After more than a month of living with Windows Phone 7, I have to say, Microsoft's new phone operating system is starting to grow on me.
Although I liked the general look of the operating system, I suspected its simplicity was only skin deep and that over time I would uncover both annoying glitches and places where the phone was all too much like a little computer.
Instead, there are hidden delights. In the past week I've found the cursor, voice recognition, and other things that I missed in my first days playing with the phone. Here are just a few examples of features that I only recently noticed: if you are in an e-mail or other place where one might want a cursor, hold a finger down in one place and a cursor pops up that you can then drag to the place you want to go. Click to the left of an e-mail and it brings up the check boxes that can be used to delete multiple e-mails--one of the most common tasks people do on their phones.
Holding down the camera shutter button lets you take a picture--even if the phone is locked. As for the voice recognition, holding down the Windows button brings up an array of voice-controlled features that draw on Microsoft's Tellme technology.
A decent case can be made that these features should be more obvious, but what's nice is that these features are discoverable through serendipity as well as from a manual.
Microsoft often throws around the phrase "it just works" as a design goal for a new piece of software. In practice, however, the products rarely live up to that billing. That said, Microsoft appears to be pretty close with Windows Phone 7. Although the software is not final and it is running on prototype hardware (in my case the Samsung Taylor), its clean look isn't interrupted by error messages, hiccups, or other form breaks.
Above all, Windows 7 is--dare I say--elegant. Even my foreign-language spam looks beautiful on the device. It almost makes me wish I understood all those messages in Japanese, Korean, and Arabic.
Its beauty is more than skin deep, too.
One of the things I demand in a phone is that it behave like a portable consumer electronic device, not like a tiny computer. It should be instant on, easy to navigate without too much thought, and hide nearly all its complexity. To me that's what made the original iPhone and all its successors such a hit. (It's also why I think the iPad poses a serious challenge in the market for highly portable computing, but that's another story.)
With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft doesn't make up for all of its years of lost ground in this area, but what it does, it does very well.
The camera application makes it easy to take photos and videos and share them to Facebook or send them via e-mail or multimedia message (MMS). The mobile version of Internet Explorer adds pinch-to-zoom and other features that put it in the same league as other mobile browsers.
I'm not a huge fan of virtual keyboards in general, but the one built into Windows Phone 7 is pretty good, especially when accounting for how good it is at making suggestions for what one mistypes.
It's not all sunshine and rainbows, though.
Most of what I don't like about Windows Phone 7 traces back to the fact that this is--despite its polish--what amounts to a new first try for Microsoft. There are some key things missing that one finds in rival products. High up on that list for me is the fact that copy and paste are missing. I do a lot of e-mail on my phone, and one thing I like to do is copy chunks out of one e-mail and paste them in another. On occasion I even write whole stories on my BlackBerry. I can't do that on Windows Phone 7.
My biggest gripe is battery life. Despite being a vast improvement over the hour-and-a-half life it once got, my Windows Phone 7 device won't get me through a busy workday--and that's without listening to music or playing games (I still don't have any third-party apps on the device).
That said, I'm told that Microsoft and its partners have made further gains in battery life and that the shipping devices should at least reach my goal of being able to be used hard for a full day (and I'm not talking just an 8-to-12-hour workday here).
I hope so, because the built-in Zune player--particularly streaming music over the Web--is one of the selling points of the phone. And, although we haven't heard a lot about Microsoft's app strategy, Windows Phone will launch with a whole lot of programs; and it would be a shame if one has to ration use of those programs to conserve battery.
One of the key yet-to-be-answered questions is just how good the final hardware will be. Microsoft has said that the Samsung Taylor units are meant only to show off the software and aren't indicative of what the first crop of real phones will be like. Several models that are aimed at the market--including phones from LG, HTC, and Samsung--have gotten regulatory approval, but we have yet to get time to see how they stack up to both Android rivals and the iPhone.