Microsoft’s new mojo lies with Windows Phone 7

They’re baaaack. Just when you thought the dragon had been mortally wounded and sloughed off to its cave to die, it comes back spitting fire and disturbing the neighbors.

At this week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Microsoft introduced a new mobile operating system that appears to be nothing like any OS it’s ever invented, borrowed, or imitated. It might even be — dare I say it — innovative.

While you’re busying cleaning up the coffee you just spit out, let’s take a quick look back at recent history.

There was a point in the ’90s where Microsoft seemed grimly determined to make everything in the world run on Windows — your phone, your TV set, the lights in your house, your toaster.  That might still be their ultimate goal. But the introduction of truly innovative interfaces like the iPhone OS, Android, and Palm’s WebOS (combined with dramatic price cuts in touch screens and computing horsepower) have given us alternatives to Windows’ maddeningly hierarchical menu structure that make a lot more sense for any device that isn’t a work PC.

Nobody wants to click five times and say OK twice just to turn the lights on and off. Nobody ever did. But until these new phone OSes came along, it looked like Microsoft could just muscle its way into all these markets, in the same way it muscled out anyone who tried to compete in the IBM PC arena.

With Windows Phone 7, however, it seems Microsoft finally has some skin in the non-PC game. And yes, the name truly sucks. It screams “boring and predictable” in the way only a Microsoft product can. But apparently that’s the only thing about it that’s Microsoft-like.

They’ve thrown out the whole Windows metaphor — the useless CPU-cycle-sucking graphics, the folders within folders within folders, yadda yadda — and replaced it with a multi-touch interface featuring a handful of colorful “live tiles.” Beneath those buttons you’ll find unified messaging that mashes together updates from social nets like Facebook and Windows Live (but not Twitter — yet), some stripped-down Office apps, Outlook, Bing, an apps marketplace, pretty much the entire Zune experience, even a little Xbox Live.

Mind you, I’m not in Barcelona. I’ve not had a chance to put my grubby little hands on any working prototypes, so I’m relying on Microsoft’s video preview and my brethren in the blogosphere for the key details. Most of them seem pretty excited.

For example, the Windows 7 phone seems to have induced all manner of involuntary bodily functions in Gizmodo writer Matt Buchanan.  Never in my 347 years of covering technology have I encountered a review — really, a preview — quite so giddy (note: all italics are his):

….it’s the most groundbreaking phone since the iPhone. It’s the phone Microsoft should’ve made three years ago. … It changes everything…. There’s an incredible sense of joie de vivre that’s just not in any other phone. It makes you wish that this was aesthetic direction all of Microsoft was going in…..I’ll admit, I very nearly needed to change my pants when I saw the Xbox tile on the phone for the first time….it’s actually good.

Dude: Get a room.

PC Mag’s Sascha Segan — who knows more about mobile phones than most sane humans should — was a bit more circumspect, but still impressed.

I received a few minutes with a Windows Phone 7 Series prototype today, and the software looked beautiful but felt very, very early. Tiles responded sluggishly. When I scrolled down a contact list, it scrolled into a great black abyss that only filled with contacts after a few seconds…. On the other hand, if it actually performs properly, WP7 has the intangibles that Microsoft phones have lacked for years. It’s fun to explore. The interface makes sense. It’s easy to find the things you need. Nothing is buried. It uses the power of a mobile computer to put important information at the fore – possibly even more immediately than the iPhone.

Meanwhile, The Register’s Bill Ray says “Microsoft made a phone, and I hate it already.” His point: he doesn’t want a whizzy new phone. He wants a pocket computer that also lets him make phone calls. Finally, we’ve found someone besides Steve Ballmer who actually liked Windows Mobile.

Here’s my confession: For the last two years I’ve owned a Windows Mobile phone with AT&T as my carrier. So I’ve been doubly cursed. Recently I moved to an Android phone under T-Mobile, the Motorola Cliq. I look forward to the day very soon when I can smash that WinMo POS with a sledgehammer. (But first I have to get all my stuff off of it.)

Yet I can’t say the Cliq is entirely without flaws. What looks super cool in a three-minute YouTube video can be a pain in real life. Getting all your messages in one place sounds good, at first, but …. do I have time to wade through thousands of tweets, status updates, emails, and text messages every damned day? Not if I want to get anything else done.

So it’s waaaay too early to annoint WinPho 7 as — wait for it — an iPhone killer. The thing won’t even ship until year end. Still it’s a positive sign for Microsoft fans. Along with Microsoft Surface and Project Natal, it’s a sign that Redmond might be finally getting over the bureaucratic tar pit in which it’s been bogged down for decades.

While it’s fun to imagine a world without Microsoft, the new OS suggests that we’ll continue to have Redmond to kick around — and vice versa — well into the Mobile Internet age. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because I can’t just write about Google and Apple all the time, can I?

Is Windows Phone 7 too little, too late for Microsoft? Post your thoughts below or email me:

Hey this originally appeared on InfoWorld, without whom I’d be unable to pay my mortgage. So give them some love, too.

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