In late 2009 a rumor floated that Microsoft were going to start from scratch with their Windows Mobile OS. At the time, I thought about how cool it could be, but it didn't sound like something Microsoft would ever do.
Well they did it; in about 18 months they started from scratch and created something wholly original and non-derivative of the iPhone, and it's even cooler than I had ever imagined.
Windows Phone 7 is a fresh start, designed around all the principles that Apple has made essential to the modern smartphone market. High-spec hardware, thoughtful and powerful design, multitouch ingrained into the core of the OS, smooth visual performance and animation, a singular app store model and comprehensive developer support. The UI concept is surprisingly (for Microsoft) thoroughly thought out, with minimal chrome - making the content center-stage. The design language, Metro, used throughout the OS is very modern and beautiful, albeit certainly not for everyone.
Windows Phone 7 'just works' in a way I've never seen a Microsoft product do; add your Google and Facebook accounts to the device, and suddenly your contacts are enriched by data from both services, including pictures, status messages, addresses, contact details and more. No setup required, it's all built-in. Your Facebook timeline is displayed in the Contacts app, allowing you to check up on what your contacts are doing. The entire experience is very pleasant. Similarly, the Photos app will show your albums from Facebook and Windows Live too, as well as a Facebook timeline of photo postings from your contacts, of course allowing you to comment on them. Photos taken with the onboard camera will also automatically upload to your Facebook or Windows Live accounts if you so opt.
While the first-party, native apps on the OS are really great, third-party apps are a bit of a mixed bag. They are created using Silverlight, and themed to match the rest of the OS. As such, while they make a good attempt at it, you can still tell that they're not native apps. Controls work in different ways, keyboard input is slightly sluggish, and performance isn't consistent. Naturally, since this is the first ever version of Silverlight on a smartphone, there's a lot of performance that can be added and issues fixed with software updates in time. The most egregious problem however is multitasking, or the lack thereof. This wouldn't be so much of a problem if third-party apps launched instantly, and didn't quit if you locked the screen, but right now both problems are very obvious - apps can take three or more seconds to launch at their fastest. I have no doubt that Microsoft will enable multitasking along with copy & paste in the next year, but right now it's a frustrating experience. The worst part for me is when you lock the screen while running a third party app: when you unlock the phone, the app will start resuming - if you hit the home button before the app finishes, the app will continue launching in the background and the phone will switch back into the app after it's done (even though you explicitly told the OS to go back to the homescreen). Nonetheless, I have been consistently surprised with the quality of third-party apps on Windows Phone 7, all things considered. Furthermore, even the most badly written app still inherits the charming Metro style and fits in very well with the OS.
I have been using an LG Optimus 7 as my main phone for a few days now, and months ago I spent a few weeks with a prototype LG WP7 device as my primary phone. I would be remiss if I didn't say I adore it; the Optimus 7 is very sleek and feels like a premium device, and Windows Phone 7 itself makes me smile every time I use it, as the Zune HD did (it being the first touchscreen device with an earlier version of the Metro design). The seamless service integration really makes the OS pleasant to use, and, since the iPad is my primary Internet device, I am not missing the iPhone one bit.
Microsoft set out to create a new phone platform that was as good as the iPhone, yet offered a rich choice of devices and form factors so that users can choose the one they want. There are clearly rough edges, but nothing that cannot and will not be fixed in due time with software updates. Microsoft really have bet the house on the idea of a consumer smartphone; this isn't going to appeal to the kind of people who choose Android, but it will appeal to the vast amount of people who don't yet own a smartphone. It may even appeal to many iPhone users (as I said, I adore the OS, no less). For a company whom everyone had expected to fade into irrelevance in the smartphone business, Microsoft has pulled a remarkable 180°. I can't wait to see where this ideology leads them; maybe one day they'll rewrite Windows from scratch too ;-)