Today we start a new segment on the blog where we are filled in on what is happening on the otherside of the computing pond… in Windows Land, by a new Windows Phone owner and our senior Windows Correspndent Drew O’Brien.
The Windows Phone Ecosystem
Microsoft has been busy coming up with catchy taglines lately for their products so much so that it almost makes it seem like they are distinct products. But they aren’t. They are part of an ecosystem that functions only when each part plays its role. Some parts may be removed, but then some features and functions are removed. How about a few examples?
Windows 7 and Windows Live: “To the cloud!”
Windows Phone: “Finally, a phone to save us from our phones.”
Xbox 360: “Jump in.”
Zune: “your entertainment, everywhere.”
So what is all this madness? Perhaps we should look at each component individually, in short, and then figure out how they jigsaw together because all five of the services listed above to merge into one device, Windows Phone.
Windows 7 is Microsoft’s flagship operating system. It replaced Windows Vista and will be replaced by Windows 8 in 2012 in typical operating system fashion. The operating system controls what software you can run and how it is run; think of it as the foundation of a house, your applications the structure of the house, and your data the furnishings of your house.
Windows Live is Microsoft’s cloud-based service environment. This allows you to store your data or copies of your data in the cloud which is a technical term for an off-site server maintained by a company, in this case by Microsoft. Windows Live allows you to save a copy of your contacts, calendar, photos, videos, and office documents on their servers. The benefit to you is that you can access them from your friend’s house via their web browser or you can retain a copy of those important files if your computer breaks.
Xbox 360 needs only a short introduction because it lives in a smaller world than the rest of Microsoft’s products. It’s a gaming console that competes with Nintendo’s Wii system and Sony’s PlayStation 3 as well as traditional comuputer games. Gamers are given a Gamerscore that indicates how much they have achieved in their gaming activities and an avatar to represent their virtual gaming self.
Zune is Microsoft’s multimedia platform. It handles their marketplace for music and movie downloads and rentals. It competes with many other companies’ similar products, most notably Apple’s iTunes and Amazon’s MP3 Store and Video on Demand store. With Windows 9, it is set to become the official bundled application for media, replacing Windows Media Player (which has been the staple player for two decades).
Convergence on Windows Phone
Now that these products have been explained individually, let’s take a look at how they all come together on Windows Phone. Windows Phone is what is termed at “convergence device.” This means that it brings the functionality of multiple devices into a single device like a combination video camera and still camera.
In order to use Windows Phone, there are three key components from above that you must have. I should point out that these are not strictly required to use the phone as a phone, but if you want to use all of the features of the phone you need these components.
The first component is Windows Live, and this one is absolute. When you first turn on the phone, the walkthrough requires that you sign into or create a Windows Live account. There is no turning away from having a Windows Live account. What is the benefit of this? Let’s use me as an example. My email is Hotmail (the Windows Live email component); my calendar is Hotmail Calendar (the Windows Live calendar component); my contacts are stored in my email (again, part of Windows Live); my photo collection is stored on SkyDrive (Windows Live provides 25GB of free storage space for files). So when I signed into my Windows Live account on my new Windows Phone, it copied all of that information from the cloud and automatically populated my contacts, calendar, email, and photo collection. This took a matter of about 20 seconds. When I change something on the phone, it makes that change on the computer and vice versa, keeping everything in sync. This also keeps my data in three places (my computer, my phone, and the cloud); so if my phone were to be dropped and broken beyond repair, I would still have all of my data backed up in two other places.
The second component in Windows 7. To use the phone strictly as a phone, this is not necessary. But if I want to sync my media (music, videos, and photos) to and from my phone, I need to use the Zune software (the third required component). The Zune software only works on Windows 7. So in order to sync media to the phone, you need to invest in a computer with Windows 7, download and install the Zune software, create a Windows Live ID to sign into the Zune software client, and plug in your Windows Phone into the computer. This is referred to as an ecosystem; each part is dependent upon another part. If you are a Macintosh user, you cannot sync your media nor can you if you use a Linux-based or BSD-based operating system because the Zune software is only available for Windows.
To round out the discussion of the ecosystem, I wanted to discuss the Xbox 360 integration. This is purely optional and if you don’t play games, it won’t have any bearing on your Windows Phone experience. But if you have an Xbox LIVE account, you can view your Gamerscore, avatar, messages from other gamers, and view Achievements (the events you perform in the games to earn points that build your Gamerscore). The Xbox LIVE application on the phone requires that you have setup your Windows Live ID to connect to the Xbox LIVE service (a matter of a few clicks which doesn’t require you to even buy the Xbox 360 hardware) and it serves as a place where all of the games you download to your phone are centrally stored (so they don’t get sorted into the list of your other apps).
Microsoft is not breaking new ground with Windows Phone. They’ve come to the smartphone business late in the game. I am saying that with some bias because I consider this current generation of smartphones to be the real thing. The older Palm Treos, Blackberry devices, and Windows Mobile devices were nothing like iPhones, Android devices, modern Blackberry devices, or Palms primarily because of things like mobile web and the creation of third-party app development.
In terms of creating an ecosystem or cloud-based system, they are also late to the game. Android devices merge Gmail, Gmail contacts, Google Calendar, Google Reader, and many more Google services into the phone. As a previous Motorola Droid owner, I have to admit that I wasn’t a fan of the Google ecosystem because I didn’t find it as robust as what Microsoft has created. Microsoft has desktop applications and websites that tie into their cloud while Google exists only in the web browser (save for using IMAP email in a third-party desktop email client). But that is simply a matter of personal preference, not functionality.
I’ve now got a HTC Arrive on Sprint. It’s running Windows Phone version 7 (and Microsoft has said that version 7.5 “Mango” will be backported to first generation devices like mine) with the “NoDo” update which added a few minor features. Microsoft has mandatory hardware requirements for Windows Phone (to make app development easier and prevent fragmentation like Android is now experiencing) that are as follows: 1GHz “Snapdragon” CPU, 512MB RAM, 512MB ROM, 8GB or 16GB user-accessible storage, 5 megapixel camera (must be acccesible in one click via a hardware button), 800×480 screen resolution, and three buttons below the screen in portrait stance (Back, Home, Search).
I hope this introduction has proved useful. I know for many readers this will sound like very basic information, but for some it may provide some perspective on how Microsoft is leveraging their products together to create an ecosystem that sells not only a phone, but an operating system and additional software as well.
Questions on anything from hardware to software to applications are welcome. I will try any application and provide a review for you if you wish, but if it is an application that costs money, I do expect to be paid via PayPal for the amount required to download the application. Hopefully, I can prove to you that Microsoft is in this to win it.