Microsoft's (news, site) Windows 7 Phone-powered devices are doing a brisk trade, but what do the developers writing the first apps think?

The Enterprise 2.0-era world needs data accessible everywhere, at any time and the smartphone is a big part of the solution. Ray Ozzie (Microsoft's recently departed head of software) said that the company must accept the end of the PC and look forward. Windows Phone 7 represents the first major step in this direction for the company and its many partners.

On launch day,  we looked at how Microsoft was leveraging the power of Xbox Live, Office and other properties to drive it into the mass and business mobile markets.

Responding to this, Chad Brown, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing at IdentityMine, a user experience (UX) company that designed the IMDb app for Windows Phone 7, shared his expertise and opinions on its future.

Q: Having read the article, what do you see as Microsoft's strengths and weaknesses in the mobile world today?

Brown:. Microsoft has some serious goods to deliver in the enterprise. However, with consumers driving mobile device decisions they must get a win with the consumer first. There are four must haves to compete in the mobile market today:

  1. Great device
  2. Great design
  3. Great store
  4. Great apps.

With the release of Windows Phone 7 they made huge strides in the first three. With partners like IdentityMine they are quickly closing in on #4.

Microsoft adds a potential 5th factor and that’s “Great tools”. In this case, the incumbents will be playing catch-up and this is, possibly, why Microsoft can quickly move on building Great Apps. Time will tell.


IMDb on Windows Phone 7

Q: Tell us a little about your background and your work as a user experience company, do you think UX has played a more important part of smartphone evolution than it has on the desktop? (In a similar vein, do you think UX is being taken more seriously with the arrival of smartphones?)

Brown: I have a “large consulting firm” background. When co-founding IdentityMine, its focus was on marketing emerging technologies. This required serious technology chops, broad industry exposure, and an appreciation for design. IdentityMine has become a mature user experience company retained by our customers to deliver a competitive advantage for their software products. Our business has grown even during the economic downturn, and that’s because people have been given a taste of good user experience and now they have an appetite for more.

That exposure to great UX has come from early adopter ISVs, trend setting websites and absolutely the smartphone, namely iPhone. User experience is now a major component in our perception of “quality”. The next couple of years will offer companies the opportunity to meet or exceed this new and constantly raising UX bar or disappear into yesterday.

Q: What did you think when you first saw the WP7 interface?

Brown: I wasn’t sure at first. However, it grew on me quickly. The font and layout is clean and fresh, which gives the phone a very modern feel. Although I really like the iPhone, the UX is already starting to feel a little out of date; the app launcher paradigm is also getting old. Windows Phone 7 takes an approach somewhere between the open Droid model and the closed Apple model, and allows for some creativity within provided guidelines. How stringent Microsoft will be on these guidelines long-term is unknown. The applications we created for Twitter, IMDb,, SBB, and others were under quite a bit of scrutiny, which makes sense because they will be the reference apps for future developers.

Q: What advantages does WP7 give you over other smartphones?

Brown: This initial release is primarily about achieving parity with the competition. That said, I think that many people will like the Metro UX as much as the IdentityMine team has. It’s an entirely new way of managing content and applications. Once consumers take it seriously, the enterprise will be able to safely adopt the platform without revolt and take advantage of some of Office, Exchange and SharePoint features - which will be great for business users.

Q: What do you think of the tile-based approach, did it restrict your design in any way?

Brown: The tile approach is interesting because it breaks free from the overused “icon grid” launcher paradigm that was already around when Palm devices launched about ten years ago; also the fact that we can have live animated tiles gives life to the home screen. Droid tried to pull off similar functionality but they didn’t get it quite right. The Metro guidelines keep this from happening and create opportunities to expose your application’s information within the primary Windows Phone 7 UI, as well as a custom application-specific tile. Many of the applications in the store at this point don’t fully leverage this ability; not because it’s technically difficult, simply because you want to get visual cues right. It’s a time-to-market thing.

Q: WP7 phones are out in places around the world now, have you had any feedback on IMDB or your other apps?

Brown: We’ve gotten the most feedback on the app we built for IMDb, in part because it was showcased at the launch. We’re really proud of the visual design on that application, as well as how fast it pulls together data. The feedback has been really promising. The SBB (a Swiss travel firm) application is something we equally proud of – largely because of how useful it is. It completely changes the travel paradigm for users. Some people are saying that the official application that we developed for Twitter is the best one on the market. All good stuff.

We enjoy making beautiful consumer-driven applications, but we especially love when those applications have real utility in people’s lives. Bill Gates has already started using the Twitter app that we developed, which was pretty great to see. I can honestly say that all the apps we’ve developed for WP7 are the kind that users will rely on regularly and for a long time.

Q: Did you get any focus group/testing feedback on your apps that you can share? Were there quirks or issues you didn't expect that you had to resolve for users?

Brown: One of our biggest concerns was performance. It doesn’t matter that our apps look great if they take so long to load that users abandon them. We put a lot of effort into fine tuning the applications so that they performed as well as or better than expected by end-users. Transitions can be tough to develop in a consistent and elegant manner. We decided not to use transitions with some applications because we didn’t like how they performed. This will most likely get better with time, though.

Q: Is development for WP7 as easy as Microsoft leads us to believe?

Brown: The tools are very good. Much time is saved in development as well as debugging over the competitive platforms. However, as with any initial release there are some nuances. Given the number of Windows Phone 7 applications our team has created several tips and tricks to increase performance, handle tombstoning and address isolated storage challenges have been uncovered. In fact, we’ve gone as far as developing our own framework to elegantly and efficiently address the nuances in a uniform fashion.

Microsoft has been very responsive to our requests and I’m certain that they will build in enhancement to assist in these areas. We can confidently say, though, that the tools that exist right now are more than adequate to create a great user experience with beautiful design. We believe that the development platform is one of the primary reasons that WP7 is going to succeed.

Q: You mentioned "device bias" in a recent blog post, do you think other developers will be inspired by Microsoft's interface or stick to the iPhone/Android approach?

Brown: It’s like the chicken and egg thing. Developers want to go where the users are and users want to go where the apps are. Right now users are on iPhone and Droid. However, Microsoft did a good job placing many of the critically important apps in the store on day one. There are a lot of first-time smartphone buyers out there, as well as enterprise IT folks who are looking for a company-wide smartphone solution. Further, there are lots of .Net developers out there who have been waiting for this platform. Windows Phone 7 has a real shot. It deserves one.

Q: Is there anything you'd like to say about your apps/the market/ how UX is helping in other areas?

Brown: We’re really excited about what Microsoft’s WP7 launch is going to mean for the continuum of experience. We’ve been developing touch/multi-touch applications for nearly a decade, so it makes sense that we’re so comfortable in the mobile arena. It’s important to note that “mobile” doesn’t just mean “phone”.

So, as applications become an increasing part of users’ daily lives (both personal and professional), the demand for those applications to function and maintain their personalized content across devices is going to grow. The world is literally becoming our playground as people take their data with them across devices and platforms. Along those lines, we think that the role that sophisticated, elegant, and delightful applications are going to play in the workplace is going to be huge. We see a major shift in the enterprise coming soon – and it’s going to be great.