Windows Phone 7 could rival Apple's iOS 4

Microsoft's new mobile OS could become the iPhone's most serious challenger yet

With all the features of Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 now out in the open -- along with details about the handsets available on AT&T and T-Mobile here in the U.S. -- comparing the new mobile platform to Apple's iOS 4 is a natural. The long-running debate about Windows vs. Mac can now move into the world of mobile operating systems.

Certain things about WP7 were already known well in advance: Its multitouch functions don't require a stylus, only certain models of WP7 phones have virtual keyboards instead of physical ones, there's no copy-and-paste feature in the initial release, and it doesn't support Flash or multitasking for third-party apps.

What's more, it employs a new framework for creating apps that means existing Windows Mobile apps have to be rewritten for the new operating system. This is a real break from Windows Mobile, one that Microsoft needed to make if it hopes to succeed in the fast-growing world of mobile.

These WP7 birth pains have a familiar ring: At one point or another, they were all true of the iPhone. (Some of them still are.) Just as Apple has evolved its mobile operating system over the past three-plus years, Microsoft will evolve WP7 over time. (Copy/paste is already slated to arrive next year.)

The important thing to remember is that Microsoft had to start somewhere while creating a completely new mobile platform from scratch.

Having owned an iPhone since Apple introduced the devices in 2007, I'm eager to see how Microsoft's new platform stacks up based on what I've read about it so far. Some of the features in WP7, which was officially unveiled in New York on Monday, compete directly with features on Apple's iOS platform; others are unique to WP7. Here's a look at where the rival mobile operating systems butt heads and where they take divergent paths.

WP7 Start screen
WP7 Start screen

Home screen vs. Start

All smartphones have a home screen of some sort that serves as a place to launch apps and/or view information such as time, appointments and alerts. The iOS home screen serves a single purpose: viewing installed apps and launching them. Apps can show notifications in the form of badges indicating the number of notifications (unread e-mails or texts, for example), but that's about it. Viewing any additional information about the app requires launching it, something iOS critics often cite as a disadvantage because of the extra steps needed.

iOS 4 Home screen
iOS 4 Home screen

WP7 refers to its home screen as Start -- a moniker, no doubt, carried over from the PC version of Windows. Start is filled with a series of tiles that indicate specific apps, "Hubs" of information, photos, contacts, songs or other media files, and just about anything else. These tiles are more dynamic than iOS icons, and they can display information about whatever they reference, such as the number of e-mails or text messages waiting to be viewed, actual photos, or even recently updated details for contacts from Windows Live or Facebook.

A lot of users will appreciate the ready access to specific information on the Start home screen, while those who like Apple's minimalist approach might find the extra options and information a bit overwhelming. However, since you can make Start as feature-rich or as Spartan as you want, I give Microsoft the advantage here because WP7 lets the user decide.

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