Microsoft Introduce Windows Phone 7 Series at Mobile World Congress.

We had a good idea that it was coming, but no one was absolutely sure until 3 o’clock this afternoon in Barcelona, where none other than Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer introduced the next generation of Windows Phone operating systems – Windows Phone 7 Series.

The next version of Microsoft’s phone OS is like nothing you’ve seen before. Gone are the tiny buttons, stupid scroll bars and general Windows 95 look and in comes an attractive and from the looks of it, highly usable tiled system for Windows Phone 7 Series. The goal is for hardware and software to work in unison and so to demonstrate the new platform, an unnamed phone was used so we could see it working in real-time on the video screen. The prototype was running a WVGA screen and just like every future Windows Phone 7 handset, it had three hardware buttons below the touchscreen – Start, Search and Back.

All the phones will have capacitive touchscreens and multi-touch support, running alongside a fun, personal interface. Microsoft said they wanted the new OS to ‘make people smile when they use it’ and you know what, judging by these first impressions, they just could have succeeded.

The main screen is made up of squares, called Live Tiles, which are icons for all the functions of the phone, containing live updates from the Internet, social networks, email and Microsoft Exchange. Even pages from the web browser can be put in a Live Tile for frequently visited sites. The user can customise each of these tiles to their liking, then shuffle them around on screen so that information which is important to them is front and foremost.

Many familiar Microsoft products will be part of the new Windows Phone 7 Series experience.  Of course, Bing Search and Bing Maps will be on hand, alongside Outlook for email, Calendar for both business and personal life organisation and a new, more advanced version of Internet Explorer. To access deeper functions you’ll head to the App Bar, which contains clear, concise buttons to access advanced commands relevant to the feature you’re using. It’s a far cry from the annoying Windows Mobile system of old.

For other key areas of Windows Phone 7 Series, the features will be sectioned off into Hubs, which organise web, applications and information into one place. During the demonstration, five different hubs were shown, starting with the People Hub.  This collects all your friend’s details from social networks, mail accounts and the like, then a list view of all their updates appears if you swipe the screen from left to right, a simple command which works throughout the system.

The Pictures Hub works in a similar way, showing a gallery and a live update of your friends activity on online picture sharing sites. The Productivity Hub brings Microsoft Office to your phone, complete with OneNote and SharePoint, all of which can be synced with your PC.

The final two hubs were the most exciting. The Music and Video Hub introduces Zune to the Windows Phone. Yes, every Windows Phone 7 Series will be a Zune phone, providing syncing, purchasing music, podcasts, radio and video, along with third party online streaming services. The Zune software starts when the phone is connected to a PC via a USB cable, so from this we can deduce that Zune will be coming to Europe this year too! The Games Hub will feature Xbox Live service and games, so you’ll see your Gamer score, achievements, avatars and requests from friends.

As the demo drew to a close, a promo video was shown highlighting the lack of multi-tasking and app-centric model of the iPhone, before showing that Windows Phone 7 Series happily does more than one thing at once. There wasn’t any mention of Flash and sure enough, in the final question after the press conference ended, it was confirmed that Windows Phone 7 Series will not be supporting Flash out of the box.

Going back to hardware for a moment, Microsoft have said they want lots of diversity in terms of form factors for new handsets and listed their hardware launch partners as HTC, LG, Toshiba, HP, Dell, Qualcomm, Samsung, Sony Ericsson and Garmin Asus, while their network launch partners will be Orange in Europe and AT&T in the USA. Other networks and hardware manufacturers will be added as time goes on.

Developers will learn more at the MIX10 conference in March, but as for the actual launch of new hardware featuring the operating system, Steve Ballmer said that the plan is to have phones on sale by the end of 2010. Until then, Microsoft will continue to invest in Windows Mobile 6.5.

If there is one thing to take away from all this, it’s that Microsoft are really serious about reinvigorating their mobile arm.  Windows Phone 7 Series may be a mouthful to say, but that’s where the complexity ends, as the UI looks sleek, simple and great to use.  Three things one could previously never say Windows Mobile was!  We can forget about manufacturer UI’s and look forward to standardised specifications for a consistent hardware and software experience across the range too.  It may not sound like the Microsoft we have grown used to over the past few years, but it’s exactly what we have wanted them to become. Shame we have to wish away an entire year before it hits the shops!

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