Windows Phone 7 vs Android: The Real Fight is Here

By Ryan Whitwam

Microsoft is getting back into the game in a big way. Can they make it past Android to get to the iPhone?

Right now, the iPhone and Android are considered the two big platforms to watch in the mobile space. This might be a little shortsighted because we're forgetting about Microsoft. Yes, that software stalwart that basically skipped an entire generation of mobile products by pushing Windows Mobile is about to change things up with the release of Windows Phone 7. This platform intends to offer a number of interesting design conventions and features. While Windows Phone 7 seems to be chasing the iPhone, it's going to have to go through Android to get there. 


The hardware race is only starting

Windows Phone 7 could see a similar sort of hardware paradise. Microsoft is setting minimum spec requirements to run the operating system. This is actually a smart thing to do at the creation of the platform. If you can get all the manufactures behind the idea, all the Windows Phone 7 devices could end up feeling very high quality. Redmond is mandating Snapdragon-level CPUs or higher, at least 256MB of RAM, an 8 or more gigabytes of NAND flash storage. This basically guarantees you won't be seeing any throwaway phones.  

Android has no minimum specs right now. While this is more consistent with Google's open philosophy, it does mean that some consumers are going to end up with low-end phones that tend to be sluggish. Then there's the problems of updating these slower devices. Manufacturers often don't want to bother, and that can leave a sour taste in some people's mouths. 

Because Microsoft will not be allowing skinning on Windows Phone 7, phone makers won't be able to differentiate phones with a custom interface. Instead, we think they will try to push their phones with better, faster hardware. Update: Turns out the "leak" was a fake.

Software user experience: polish vs. openness

The user interface on the new OS will be built around so-called "Hubs". There will be a Hub for people, a hub for pictures, a hub for games, and so on. Apps will be able to hook right into these tiles to give access to their content within the WinPo7 framework. This interface can offer contextual information about the Hub as well. So in this way they're almost like widgets, but more controlled and uniformly polished. 

Another big user interface concern is how the phone notifies you of events. Android stole our heart right from the start with its marvelous window shade notification panel. All your notifications are flashed briefly on the status bar, then you pull down the panel to view and clear them. It keeps new events from unnecessarily distracting you.  

Windows Phone 7 will be using a server-based push notification system called Microsoft Notification Service. There will be two types of notifications the user will see (the third is just for pushing data to open apps). The first is the tile notification. This allows a service to update the Hub on the start screen with new information. Unobtrusive and useful all around, in our opinion. The other notification type is the toast notification. Android does this as well, but only in certain circumstances, and not as the main notification type. On WinPho7, a banner will pop up at the top of the screen to alert the user to an event. This will also be an active link to the application that produced it. While we find this better in implementation that the iPhone, it's still more limited than Android.  

lack of multitasking. Android has a robust multitasking interface. You can switch between apps in the background easily with the recent apps menu. Apps themselves can do work in the background, and close themselves when needed. The drawback here, as any Android user can tell you, is that the battery life suffers, and a poorly coded app can crash the phone. 

Windows Phone 7 aims to better control the experience, and that means true multitasking is out for the time being. Some have claimed that Microsoft's new OS does have a form of multitasking, in that apps can remain frozen in the background for a time. But there's no good way to access them other than hitting the 'back' button repeatedly to cycle through recent screens. Microsoft told app developers at Mix10 that they ought to assume their apps would be killed if left in the background. That makes things pretty clear. 

So Android might have the more freedom in the widget-based home screens, and full multitasking interface, but Windows Phone 7 is no slouch in the user experience department. We think the idea of the Hubs is ingenious and the way they integrate with push notifications seems very nice indeed. Android has the better notification system overall, however. We're curious to see how well Windows Phone 7 does for battery life. That could be a major selling point considering Android's difficulties. 

App development and gaming

We're still waiting for Google to roll out the web-based Android Market. Right now, users have to all their app buying on the phone itself. The Android Market allows for a 24 hour return policy on any app the user downloads. This is important since not all apps will work on all phones. To blame for this is the wide variety of hardware Android is sold on. Some games will perform very poorly on older (i.e. a year old) hardware. This is a place Windows Phone 7 could make a case for itself. 

Windows Phone 7  will get apps through the Windows Marketplace for Mobile. Our impression at this point is that users will not be able to side load apps from other sources. Unlike Android, apps submitted by developers will have to be reviewed by Microsoft before users can get them. Microsoft has said the approval process will be quick, but we've all heard the horror stories from the Apple approval process. Developers will pay $99 per year to develop for WinPho7, and that is expected to include five app submissions (not including updates). There would be a fee for extra apps. This sounds like a problem to us. When you're starting a new platform, and have zero apps, you need to get devs in the door. Microsoft has hinted the 5 app limit (edit: on free apps) could be lifted, and we suggest they drop it completely. 

fairly impressive. There will be integration with Xbox live for games as well.  

Microsoft is expected to integrate the app ecosystem with the desktop Zune software. This has the potential to really help the platform, as Zune is already great software and we'd love to see app purchases going through it. There hasn't been any word about the ability to return apps, but we wouldn't hold our breath. What Microsoft is allowing is trial mode apps. Developers could allow users to download their app and try it out for a period of time. Then they either buy it, or it is removed from the device.  

Android is more open and offers more user friendly features, but Windows Phone 7 apps have the potential to be high quality. We are curious to see how developers embrace Windows Phone 7. The price tag to get in might be a small impediment at first, but we're hoping Microsoft can prove the platform is a viable one. Android has a big head start right now, but it's still early in the game. 

Media playback looking good for Microsoft

Google Music service. An element of this may have been shown off at Google I/O in May. We saw a demo of the new Android Market, but it didn't just have apps. They were also able to download music from it. They also demoed the ability to stream media over the internet. 

This would certainly start filling in some of the gaps, but we also need an updated music app. The stock Android player just isn't cutting it. Some third party alternatives have show up recently including doubleTwist and RealPlayer. With any luck, Google is taking this as a sign they need to get a move on. 
Windows Phone 7, by comparison will have full integration with the Zune music store and desktop app. This will allow easy syncing of music to the phone, as well as a robust store to purchase new tracks. The Zune software will be on the phone for users to playback their media. Anyone that has ever used the Zune HD software knows how great the interface is. The UI is similar to the sideways scrolling we see other places in Windows Phone 7, and uses crisp, attractive icons and fonts. This will be a much more refined, usable interface than what we're currently seeing on Android. 

Customization is Android's bag

Android allows you to customize the phone in almost any way, even if it is totally inadvisable, ghastly, and sluggish. The entire UI can be replaced with home screen replacements. You can replace core OS applications like the keyboard or SMS app. Backgrounds can be set on the home screen. As far as we're aware, you cannot do this on WinPho7. Android even adds animated backgrounds on high-end 2.1+ devices. 

If you want a more consistent, polished experience, that's Windows Phone 7. If you want free reign over your device's look and feel, that's Android.  

We're really excited to see if Microsoft can pull out of this tailspin in the mobile space. With the news that the KIN phones are toast, they have all their hopes pinned on this platform. To those ends, Microsoft is likely to integrate their mobile Office products with Phone 7, which will be great for productivity. Android has access to Google Docs, but we're not thrilled with the implementation.  
Microsoft seems to be designing their OS with an eye toward the iPhone, but Android is the bigger problem for Redmond. These two platforms may end up battling for second place before one of them can rise to truly challenge the iPhone. Let us know how you feel about Windows Phone 7. Could it be the platform for you?