Will Microsoft sustain Windows Phone 7 momentum?

Microsoft’s Windows Phone news, if there is any, won’t be able to escape comparison to Apple’s expected news around the iPhone OS 4.0 release and possibly a fourth-generation iPhone handset. Apple’s iPhone and now the iPad are huge successes, though they face growing competition from mobile devices running Google’s Android OS. With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft is making a risky, high-stakes bid to win a big piece of the mobile market.

Experienced Windows application developers have high praise for the radically redesigned user interface in Windows Phone 7, which was unveiled in February. But so far, they’ve been working with early versions of both the operating system and development tools. And without actual handsets, they have had to rely on the PC-based Windows Phone emulator to experiment with the look and feel of their mobile applications.

A growing number of experienced Windows developers are committing to the Windows Phone platform, provided Microsoft delivers on its initial promises. “The Apple iPhone completely changed what you expect a UI to look like and work like,” says Andy Wigley, co-founder of APPA Mundi Ltd., a Windows development shop in Birmingham, U.K., that specializes in mobile applications.

Unlike Windows Mobile, Windows Phone apps will be “managed code,” applications that execute inside a runtime environment, either Microsoft Silverlight for most applications, and XNA Studio for advanced games. Both, along with the Visual Studio toolkit and Expression Blend, an application design tool, make for a powerful development environment. The OS currently is what Microsoft calls a Community Developer Preview, not even beta code. Although developers are impressed with the quality of the code, there’s some uncertainty due its relative immaturity.

“The biggest weakness from a developer standpoint is it doesn’t seem like things have settled down yet,” Hoffman says. “This is because it’s not even a 1.0 product yet. So, as developers, we run the risk of having some areas that may change dramatically or may not even exist in the 1.0 version. Or that Microsoft is adding stuff and we don’t get to play with it until 1.0 is released.” Some developers are somewhat frustrated by not having access to some features they’ve had in the past, specifically multi-tasking and the underlying SQL Server Compact Edition database. For now, Microsoft is not allowing access to these.

“Enterprise customers have a specific requirement — expose corporate data to their workers or customers in the field,” Wigley says. Replicating data from servers to client device, for example, and then programming against the locally stored data was routine for Windows Mobile. “You can do this kind of thing in Windows Phone 7, but it’s harder,” Wigley says. “Windows Phone is powerful,” Wigley says. “But it runs on a battery. Compared to a PC, it’s effectively a slow computer. And the user interaction, with a smaller screen and touch-driven, is something you want to concentrate on.”

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