Mobile

Microsoft launches Windows Phone 7, hitting the US on Nov. 8

Microsoft finally launched its new mobile platform, Windows Phone 7, at a press conference in New York today. CEO Steve Ballmer hit the stage to give us a glimpse at the OS and the platform’s launch phones.

Windows Phone 7 will launch on October 21 in Europe and Asia, and the first U.S. handset will be on sale November 8. The platform will find itself in 30 countries, and across 60 cellphone carriers, by the end of the year. Launch phone manufacturers include HTC, LG, Dell, and Samsung.

AT&T will lead the way with Windows Phone 7 devices in the U.S. with three phones. The Samsung Focus, which features a 4-inch Super AMOLED screen (also seen on its Galaxy S line of phones), will hit the streets first on November 8. The LG Quantum, which sports a 3.5-inch screen and a slide-out keyboard, and the HTC Surround, which features some bizarre slide-out speakers that support Dolby surround sound, will land later in the month. All of the phones will cost $199.99.

AT&T’s Ralph de la Vega showed off the phones, and he also announced that the company will bring U-verse mobile, which we assume to be streaming portable video, to Windows Phone 7. Current U-verse subscribers will have access to the content automatically, and new users will be able subscribe to U-verse content for a low monthly fee.

In my hands-on time with the phones, it was clear that Samsung’s Focus will be the best Windows Phone 7 device available at launch. The LG Quantum’s keyboard is large and fairly accurate, so it makes a good choice for people who absolutely need physical keyboards. As for the HTC Surround, I’m still not sure who would buy a cellphone because of its “surround sound” speakers. The speakers definitely sounded better than average cellphone speakers, but they also gave the device an unnecessary thickness.

Samsung FocusMicrosoft vice president Joe Belfiore gave an overview of Windows Phone 7′s final software. He demonstrated how easy it was to take a picture — he simply pulled it out of his pocket, hit the camera button, and instantly got a camera interface ready to take some shots. Users will be able to set up their pictures to automatically upload to Microsoft’s SkyDrive cloud storage — a move that’s reminiscent of Microsoft’s failed Kin phones.

Unsurprisingly, Windows Phone 7 appears to offer the best integration with Microsoft desktop software and services so far. Belfiore showed off the email interface, which looks clean and simple, and then proceeded to launch a PowerPoint presentation that was attached to a message seamlessly. He boasted that not only will you be able to view Office files, including Word documents and Excel spreadsheets, but you’ll also be able to edit them easily as well. Belfiore also demonstrated how well Windows Phone 7 handles typing by making only one mistake in a fast typing attempt.

Belfiore then gave an in-depth look at Windows Phone 7′s six hubs, which group together different tasks such as gaming and media. The People hub, unsurprisingly, is all about your contacts with some nifty social networking integration. He showed off how easy it is to get to somebody’s Facebook wall from their contacts entry, but there wasn’t any other social networking (like Twitter) to show yet. The Pictures hub gathers together all of your photos, and also allows you to quickly post and comment on Facebook photos.

HTC SurroundPerhaps the most interesting section is the Office hub, which allows users to access files shared on SharePoint servers. The OneNote integration also looks compelling — your notes are automatically synced to Microsoft’s SkyDrive, and can also be synchronized with desktop OneNote clients. Belfiore also said that Microsoft will release an update in early 2011 that will bring copy and paste functionality to the platform, thanks to popular demand (why this wasn’t included from the start is still a mystery).

The Music and Videos hub offers what you’d expect — tons of Zune integration (including the Zune Pass subscription service), as well as the ability to download podcasts. Belfiore mentioned that Microsoft will allow third-party companies to integrate into its Music and Video hub, which may mean we’ll see a service like Pandora fully integrated with background streaming.

Belfiore then moved on to a few apps from eBay and IMDB. Both apps adhered to Windows Phone 7′s iconic “Metro” user interface, and IMDB in particular looked gorgeous. The app designs are reminiscent of how much more polished iPhone apps generally look compared to Android apps.

He also showed off the Games hub, which offers quite a bit of Xbox Live integration. You’ll be able to bring down your Xbox 360′s Live avatar, or design a new one on the phone with tons of customization options. Belfiore demonstrated Ilomilo, a cute block-based game, and The Sims 3, which looks basically the same as it does on the iPhone.

Overall, there wasn’t much that surprised us at the launch event, but it’s nice to finally see Microsoft moving forward after first announcing Windows Phone 7 in February. The platform certainly looks polished, but it remains to be seen if consumers will opt for it instead of the more mature iPhone and Android devices.

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