Windows Phone 7 could rival Apple's iOS 4

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

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Navigation: Menus vs. sliding

One unique feature about WP7 is the panoramic scrolling view used in Hubs, apps and Start. On an iPhone, as well as on Android phones and BlackBerries, hierarchies of menus that mimic the look and feel of folders in a desktop operating system tend to be the primary means of navigation. WP7's ability to slide left and right or up and down to see additional options and features is an interesting choice for interface design on a phone. The approach is reminiscent of using VNC or a similar remote desktop system to connect to a computer with a higher screen resolution than the one you're working on.

Whether this is the better option is debatable and will probably be a matter of personal preference. It will require a handset's graphics hardware to be able to render the display as quickly as a user scrolls around, and it will depend on how the interface is implemented by developers. On the Start screen in WP7, I find it refreshing. The same is true for some of the Hubs -- Office in particular. But this is more of a personal preference than an outright win for either platform. It's hard at this point to claim one OS does it better than the other.

For now, we'll call it a tie.

Unlock to access vs. access while locked

A common complaint about the iPhone is that you can't see any information -- other than the date and time -- when the device is locked, unless it's been jailbroken. WP7 offers more info at a glance, such as upcoming appointments, new e-mails and messages and status updates from contacts. This is a definite advantage over iOS, since it allows you to get useful information without unlocking the phone. Of course, it also means that prying eyes can see potentially sensitive information, raising security and privacy concerns.

Microsoft also allows certain tasks to be performed while the phone is locked, like answering calls or listening to music. But one unique -- and incredibly useful -- feature is the ability to launch the camera and take a photo without having to unlock the phone. In iOS 4, you need to unlock the phone, type in a password (if you use one), find the camera app and then launch it -- by which time your golden photo opportunity may have passed.

Advantage: WP7.

Apps vs. Hubs and OS integration

Hubs are an interesting concept. In some cases, a Hub is essentially a single application. Two examples of this are the Phone Hub, which corresponds to the iPhone's Phone app and is used to make calls and check voice mail, and Office, which is essentially a mobile version of Microsoft's Office suite.

In other instances, Hubs aggregate content from a variety of sources. The People Hub, for example, pulls together contacts synced to the phone; Facebook friends, their status updates, links and comments; and information from other Windows Live users. On iOS devices, these functions are handled separately by discrete apps from Apple and third parties. The Contacts app contains only contact information synced to an iPhone, while the Facebook app handles Facebook tasks like viewing status updates or posting comments. Though Hubs are versatile, the lack of consistency about exactly what they are or do could lead to user confusion.

It's hard to say whether this form of OS-level integration with social networking services and cloud services -- to enable things like automatic Facebook updates or automatic sharing of photos as soon as they're taken -- is good or bad. It certainly simplifies the workflow for certain tasks, particularly when it comes to seeing status updates. But it could also hinder access to new social media or cloud features because Microsoft will need to issue a WP7 update to enable any new features -- something it might delay doing until a full-fledged WP7 update is ready. A simple update to a third-party app by the developer would be a faster way to roll out minor feature updates. The deep integration also tends to blur the line between types of information (Facebook or contacts) and uses for the device (personal or work).

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