for content such as pornography or hate-speech, malware and other objectionable content or code, he said. "Biggs tells me yes we are controlling the platform but they're going to release a developer tool, that will allow developers to go ahead and run through the application themselves," Gallucci explained. "And if it passes on your desktop, all Microsoft is going to do is verify that it passed and you can put it on the store." There will be alternative methods for enterprise developers, Engadget reported.

7. Gaming's a Gem
Windows Phone gaming features stands out at this point, noted IDC's Hilwa. "A big play is the gaming and software side of this which they talked about this," Hilwa said, saying this is a key differentiator verses Apple, Google and Research In Motion. "That's because XNA is a platform that works across different devices," Belfiore said in his presentation. "We are making it possible to play these games not just with other people who have Windows Phones but with other people who have PCs and eventually who have Xbox 360 consoles as well."

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