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Microsoft Reinvents the Smartphone Interface

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Even sleeker, cleaner, and more stylish than, yes, the iPhone.

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Either we're all witnessing another Lost alternate universe which somehow bled into our own, or Microsoft (MSFT) has literally created a slicker smartphone user interface than Apple (AAPL). The company's floor-to-ceiling overhaul of the broken Windows Mobile platform has begotten a stylish -- and some would argue more intuitive -- OS that's unlike almost everything we've seen on a smartphone.

If fine-tuning continues up until its release and the devices featuring it are of high-quality, analysts and tech blogs might be uttering the unthinkable: Microsoft has given the iPhone a run for its money.

This weekend at the Mobile World Congress conference in Spain, Microsoft unveiled the Windows Phone 7 Series -- a wonky name that's likely the product's biggest flaw. Scheduled to be released by the end of the year, the OS and its basic functions were given a public taste, but some details are still sketchy.

A first look at Windows Phone 7 reveals that apps aren't at the forefront -- highly unusual for a modern-day smartphone interface. In a new promo for the platform, Microsoft details how cumbersome apps have become for smartphone users. So in their stead, the company has developed "hubs" as a way to navigate through all that information. Each hub collects the data that a user would need to travel from app to app to view, and organizes it all in a gorgeous layout. For example, a click on a contact would not only bring up the person's phone number, email, and so forth, but also their recent Facebook activity, Windows Live status, and photo updates. All synced wirelessly to the web.

The most striking difference between Windows Phone 7 and its competitors is the layout. Looking like an arty poster for a limited-run indie film, each screen features buttons, fonts, and other elements that are oversized but minimalist. Large, easy-to-read menu titles actually run off the screen in panoramic view with adjacent items peeking in from the side. Fluid animation slides menus in and out of the screen, making for some eye-catching transitions. It's simplified, stylish, but informative -- never losing function for style's sake.

While it won't be officially regarded as a Zune Phone (see Next to Enter the Smartphone Race: Microsoft?), the Zune HD software is integrated into the "Music + Video" hub much like how the iPod is a part of the iPhone. Third-party apps like Pandora and an FM tuner are built in. Aside from a mobile version of Internet Explorer, Windows Phone 7 revamps Outlook as a slick mobile email client. Messages and contacts are large, sharp, and well-organized. Matt Buchanan at Gizmodo calls it "the best looking mobile mail app around." Xbox Live is also natively integrated, hinting at a major focus on mobile gaming.

The Marketplace will be Microsoft's answer to the app store. The company has been cagey at this stage on whether the platform will support multitasking, but has indicated a similar setup as the iPhone -- allowing certain elements like music and push email to run in the background. But if the OS develops true multitasking like the Android (GOOG) and Palm (PALM) platforms -- not to mention the old Windows Mobile -- it could be another huge blow to the iPhone.

App developers and an SDK won't likely be addressed until next month at Microsoft's MIX conference. While an accelerometer and multitouch capabilities will be at developers' fingertips, it's not yet known how confined designers will have to be to the Windows Phone 7 interface.

As far as manufacturers go, Microsoft has announced partnerships with Dell (DELL), Garmin Asus (GRMN), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), HTC, LG, Qualcomm (QCOM), Samsung, Sony Ericsson (SNE), and Toshiba to design Windows Phone 7 devices. Unlike earlier Windows Mobile devices, Microsoft will play a more interactive role in the development of the devices, requiring each device to meet a minimum set of requirements and pre-determined benchmarks.

After languishing for years in near anonymity with Windows Mobile, Microsoft is firing back. Hard. It may take a while before it's mentioned in the same breath as the iPhone, Android, and Palm. But with Windows Phone 7, Microsoft has an ace up its sleeve.
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