Chris Roberts

Windows Phone 7: The First 24 Hours

• Posted in Technology

Windows Phone 7 officially launched in the UK on Thursday 21st October. Unfortunately nobody at Microsoft seems to have mentioned this to the hardware manufacturers, the networks or the retailers. Unless you lived inside the M25 your chances of getting a handset on launch day were pretty minimal.

The whole thing seemed a bit rushed and nobody I asked seemed to know exactly what was happening. One particular shop assistant, when asked whether they had any Windows Phone 7 devices in stock replied with, “Is that one of those new Android phones?”

Despite this I did eventually obtain a handset on Saturday, 2 days after the launch (yes, I know, it was only two days!). The handset in question is the HTC Trophy and I have it connected with Vodafone. There are plenty of reviews of both the hardware and the operating system itself, so I don't plan on going into either in any great detail.

What follows is an account of my first impressions as a real user of Windows Phone 7, concentrating on the features that mattered to me!

Up and Running

After switching on for the first time you are greeted with a fairly painless 'quick setup' routine. Being me, I chose to skip all but the essentials so that I could start looking around right away.

I'm pleased to report that everything you've heard about the user interface is exactly right. It is extremely responsive and very fast. In fact, I spent a good few minutes just flying around the interface - it really does feel like a very nice place to be!

The only real source of disappointment for me was the fact that the user interface makes use of 'context menus'. Holding your finger on certain interface elements for a couple of seconds brings up a menu of additional operations related to that item. This isn't a big deal when you know that it's there - but that's the problem. There's nothing which makes it immediately obvious that you are able to do this, so a little trial-and-error is required at first.

The rest of the settings were easily made, including connecting to my wireless network. The reasons behind this ease of setup are twofold. Firstly, it looks like a lot of work has gone into making sure a lot of the legwork is done automatically. Secondly, you don't need settings for features which don't exist yet!

For example, I was quite surprised to see that there is no support for making VPN connections. As with copy and paste, I'm sure it won't be too long before this gets added, though. This is, after all, only a version 1 product from a company that has staked its reputation on making Windows Phone 7 a success.

So - I was up and running very quickly - in general it just works.

As you'll have read elsewhere, the web browser is very responsive - quite a surprise for an IE based product. Some JavaScript operations could be a bit quicker, and the font rendering for very small text could do with some more anti-aliasing. Making phone calls is also pretty painless and generally seems to work well.

My one gripe here is that Microsoft haven't stuck to the 'traditional' green button to make calls and red button to end calls. Instead, the normal UI colours are used for the 'call' button and your selected 'accent colour' is used for the 'end call' button. This means that the call button gets a little lost as it is white text on a black background - just like any other button. Unfortunately I have chosen green as my accent colour which means that my 'end call' button is now a counter-intuitive green.

In general the consistency of the interface is something to be applauded - but I do think this is one instance where sticking to phone convention would have been more beneficial than sticking to the interface guidelines.

Now to get some e-mail working...

Exchange Server Synchronisation

Windows Phone 7 supports multiple e-mail accounts, including multiple Exchange Server accounts.
As I have already mentioned, VPN connections are not supported - so if your corporate Exchange Server isn't public-facing you're out of luck.

Fortunately, our corporate server is public facing, but unfortunately it is secured with a self-signed SSL certificate. I didn't think that this would be a problem as I have had this setup working with my iPhone for a while now. Despite my best efforts (including installing the certificate on my phone), I couldn't get this working.

Another thing worthy of note for corporate users is that I have so far been unable to find a certificate management app. Certificates can be installed by either hosting them on a web server and navigating to them in the phone's web browser, or by e-mailing in to a POP mail account which you can connect to separately on the phone. Once you have the e-mail on the phone, open the attachment and the certificate will be installed.

Swapping out our self-signed Exchange Server certificate for a 'proper' SSL certificate (which is something we should have done a while ago anyway) solved the connection problem and the phone started synchronising shortly afterwards.

The problems I had were, admittedly, more to do with the configuration of our Exchange Server than a problem with the phone itself. It does appear, though, that the phone is quite fussy about the SSL configuration. I suspect this is a product of Microsoft's recently found (but welcome) nervousness surrounding security.

Once synchronised, it was time to take a look around my newly synchronised data. The e-mail app has some very nice features. One of my personal favourites is the 'Unread' view which (as the name suggests) only shows e-mails which are marked as unread. HTML e-mails render very well and attachment handling seems pretty good.

The calendar app is everything it should be. Thankfully, unlike the iPhone, it even supports the ability to mark appointments as 'private'. As my Exchange calendar is made available to other people within my organisation, this is something that's very important to me and was one of my biggest iPhone bugbears.

Both of these apps feature 'Live Tiles' which can be pinned to the phone's start screen. These tiles update to show you the number of unread e-mails and any upcoming appointments, respectively. They also act as a 'quick launch' button to take you through to the full app.

Live Tiles feature throughout the interface and appear to work really well. I do wonder whether I am going to be able to keep the number of tiles on my start page to a sensible number, though?

People: Getting Social

'Contacts' on Windows Phone 7 become 'People'. It's a subtle change in language but it underlines a complete change in attitude. You no longer have an app which simply stores a database of business cards. Instead you get the 'People Hub'.

The intention is that the People Hub provides a central place to not only find contact details, but to keep up-to-date with what the people behind the contact cards are doing. This is achieved by tightly integrating with the online services provided by Windows Live and Facebook.

At first I was quite sceptical, even nervous, about this feature. I half expected some horrendous merging of data from Facebook into my Exchange Server data. Luckily my fears were unfounded and I was actually pleasantly surprised by the results.

Instead of merging data, Windows Phone 7 links matching contacts from various sources and displays their details in one place. Where contacts can't be automatically linked, you can do it yourself quite easily.

The result is a place where you can find your contacts, call them, send them messages of various types, map their addresses, view their updates from Facebook and post messages on their Facebook Wall.

You can also elect to pin individual contacts to your start screen. This gives them their very own Live Tile which shows pictures and updates from Facebook and acts as a shortcut to view their full details.

Overall, it works - and it works very well. So well, in fact, that it has actually renewed my interest in using Facebook regularly.

Twitter support is conspicuous by its absence and is a bit of a disappointment as I am more of a Tweeter than a Facebooker. Twitter is well represented by third party apps, but I'd love to see it integrated with the People Hub. If the rumour mill is to be believed, native support is on its way - let's hope this is true.

Office

I must admit that at the time of writing I haven't spent much time in the Office Hub. But - I have seen enough to know that it's going to be pretty useful.

Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote documents can all be edited and viewed on the device and all but PowerPoint documents can be created from scratch (although in reality, you probably wouldn't want to create a full spreadsheet on the phone!).

The Office Hub is well connected. Documents can be synchronised with your SkyDrive on Windows Live or your PC. You can also connect to a SharePoint server.

Third Party Apps

There are already an encouraging number of apps available in the Marketplace to buy and download. The shopping process is very similar to that of Apple's App Store - albeit with a Windows Phone 7 style interface.

One of the most encouraging aspects of this is the number of 'official' apps that have already been written. Twitter, Foursquare, IMDB and Shazam, for example, have all released their own apps. Most of these are solid first versions. Having said that I don't think there's a single one that hasn't got some things I'd like changed.

As good as this is, it has to be said that there are also a lot of quite bad apps available at the moment, too. Over time these will hopefully 'sink to the bottom' in favour of better quality efforts.
One thing that app developers are really going to have to work on is the very high bar which has been set by the built-in apps in terms of the user interface. Of the apps I've tried, few match the fluidity of the built-in apps.

Overall Impression

All in all, I'm very happy with my new device.

I don't think Windows Phone 7 will be for everyone, at least not for a while. I eagerly await updates from Microsoft for the operating system itself and from app developers as they gain a more complete understanding of the new platform.

A little maturity will, I believe, propell the platform into a position where it can be a genuine competitor for Apple and Google.