Critics applaud Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 sneak preview

Jason Ankeny

Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 operating system is still months away from its official commercial premiere, but the revamped platform took a major step forward with the weekend release of a "technical preview" accompanied by promises the software is "now ready for the hands-on everyday use of a broad set of consumers around the world." Writing on the Windows Phone Blog, Windows Phone Engineering corporate vice president Terry Myerson reports WP7 is not yet finished, but Microsoft is ready to begin soliciting feedback from developers, consumers, operators and OEMs alike. The technical preview follows months of daily testing by more than 1,000 Microsoft staffers, with WP7 now trialed across more than 10,000 devices--the tests have focused on usability, battery life, network connectivity and related issues, Myerson notes. And check your mailbox: Microsoft is now shipping prototype WP7 devices from Asus, LG and Samsung to developer partners as well.

The Windows Phone 7 technical preview arrives roughly a week after Microsoft released its Windows Phone Developer Tools Beta, promising developers a "near final version" of the tools necessary to build WP7 applications and games. "With the Beta release of the tools, developers can build apps with a 'ship it' mentality," notes Windows Phone 7 director Brandon Watson on the Windows Phone Developer Blog, identifying top-level release items including full integration of Microsoft Expression Blend, Developer Registration Utility (enabling developers to unlock their Windows Phone 7 device for creative purposes) and a XAP Deployment Tool for deploying XAP files directly to unlocked devices. As for the Windows Phone 7 API, "We're getting close to completion," Watson reports. "Many namespaces that were previously distributed over several different DLLs have now been consolidated into one. In addition, there have been realignments and changes in several other namespaces as well. Push Notifications, Accelerometer and App Bar APIs have all been updated."

That's not all. Microsoft also announced a series of new WP7 additions including tighter cloud-based integration between mobile devices and PCs. Among the new features: Windows Phone Live, a companion site giving users a centralized hub to view pictures they've published, browse their Windows Live calendar and contacts, exchange OneNote files and access other information shared between the phone and the web. Writing on the Windows Phone Blog, Microsoft director of mobile communications Aaron Woodman notes the Windows Phone Live site offers 25GB of free SkyDrive storage--it also hosts the new Find My Phone service, enabling consumers to locate and manage a missing phone with map, ring, lock and erase capabilities. Woodman additionally touted a WP7 push notification service enabling applications to deliver real-time updates via live Tiles on the device homescreen. "This is a fresh start for Microsoft's mobile efforts; one in which we put the end user experiences at the center of every decision we make, from architecting a new design and integrated on-phone experiences, to taking more accountability for the hardware and application development platform," Woodman states.

So far, it's all adding up to positive response from the tech media, with bloggers praising the WP7 rough draft for its usability advances, processing speeds and multimedia experiences. Even so, Microsoft isn't taking any chances--last week, the company confirmed reports it is offering financial incentives to developers to stir interest in new Windows Phone 7 applications. Microsoft's senior director of mobile services and developer product management Todd Brix tells Bloomberg the software giant is providing everything from free tools and trial handsets to software development funding, even offering revenue guarantees in the event apps fail to sell as expected. Brix declined to state how much Microsoft will spend to woo developers to WP7, but said it is a larger sum than the company invested in previous compensation programs. "We are investing a lot to attract developers big and small to Windows Phone 7 to let them understand what the opportunity is and provide as many resources as we can to help them be successful on our platform," Brix said. "We're open for business and we want to work with them." The jury's still out on whether developers want to work with Microsoft, but at least for now, 7 looks like the company's lucky number. -Jason