Picking a smart phone can be a challenge if you want a device to serve both personal and professional needs - most phones emphasize fun over function. The latest option comes via a new mobile operating system from Microsoft.
Despite a consumer-oriented pitch, Windows Phone 7 (WP7) has business features that can make it a viable tool in your tech arsenal.
Microsoft learned from its rather sad Windows Mobile experience and has defined minimum hardware specs that will make WP7 run well. Phones must have at least 8 GB of memory, a 5 megapixel camera, GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth, accelerometer, four-point capacitive touch screen (a keyboard is optional) and three buttons across the bottom of the screen (Back, Windows and Search). I tried three models from two vendors, and each provided consistent performance.
Microsoft also insists that the many-tiled home page you've likely seen on WP7 ads retain a fixed set of tiles. Carriers or phone manufacturers can add tiles, but the base set must remain in place. For businesses, that means less training; users can pick the hardware they prefer but the interface remains the same.
This design makes it easy to compartmentalize business and personal use. Each tile can be placed where you choose, so you can put your business contacts at the top of the screen, always visible, and tiles for personal items a quick scroll away at the bottom. The Xbox Live tile, with its bouncing avatar, can be shuffled off the immediately visible screen (or undocked entirely) to present a more formal look, for example.
On the other hand, if funky is your company's style, you can switch the colour scheme from a subdued blue to lime green or hot pink.
The tiles aren't just icons, either - they have live connections to the items they link to. This means e-mail tiles will show the number of unread messages in each account, the calendar tile will display your next appointment, and the contacts tile presents an ever-changing look at your contacts' avatars.
But that's just cosmetics. You can enhance productivity by pinning tiles for common apps or individual contacts to the home screen.
Since WP7 pulls in contacts from your e-mail, Facebook and other social networks, the core contact list can become large and difficult to navigate, so attaching key contacts to the home screen is an easy way to keep them accessible. WP7 also allows you to link contacts from multiple sources, so if an individual is on Facebook, LinkedIn and in your Outlook contacts, you can get a unified view of their information. All contacts are available to all e-mail clients.
Microsoft Office is a key tool for most businesses, and WP7 offers Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote viewing and editing capabilities, as well as the ability to access SharePoint sites or SharePoint Workspaces. Obviously, you're not going to be able to compose and edit a complicated budget spreadsheet using a phone, but I was surprised at how readable one could be. And tweaking a PowerPoint presentation is simple as well.
Access to e-mail is often the top reason people move from standard phone to smart phone, and WP7 provides good functionality here, too. Configuring an account is often as simple as typing in your e-mail address; WP7 will attempt to retrieve the rest of the required information. It's manageable, too; administrators can push out policies from the corporate Exchange server to, for example, require a device password of a specific strength, or wipe the phone if the wrong password is entered several times in succession.
The e-mail client is pretty basic. It provides three views of the mailbox: all messages, urgent messages and new messages. You can't create folders, but WP7 happily replicated existing ones from my Exchange server. When mail syncs, anything deleted on the phone is deleted on the server, and vice versa - there's no option to leave items on the server and just clear the phone.
You also can't download just message headers, as you can on a BlackBerry, or filter the mail sent to the phone to eliminate high-volume mailing lists and other clutter to save on your data plan. That can be a killer when you're roaming. Other smart phones face the same issue, as iPhone users have discovered. To help mitigate this, WP7 turns off cellular data when it detects you're roaming; you have to turn it back on if you can't wait for a WiFi connection to retrieve your e-mail
Another area for scrutiny is applications. WP7 does not have anywhere near as many apps available as other, more mature platforms, though the number is increasing daily. Users will find programs for business and pleasure, and all have been verified by Microsoft, which wants to make sure apps do not break your phone. Many are free, and the paid ones offer a free trial.
WP7 does lack some important features. It does not offer copy and paste, or multitasking of third-party apps. It does not support device encryption (though communications are encrypted). It does not support removable storage. There is a micro-SD card installed, but don't mess with it - it's bonded to system memory and unusable for any other purpose. Some of these issues may be addressed in an update expected early next year.
Battery life? Like any other smart phone, WP7 units gobble power and need to be charged often. I've gotten two days out of one at best, with WiFi and GPS turned off (the GPS in particular is a hungry little beast). With one or both of those two on, I need to charge the phone every day.
All in all, though, WP7 is definitely worthy of consideration as the single device in a businessperson's pocket or purse. Just be sure its purchase is accompanied by a generous data plan.