Microsoft took the wraps off its Windows Phone 7 mobile operating system today, promising a shift of focus from functionality to the user. Announcing the Windows Phone 7 platform at a press conference in New York that was streamed live to simultaneous press events around the world, Microsoft head Steve Ballmer proclaimed the new ethos was for the phones to be "always delightful; wonderfully mine".
Six handsets will be available to preorder in the UK next week. Samsung, HTC, LG and Dell are the hardware launch partners for the Windows Phone 7 OS, with Vodafone, O2, T-Mobile and Orange all signed up to carry the devices.
Two handsets stand out so far. The HTC HD7 is a 4.3in screen device with a 1GHz Snapdragon processor, 16GB internal memory and a super-sensitive screen. It's the natural successor to the HTC HD2 of last year - perhaps the best implementation of Microsoft's previous iteration of Windows Mobile. The generous AMOLED screen is the largest in the Windows Mobile 7 range and is intended for on-the-go entertainment. A kickstand that flips out from the back allows video clips on the HD7 to be viewed horizontally.
The other notable device so far is the Samsung Omnia 7. Sporting an exceptionally bright 4.1in superAMOLED screen and a 5Mp camera, the Omnia 7 will be available through T-Mobile, Orange and 3 and will cost £35 a month for a two year contract.
Orange will also be offering the HTC Mozart on an exclusive basis. This is a cameraphone with an 8Mp CCD and a Xenon flash. Unusually, the handset itself is a unibody design, making it less prone to malfunction should it be knocked or dropped.
LG, meanwhile, is touting the streaming capabilities of its LG Optimus 7 handset. This 4.1in-screen handset offers DNLA compatibility, meaning it can be used to send photos, music and video from the phone to another DNLA-compliant device. This could include sending songs to a hi-fi or video to an DNLA-enabled TV. DNLA is a standard used to ensure interoperability across brands and devices in the 'digital home'. Other unique features on the LG Optimus 7 are voice-to-text and a scan search.
Another tough Windows Phone 7 handset announced today, the Dell Venue Pro, was the only one of the six unveiled for the UK market that had no operator directly attached to it. The 4.1in screen of the Dell Venue Pro was described by Microsoft as being "shatterproof'. The phone design is unique to the line-up in having a fold-out vertical Qwerty keyboard.
Although hardware manufacturers have worked hard to distinguish their Windows Phone 7 handsets from each other, Microsoft has kept a tight rein on the basics. HTC told us Microsoft was very strict in this regard.
In fact, despite a few key feature differences, the underlying setup is pretty uniform with operator-specific interfaces and overlays relegated to optional tiles rather than taking over the whole device. Applications are grouped together in six Hubs, with content on the handsets presented as a series of Live Tiles. Within a tile or hub you can scroll up and down through a list of options or entries. Unlike the iPhone with its potentially hundreds of apps that might be installed on a single device, or the Google Android setup where separate screens present themed options, the Windows Phone 7 interface seemed fairly ordered and stripped down.
The Games Hub links in with the Xbox Live service and allows users to link their Xbox Live account and avatar and to see which of their online gaming friends are available to play. Games can also be downloaded from the Microsoft Marketplace. While most so far seem to be casual games such as Bewelled and Flowerz, Microsoft announced and briefly demonstrated today a game by leading software house Electronic Arts.
The Zune, Office and Bing Search Hubs also have their roots in existing Microsoft products. ZunePass music subscription services are coming to handsets in the UK and Europe for the first time. Automatic over-the-air synching with a home or office wi-fi setup will allow a music library consisting of downloaded tracks, those stored on the paired handset and those 'sideloaded' from a PC to the phone's memory to be played. Unlike iTunes, users won't need to plug in their phone to their PC or laptop to synchronise content. The same principle applies to photos - snaps taken on a camera, stored on a PC hard disk or shot with the phone's camera will all be viewable on the Windows Phone 7 device.
Handset manufacturers and mobile operators demonstrating their handsets at today's London launch for Windows Phone 7 acknowledged that their was only a tiny handful of games and downloadable apps available from the Microsoft Marketplace as late as last week. The last few hours in the run-up to the launch has seen a rush to populate the store. Among apps likely to appeal to British buyers are a Tesco app that displays produce in a virtual supermarket and a Telegraph Fashion app.
However, Microsoft is keen to flag up the potential for the Marketplace, pointing to the half million tool downloads for Windows Phone 7.