Microsoft Builds A Zune Phone: The Misnamed Windows Phone 7 Series

Several questions were left unanswered at Microsoft’s launch of Windows Phone 7 Series at the Mobile World Congress 2010 on February 15.  Since then, and particularly at the MIX developer conference this week, we’ve begun to hear answers, most of which indicate that Microsoft has dramatically shifted its view of smartphones.  To summarize, Windows Phone 7 Series has no multitasking, removable storage (MicroSD cards) support, file explorer, or copy-and-paste.

It’s quite clear that Microsoft has shifted lock-stock-and-barrel from its idea of shrinking near-PC-level functionality into smartphones (Windows Mobile actually used to be called “Pocket PC”) to instead embrace Apple’s tightly-controlled, appliance-like approach to phones– the kind of vertically-integrated approach Microsoft has already used for Xbox and Zune.

Essentially what we’re left with is a misnamed OS– this is not a Windows Phone, but a Zune Phone.  The “Windows” brand implies a full-fledged computer, not a music player with a phone built in.  It’s important to note that Apple’s phone is not called a Mac Phone– it’s an extended iPod, hence iPhone.  Microsoft also makes this branding separation- Xbox and Zune don’t contain any Windows branding, for example.  Why, then, does Microsoft continue to use the Windows Phone brand when its mobile OS no longer has anything to do with Windows?

Read on for more details.

Multitasking

The first question that arose after Microsoft’s MWC presentation was whether Windows Phone 7 Series would support real multitasking as seen in Windows Mobile 6.x, Google’s Android OS, and Palm’s WebOS.  The answer is no.  While we were initially led to believe that the OS has some form of multitasking enabled for only certain applications, Microsoft revealed at MIX that in fact it has no multitasking support at all.  Once the user returns home from an app, the app is suspended in memory (“dehydrated”).  If the OS needs more memory, it’ll shift the suspended app into storage.  When the user starts the app again, it’ll be restored (“rehydrated”) either from memory or storage, but the key point is, of course, that the app cannot run in the background when it’s not immediately facing the user.

This means that, just like the current iPhone, Windows Phone 7 Series will entirely lack multitasking.  In other words, simple tasks like playing internet radio from Pandora or chatting in an IM client while browsing the web will now be impossible.

Most interesting, of course, is the rumor that the iPhone may get multitasking support in version 4.0 (likely arriving in June), which would create quite an amusing situation– Microsoft will have regressed from an OS (Windows Mobile) that supports true multitasking, copy-and-paste, and much more, into one that has none of those, while the competition will have moved in the other direction.

Side-Loaded Apps

Windows Mobile 6.x was like a real Windows desktop OS in that you can install apps from anywhere– load your own programs from an SD card (“side-loading”), use Microsoft’s Marketplace for Mobile, buy apps from one of the dozens of third-party stores online, etc.

Microsoft has stated that the only way to load applications on a Windows Phone 7 Series device, however, will be through the Windows Phone Marketplace (though special arrangements will be made for enterprise customers).  This is identical to Apple’s apps policy on the iPhone and much more restrictive than that of Windows Mobile or Google Android, both of which support “side-loading” apps.  As a result, while you could theoretically write your own WinMo or Android app and host it (or sell it) on your own website with no additional costs, this is not the case for Windows Phone 7.

Microsoft clearly now thinks of mobile phones in the same category as media players and video game consoles– both Zune and Xbox have tightly-controlled third-party content and application support.

Removable Storage

Most Windows Mobile phones have limited on-board storage, instead relying on MicroSD cards (which are currently available at sizes up to 16GB, with 32GB cards coming soon) for memory expansion.  This allows manufacturers to save a bit on phone production costs, gives customers flexibility (you can choose different sizes of cards, swap out cards, etc.), and also makes phones more futureproof (you can always purchase a larger card later on, instead of having to buy a new phone, as on the iPhone).

Yet Microsoft opted to remove MicroSD card support in Windows Phone 7 Series.  We can think of two major reasons for this.  One, built-in storage is probably easier for average consumers to deal with than external cards.  More importantly, however, it allows for Microsoft to much more tightly control DRM content (songs, videos, etc.) and organize the phone’s storage space as it likes.

This is the Zune and Xbox approach to storage, not the Windows one.

File System

Windows Mobile 6.x File Explorer and iFile application for jailbroken iPhones

Windows Mobile has always had a PC-like file system accessible through USB and other means, along with a File Explorer to work with files on the phone itself.  This made things convenient for power users, but perhaps less so for normal users who are more used to iTunes than dragging and dropping files into folders on a USB disk.

Windows Phone 7 Series takes a radical swing in the other direction, completely adopting Apple’s approach.  The file system, like that of the iPhone and iPods, is encrypted and inaccessible by any means other than the Zune desktop software, which manages songs and videos.  WP7 also lacks a File Explorer for managing files on the phone.

Again, this is the way Zune and Xbox handle files (hide them from you, Apple-style), not how Windows does.

Copy and Paste

Even Microsoft's Pocket PC 2000, which predated most handheld color screens, had copy-and-paste; Apple added the feature in iPhone OS 3.0

As confirmed recently, Windows Phone 7 Series lacks copy-and-paste support.  Microsoft says it’s built in a system that detect and turn phone numbers and email addresses into links, which should take care of what most users would need copy-and-paste for.  That’s an interesting take, given that Apple, Palm, and even RIM have such a “smart highlighting” feature built in, yet also have copy-and-paste support, and even more so because Windows Phone has traditionally been strong in business productivity through the Office Mobile suite.  Doesn’t Microsoft realize that copy-and-paste is crucial for creating and editing documents?  Or that Apple added the feature to the iPhone OS (in version 3.0) for a reason?

Conclusion – Microsoft Builds a Zune Phone

Most of these issues won’t affect the average consumer.  After all, millions of people were happy with even the first-generation Apple iPhone OS, which lacked all of these features and didn’t even have third-party app support.  But the market has changed, and thanks to Google Android and Palm’s WebOS, many smartphone buyers are now used to multitasking on their phones.  Of course, it’s particularly sad that Microsoft would omit these features, given that Windows Mobile, whose expansive feature set is oft-underappreciated, has had them for years.  So what does this mean?  It means that, as stated repeatedly at the Windows Phone 7 Series launch, Microsoft now thinks “the phone is not a PC.”

Microsoft has dropped the “Pocket PC” thinking that drove nearly a decade and a half of Windows handheld computing OSes, instead adopting Apple’s idea of the phone as a smart appliance.  Appliances are meant to be easy to use, with a single or few purposes.  So what you end up with is Windows Phone 7 Series– sure, it has the same underlying bits as Windows Mobile, paired with an impressive array of development tools, thanks to Microsoft’s corporate stack of .NET, XNA, Silverlight, Visual Studio, Expression Blend, and more, but at its heart, WP7 is the Zune Phone people have long clamored for.  You asked for it, so you got it.

Meanwhile those of us looking for something more open, more tweakable, less under lock-and-key, will have to look elsewhere.  Windows Mobile 6.x will be around for a while, thanks to the HTC HD2 (quite a fitting finale for WinMo, we must say) and XDA-Developers, if not Microsoft and HTC, but what about after that?  Will Android be the only remaining open platform once WinMo withers away?

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