I'm not the biggest fan of Microsoft. Both my original Xboxes now run Linux, I've converted my laptop and computers to Ubuntu, and I generally laugh in the face of Microsoft's increasingly desperate attempts to stay relevant.
So it was with great mirth that I went along to a BizSpark event a few weeks ago. Microsoft were going to be showing off their latest "innovation" - Windows Phone 7.
I went along expecting to hate it and, instead, found myself curiously drawn to it.
I played with the demo hardware and software and had my expectations blown away. I'll be honest - I expected crap. I had horrible memories of the stylus oriented Windows Mobile 6. The phone which would display an hourglass if you had the temerity to receive a phone call while playing solitaire.
Windows Phone 7 (WP7) was a million miles away from the old Microsoft experience.
The user interface is refreshingly simple and fun to use. It's like nothing else I've tried before and I really think that Microsoft has outclassed both Android and Apple.
Pushing so much information to the homescreen really makes you want to use your phone constantly. iPhone only does this half-heartedly and Android does it without much animation or UI consistency.
App Store. One excellent feature of the MS app store is the "Try Before You Buy" model. Rather than a developer putting out a free, limited version and a "pro" version they can publish a single app. They can restrict the features and functionality of the "demo" version until the customer makes the purchase. Or, after a set period of time, the demo version can become non-functioning. Or have reduced function. Brilliant.
Gaming on this device will be huge. It looks like it will be simple to port games from the Xbox to WP7 - that gives it a great competative advantage. Tie in Xbox Live (or whatever it's called) and you'll get gamers buying the same game twice - once on the console and once on the phone. The 3D power of the phones was stunning.
There are some serious shortcomings in the Windows Phone 7 vision of the future which Microsoft urgently need to address.
- Expand the development options. If you want to write for Windows Phone 7, you'll need Windows installed on your computer. Given that Android allows you to develop on Windows, Mac and Linux, it doesn't make sense to make developers buy a new operating system. Especially as iPhone development is tied to Apple.
- Open it up. I love the idea of integrating my phone with my Xbox live account - but I don't have an Xbox! Open it up so that my Wii or PS3 gaming experience can be pushed to the homescreen.
- The same goes for mail and IM - don't restrict it just to Exchange and MSN. Openness is hard for Microsoft, but it will attract more customers to the platform.
- Have a firm, public roadmap for enhancements which all manufacturers stick to. Android is currently being stifled by manufacturers like HTC who refuse to update the software on their customers' devices.
- Revenue share for developers needs to be better. At the moment it's the same 70/30 split being offered by Android and Apple. It needs to be lower for two key reasons.
- Attract developers to the fledgling ecosystem.
- To avoid any accusations of a cartel. To have all three major platforms "independently" converge on the same revenue share deal looks suspicious.
I've played with the prototype hardware and I'm impressed. The software is really good. Much better that Microsoft's usual standard.
It has to be.
Microsoft are betting their mobile future on this platform. Win6.5 failed. Kin failed. They can't afford another high profile failure like this. Mirosoft are putting their best people on this project and, as far as I can tell, are revisiting their Xbox strategy; SPEND SPEND SPEND.
By the time the phones launch (holiday season 2010) you won't be able to move without seeing an advert. They will crank up their media machine to 11. Just like the original Xbox, they will buy their way in to the market with a view that - like the Xbox 360 - the real prize is several years away.
I hope they succeed. Not because I have any love for Microsoft, but because Nokia, Apple, and Google will all have to raise the quality of their software and hardware to compete against Microsoft's marketing expenditure.
I'm a Linux geek - and I think Windows Phone 7 is the best thing to come out of Redmond in a very long time.