Windows Phone 7: Is it any good?

First things: huge thanks to my wonderful employers (Datacom), and Microsoft for helping me get to MIX10 in Las Vegas.

Is it any good?

When I first saw the Windows Phone 7 UI, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s not like Microsoft to take a ground-up rebuild of a platform and design, but in this case it is exactly what the Windows mobile platform needed.

But: I was disappointed by the crap responsiveness seen in all the UI videos. In every video there were missed taps, scrolls not happening, and long animation delays. Not what you want in a phone at all. I went as far as to call out Charlie Kindel on this, and got a bit of a palm-off in response.

Perhaps the best news out of MIX was that the software is getting better. I noticed that the phones used in partner demonstrations appeared notably faster and more responsive than the original phones demoed by Microsoft employees. This could be entirely coincidental, but as I understand it, there are multiple WP7 builds out there, and it makes sense that those more recently in possession of phones would have newer builds.

This is an object lesson in product development, and the very reason that Apple holds their products back from the public eye until they are completely polished. I do have to remind myself that it’s only a small cadre of geeks that are studying these iterations in detail. The general buzz around WP7 is very positive. I’d hope that Microsoft know enough to hold the phone back from the general public until it is ready – but we’ve seen with products like the XBox 360 that they will rush a release sometimes.

I’m stating the frakking obvious here, but the only people able to screw this up are Microsoft themselves. If anyone at Microsoft is listening, please keep saying “not good enough” until the UI and hardware is close to perfect.

What about app development?

This is where WP7 is really going to shine. Microsoft dev tools just get better with every release, and one of Microsoft’s most powerful assets is their developer community. Visual Studio 2010 is a genuine pleasure to use, and the combination of .NET, Silverlight, and XNA platforms for WP7 development are going to bring hordes of developers to the platform.

This leaves us with a bunch of questions.

Will there be an active app market? Apple has shown that an active market can and will drive product sales. Microsoft will have an active market. The barrier to entry is much lower than iPhone development. The language is easier to use, there is already a huge store of Silverlight knowledge, and developers don’t need to fork out for a Mac to make software. I’ll be hugely surprised if all the standard bases of productivity, games, and fart apps aren’t completely saturated at launch.

Will there be enough consumers for this market? That is the crucial, and most delicate issue. Microsoft have the ability to lose badly here. If they don’t execute perfectly and completely, the iPhone will keep charging ahead, with Android filling in the gaps. On the other hand, if Microsoft do it right, they will be up there competing with the iPhone, and even fuelling innovation in the smartphone world. If consumers love the phone, the market will follow.

Will there be too many crap apps? This is a real risk. The iPhone app store is bad enough with its crapflood of fart apps and single-RSS apps. The barriers to entry for WP7 are so low that there is a risk of these sort of useless $0.99 apps overwhelming the useful apps in the store. Hopefully a mix of curation and filtering will keep things in check.

How do you get involved?

I keep saying the barrier to entry is low. If you want to see just how low, download the free tools from http://developer.windowsphone.com, then visit this awesome summary post from Microsoft NZ’s Nigel Parker.

I’ll be incredibly surprised if you haven’t got a Hello World app up and running within 30 minutes.

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