You know how in monster movies, the lumbering creature always manages to outrun the frantically running victim? That seems to be Microsoft's hope in competing with Apple: Despite a late start and slow development, it will crush the iPhone out of sheer size. Microsoft's creature of choice is Windows Phone 7, available on devices from Samsung, LG, and HTC.
In a twist on the monster metaphor, the competition is not between beauty and beast. Windows Phone 7 has a very elegant user interface that is nearly as beautiful and intuitive as what Apple produces. The competition is really between capabilities, of which the iPhone has many and Windows Phone 7 has fewer.
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For example, Windows Phone 7 doesn't support HTML5-based websites, the Adobe Flash Player, device-wide search, multitasking, copy and paste, or on-device encryption. The iPhone 4 -- specifically iOS 4.1 -- supports all but Flash; the iPad supports all but Flash and multitasking, but will gain multitasking when iOS 4.2 ships this month.
Some shortcomings could be red lines for certain users. For example, on-device encryption is required by many companies to gain access to email and other servers, so many businesses might be unable to support Windows Phone 7 users. Others, such as the lack of Flash, haven't hurt the iPhone and may not hurt Windows Phone 7. The iPhone also didn't support copy and paste or multitasking for its first two years of existence, yet became a formidable presence in the mobile market anyhow.
But in this day and age of mature, aggressive mobile contenders such as Apple's iOS and Google's Android, it's hard to believe Microsoft's omission of these capabilities will be forgiven by most users.
Still, its attractive UI will appeal to many people, especially those resistant to drinking the Apple Kool-Aid. That elegance was quite pronounced on the Samsung Focus smartphone I used for testing Windows Phone 7; the Focus is a snappy performer, with a big, beautiful AMOLED (Active Matrix Organic Light Emitting Diode) screen, as well as very nice fit and finish, though its touchscreen didn't always register my taps. It does not have a physical keyboard; look to the LG Quantum if you want such a feature.
Deathmatch: Email, calendars, and contactsFor testing, I used a personal IMAP account, a personal Gmail account, and a work Exchange 2007 account. Both devices work directly with IMAP and Gmail, as well as with POP, so my email, email folders, calendars, and contacts all flowed effortlessly among the smartphones, my laptop, and the server. The configuration was trivial, and both devices try to autodetect your settings wherever possible.
Setting up Exchange access on both devices was also simple. However, Windows Phone 7's lack of support for on-device encryption meant that InfoWorld's Exchange server wouldn't let it connect, as one of our three Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) policies requires on-device encryption; thus, I can't tell you how Windows Phone 7 works with Exchange email, calendars, or contacts, as I can't access them. Given how basic a requirement on-device encryption is for enterprise security, Windows Phone 7 simply can't be relied on in a business context. (And using Webmail is no fix; the Webmail screen is simply torturous to navigate in Windows Phone 7's IE7 browser.
Basic email functions. Working with emails is easy on both devices. You can reply, forward, mark as unread, delete, and move messages while reading them. In Windows Phone 7, you need to tap the more (...) button to see some options; on the iPhone, some options are in the message body itself. On both systems, you can easily delete individual messages from the email list: Swipe to the left and tap Delete on the iPhone, or tap and hold the message header, then tap Delete in Windows Phone 7.
Both the iPhone and Windows Phone 7 let you search emails, but Windows Phone 7 isn't as good at it. It searches only the current folder, whereas the iPhone searches all your email. The iPhone lets you refine your search or your email list's display by From, To, and Subject fields (as well as All); Window Phone 7 does not.
Getting to the top of your email list isn't so obvious in either. In the iPhone, tap the top of the screen. In Windows Phone 7, slide over to unread or urgent messages, then back to all. Neither has a quick-jump shortcut to go to the bottom of your list.
Email management. Windows Phone 7 displays emails in a simple list for each account you have; they appear as separate panels -- app icons, essentially -- on the home screen. But you can't see all emails from multiple accounts in one view, as you can on an iPhone.
Navigating emails is easy on both Windows Phone 7 and the iPhone, and Windows Phone 7 has copied the iPhone's approach to moving and deleting messages in the list: Tap Edit, select the messages, then tap Delete or Move. Windows Phone 7 has a neat capability unmatched in the iPhone in which you slide your email list to the side to see just unread messages; slide it again to see urgent messages; and one more time to return to all messages.
Windows Phone 7 adds an unnecessary step when you want to view your email folders. When you tap the Folders button, you get a screen with two options: Inbox and Show All Folders. (If you're in a folder, you also get the current folder name in the list.) You have to click twice to see your folders. The iPhone lets you tap an email account to go straight to its folder list, though you have to use the second accounts list in its Mail app; the first list brings you to just their inboxes. Both operating systems could do better in terms of folder access.
Windows Phone 7 does not automatically sync mail folders with the server when you open them, as the Phone does. And the iPhone lets you set in its preferences which folders you want autosynced; Windows Phone 7 can't do that.
The iPhone 4 has a message threading capability, which organizes your emails based on subject; you click an icon to the left of a message header to see the related messages. That adds more clicking to go through messages, but it also removes the effort of finding the messages in the first place. (iOS 4 lets you disable threading if you don't like it.) Windows Phone 7 has no equivalent.
I was annoyed that Windows Phone 7 doesn't support PDF files out of the box; you have to download the Adobe Reader app from the Windows Phone Marketplace. It does open images and Office files, though, after a two-step process of downloading the attachment, then opening it (tap and hold each time). The iPhone's built-in QuickLook viewer handles a nice range of formats, and it opens attachments with one tap, downloading them if needed at the same time. But the iPhone doesn't open zip files, whereas Windows Phone 7 does.
Both the iPhone and Windows Phone 7 remember the email addresses of senders you reply to, adding them to a database of contacts that it looks up automatically as you tap characters into the To and Cc fields. Both devices let you add email addresses to your contacts list, either by tapping them (on the iPhone) or tapping and holding them (in Windows Phone 7).
Contacts and calendars. The iPhone 4's more stylish UI for email applies to its Contacts and Calendar apps as well. Both the iPhone and Windows Phone 7 offer the same views: list, day, and month. The iPhone's calendar is easier to navigate, with better indicators of days that have appointments in the month view; Windows Phone 7's list view is too spare, so you lose differentiation among objects, and its month view makes it hard to see which days have appointments.
You can easily switch calendar views in the iPhone 4 in the main calendar screen; Windows Phone 7 also makes switching easy, both through swipes and through its button row at the bottom of the screen. Both can display multiple calendars simultaneously.
On the iPhone, your invitations for Exchange accounts show up in your calendar so that you can accept them with the full context of your other appointments. For other email accounts, you're stuck; it doesn't let you open the .ics invitation files in Mail, nor does Calendar detect them. As Windows Phone 7 won't work with my corporate Exchange server, I can't say how it handles Exchange calendar invites. For other accounts, Windows Phone 7 lets you accept invitations by tapping a menu in your message. You can even send a proposed alternative time and date.
Windows Phone 7 lets you issue invitations from its calendar; the iPhone does not. Note that Windows Phone 7 doesn't send the invites immediately, so it's not so good for planning an urgent meeting. But Windows Phone 7 has a nice feature: You can tap a button that composes an "I'm running late" email addressed to the meeting's attendees.
Both the iPhone and Windows Phone 7 have capable Contacts apps, but the iPhone 4 makes it easier to navigate through your entries. You can jump to names by tapping a letter at the side of the screen, such as "t" to get to people whose last names begin with "t," or seek quickly for someone in the Search field by typing in part of the name. In Windows Phone 7, you have only the search capability to find contacts; there's no quick-jump function.
Windows Phone 7 lets you designate users as favorites, to put them in the Home screen. The iPhone 4 has no equivalent. And Windows Phone 7 lets you link contacts, so you can see all their information in one place, such as personal and business entries for the same person, or separate entries for family members. The iPhone supports email groups, but you can't create them on the iPhone; they must be synced from your computer's contacts application. Windows Phone 7 has no group list capability.
The winner: The iPhone, thanks to its support of critical Exchange ActiveSync policies. If you don't use Exchange, the two mobile OSes are fairly equivalent. The iPhone is slightly better in its email handling, but Windows Phone 7 is better for calendars. Contacts management is a draw.
Deathmatch: ApplicationsThe iPhone provides more useful apps than Windows Phone 7 does. Both provide email, contacts, calendar, browser, calculator (except on the iPad), maps, a music player, photo display, a video player, multi-user gaming, and SMS messaging apps. The apps are equivalent in most cases. One exception is the photos app, where the iPhone supports albums and Windows Phone 7 does not. Another exception is the maps app, where the iPhone provides satellite views in addition to cartographic ones; the iPhone's maps app is also much faster at returning directions.
The iPhone provides several apps that Windows Phone 7 does not, including those for a clock, the weather (except on the iPad), stocks, voice memo, and YouTube. Although Windows Phone 7 supports alarms, it offers only a subset of what the iPhone's clock app does.
Windows Phone 7 has a set of apps called Office: Word, Excel, and OneNote. But don't let the Office name fool you -- Word and OneNote are very rudimentary apps, good for basic notes entry and extremely light editing. For example, tap and hold a word to select it; from there, you can make it bold, apply a colored highlight to it, or add a note -- but you can't select a range of text. You can't choose fonts either, though you can apply numbered and bulleted lists.
Excel likewise is good only for very basic editing; constructing formulas is very difficult, as you can't tap a cell to enter it into a formula. You can tap the fx icon to get a list of formulas, as in the desktop version, but the default keyboard for Excel doesn't display two of the most common symbols used in formulas: = and *; you have to switch to a second symbols keyboard.
Ironically, Windows Phone 7 lets you access SharePoint servers to open documents stored there -- yet any organization that uses SharePoint is certain to require security policies for corporate access that Windows Phone 7 does not support. Document access via cloud services such as Box.net and Dropbox are not supported.
The iPhone comes with a basic note-taking app. It uses a hard-to-read font but is otherwise easy to work with for simple documents (no formatting allowed). If you want Office-like functionality, you'll need to buy an app such as the $15 Quickoffice or $17 Documents to Go. Both are far superior to Windows Phone 7's Office apps when working with Office documents, so keep your fingers crossed for Windows Phone 7 editions.
App stores and app installation. Windows Phone 7 is too new to have much in the way of third-party apps available in the Windows Phone Marketplace, and most of the current stock is basic or forgettable -- I haven't seen attractive apps yet. Apple's App Store also suffers from having lots of junkware, which comes with the territory of 99-cent apps, and it took some time for really useful apps to become available.
As a store, the Windows Phone Marketplace is poorly designed. You can choose from a bunch of categories and search within a store, but there's no way to sort through the long list of options. By contrast, Apple's App Store lets you view and sort categories much more easily.