The new Windows Phone 7 will be a bright performer for the company but where there's light, some dark remains, writes Lia Timson.
Microsoft is openly courting consumers with Windows Phone 7 after the beating it received from Apple's iPhone and Android models. However, the software giant doesn't want to alienate its business customers. It's a tricky spot to be in but one Microsoft believes the new operating system addresses.
With our hands on the first two WP7 handsets to be released – LG Optimus 7Q and Samsung Omnia 7 (see box) – we set out to discover how well the flashy new mobile platform delivers in the business environment.
Telstra is certainly hoping to sell it to corporate clients with new chief marketing officer Kate McKenzie declaring: "We think our business customers will love this phone too."
Delete any memory (painful or otherwise) of Windows Mobile. WP7 is a new beast designed using lessons learnt from the competition. This in itself is a giant step for Microsoft.
The user interface (UI) is sleek, snappy and intuitive. It respects the reality that people love apps and expect everything to be available 24/7 with a click or voice command.
To ensure a consistent user experience, the operating system is locked, preventing hardware manufacturers from overlaying their own UI or tying applications to a third party.
This means, regardless of make, every WP7 behaves in the same way. It has a home screen of square tiles representing people, calendar, pictures and phone "hubs". Users can choose which tiles they'd like to pin to the home screen, providing some degree of personalisation. Hardware makers and telcos have added hubs to persuade people to use their services and apps. A full list of installed options is displayed to the right of the home screen.
Each hub generally expands, scrolling from side to side with a swipe. The email hub offers clear text and easy-to-learn navigation. The calendar hub allows choice of Outlook, Gmail or Windows Live and features a handy "I'm late" button, which sends an email to any attendees included in an appointment. Google Calendar integration is seamless but, strangely, alerts from Windows Live delayed appointments by six hours in our tests.
Social networking and gaming are WP7's top priorities and the "people" hub integrates seamlessly with Facebook, Windows Live and Gmail. This presents problems if your enterprise is locked down and your workers are forbidden from accessing Facebook through company devices, as the feature cannot be disabled. Businesses hoping to integrate the "people" hub with LinkedIn and Twitter will also be disappointed as this is not yet available.
Office 2010 has its own hub with Word, PowerPoint, Excel, SharePoint and OneNote - which render documents beautifully. It supports Office Web Apps but only through MS Exchange, so those without an enterprise server can only synchronise documents using Windows Live's SkyDrive – the online consumer storage portal.
Without Microsoft Exchange and Sharepoint, the only way business users can sync their Outlook contacts with the phone is to push it through one of the cloud services – Windows Live or Gmail. In testing, we found it faster to do it through Gmail as Windows Live struggle with the size of our Outlook file.
Herein lies the biggest disappointment of WP7 – it does not support the synchronisation of files and contacts via a direct USB connection. The tether is only for transferring music, videos and photos via Zune, Microsoft's version of iTunes. Microsoft says this was done for "security reasons" and that WP7 is primarily "a loud phone", but we see it as a major weakness of WP7 and an obstacle for adoption.
Also, document syncs are done constantly using 3G (or Wi-Fi) whether Windows Live or SharePoint is used, so ensure your telco's data plan is generous.
IT managers are entitled to assume they can enable Microsoft Exchange on the devices, given the option to add Outlook, calendar and contacts on the handsets. They may have to wait for this if they use two-factor authentication.
Our tests using the LG failed to make the phone recognise the installed security certificates, preventing connection to our servers. Microsoft has since been working to tailor a solution to suit what it calls an "unusually complex Exchange set-up". It says most enterprises should be able to deploy WP7 devices "out of the box".
HANDS-ON WITH LG OPTIMUS 7Q AND SAMSUNG OMNIA 7
We tested both models before they hit the stores. Each phone features three hardware buttons on the front, a five-megapixel camera, capacitive touchscreen, GPS and accelerometer.
The LG Optimus 7Q has a qwerty keyboard (which makes it heavier), 16 gigabytes of memory and a very handy augmented reality app. It produced almost- always accurate maps of our location when pointed to the ground (including nearby restaurants and amenities) and weather when pointed to the sky.
The phone will be available from Telstra and a non-qwerty version from Optus. We think business users will get over qwerty eventually, given the constant improvement in accuracy and responsiveness of on-screen keyboards.
The Samsung Omnia 7 from Optus has a 10.6-centimetre (four- inch) Super AMOLED screen that is the envy of other manufacturers.
It is just as snappy as the LG model, has eight gigabytes of memory and uses the Windows button to wake the phone from power-saving mode, instead of a press of the on/ off button.
The cameras are adequate for business use, with individual images easily uploaded to all major sharing sites and email.
The mapping applications on both were accurate and user- friendly, even including reference points on relevant corners.