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After Windows Phone 7's grand unveiling at Barcelona's Mobile World Congress last month, Microsoft has circled back during GDC and its own MIX10 conference to fill in many of the holes in this story -- in particular, details around the app development ecosystem and how third parties can take full advantage of it have been focal points. Of course, it makes sense: a modern smartphone is only as good as its software catalog, and Redmond's clearly keen to show that it knows how very true that is. XNA -- the technology that underpins Zune games and a host of Xbox content -- figures prominently into the equation, but Silverlight is a huge, unavoidable component as well, making development for WP7 devices a starkly different experience for studios and independent code monkeys than in versions prior. We're going to be periodically updating this post as we get new info on the platform, but for now, follow the break for everything you need to know -- so far -- about Microsoft's latest and greatest mobile platform. 

 

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Windows Phone 7 is the successor to Microsoft's line of Windows Mobile phone operating systems. It's based on the Windows CE 6 kernel, like the Zune HD, while current versions of Windows Mobile are based on Windows CE 5. Microsoft announced the new OS at Mobile World Congress 2010 in Barcelona, and says that the first handsets to run it are supposed to be released by the holiday shopping season of this year -- and the company is emphatic in saying that it doesn't mean December 24th -- you'll have time to place your order.

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The visual and underlying differences in the operating system are almost too numerous to mention, including a completely (and we do mean completely) upended user interface, an emphasis on finger-based touchscreen input, deep social networking integration, fully branded and expansive Zune and Xbox components, and extremely strict hardware requirements for partners. A couple familiar touchstones from the past include plans for Outlook and Office support, as well as licensing to a wide variety of third party hardware vendors -- despite the name change, Microsoft still isn't building any phones itself. Microsoft says it's aiming the platform at "life maximizers," and it's come up with a fictitious 38 year-old couple named Anna and Miles who represent the target end users: people who need to get work done on their phones but still want to play games and don't want to fiddle around with settings. It's cute, we'll give them that.

 

Hubs and first-party apps

Hubs are the clearinghouses for the phone's core functionality, broken down by genre -- it's a unique (and rather intuitive) concept unlike anything we've seen on other mobile platforms. Third-party developers will be able to tap into these hubs to enhance them; an example given at MIX10 was a photo retouching app that plugs into the Pictures hub and lets users open and modify their images directly from there. We haven't seen everything from Windows Phone 7 yet -- particularly in the application department -- but here's a look at what we have been given access to, and brief descriptions of the software's functionality:

People hub: Pulls in contacts from Gmail, Exchange, Facebook, Twitter, Windows Live and others, aggregating contact information, status updates, and contact images into a single view (or views, really). The main view of this hub keeps your most recently or heavily contacted people in first view dynamically (though this can be customized as well), and allows you to quickly jump to feeds of your recent updates from social networks aggregated by Windows Live. There's also a section here called "me" where you can view and edit your own statuses within your networks.

Pictures hub: An aggregate of your locally stored photos, cloud-based Facebook, Windows Live, or other connected picture galleries, and feeds of your contacts' recently updated images. The pictures hub will also allow you to upload and comment on photos on services like Facebook natively inside of the hub experience. Photo apps can also plug into the Pictures hub to offer editing and sharing functions as well. Like we said earlier, you can't order photo sources by priority or preference, so we're a little concerned that this hub will be quickly overrun, but we'll see how it works in practice.

Games hub: Integrates with Xbox Live, including the housing of a miniature version of your avatar (in 3D and everything), Xbox LIVE games and achievements, Spotlight feeds, and the ability to browse gamer profiles. Microsoft says it wants games that are easy to play in the "mobile minute," and is focusing on turn-based games to start, but we've now seen a few impressive 3D XNA games shown off, complete with Xbox achievements and other features pulled in from Live. Integration with Xbox and its ecosystem is being taken very seriously by the folks in Redmond -- you're not just going to be playing Sudoku here. This should be an easy one to not screw up.

Office hub: Microsoft's bread and butter, but so far we've just seen the hub itself -- none of its deeper functionality like document editing. There's an emphasis on OneNote and SharePoint Workspace that should be pretty interesting, however. Ultimately, based on the new UI paradigms and user experience directives of Windows Phone 7, Microsoft is going to have to rebuild these applications from the ground up. As long as they're able to make them super functional while keeping the Metro look intact, this should be a real win -- we're still curious as to how the company plans to cram all that information into a UI which is focused on doing away with visual noise, and the lack of system-wide clipboard functionality is going to be an issue here, no matter how much Microsoft insists users only want to view documents and add comments.
And all the rest... 

Email:
 Relies on swipes to switch between message views (unread / flagged / etc.), and has a color-coded system for differentiating between work and personal messages. We're hopeful there's an option to un-mix multiple inboxes as well, but it's unclear so far. Microsoft's focused the app on mobile "triaging" of email, so there are robust tools to manage multiple messages, but there's also a lot of negative space in the app, which is a bit of a concerning (if beautiful) trend throughout the UI. We don't expect any deep integration with services like Gmail beyond the contact syncing... though if Microsoft could pull labeling, archiving, and threaded messages off here, we can think of at least one editor who would be seriously inclined to switch to this platform.
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