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Microsoft has a winner

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / October 21, 2010

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Steve Ballmer’s getting a raise next year.

Microsoft Corp.’s chief executive got only half the bonus he was eligible for in fiscal 2010, largely because of his company’s disastrous performance in the mobile phone market. One new phone, the Kin, was so bad that Microsoft withdrew it from the market after six weeks. Meanwhile, the popularity of Apple Inc.’s iPhone and Google Inc.’s Android software ravaged Microsoft’s overall share of smartphone sales. It was hard to see much hope for a comeback.

Then I fired up the Surround phone from HTC Corp., which runs Windows Phone 7, a top-to-bottom overhaul of Microsoft’s smartphone software. In less than a minute, I was grinning. I couldn’t help myself. Of course, the phone was sleek and powerful, but so was the software. It’s an impressive rethink that’s likely to put Microsoft right back in the running when the first Windows Phone 7 devices go on sale on Nov. 8.

Gone are the hideous, hard-to-read menus of old Windows Mobile 6. Instead, you get tiles — big, square icons that boldly reveal their functions: phone calling, e-mail, text messaging. Flick a finger, and the tiles race up or down. The Surround’s touchscreen is wonderfully responsive. You “pin’’ icons for frequently used features and apps on the home screen, then just flick and press.

Windows Phone 7 is superbly social. You can single out favorite people from your contact list and pin their icons on the home screen. One touch, and you can read their Facebook messages, fire them a text message or e-mail, or just ring them up. Or you can fall back on the people tile. It always displays the icons of your favorite Facebook friends or the last several people you’ve telephoned.

Owning a Windows Phone 7 phone would be a good excuse to sign up for the company’s Windows Live online service. Register the phone for all manner of flashy features, like a service that tells you a lost phone’s location and can even remotely wipe its stored data to prevent identity theft. There is also automatic synchronization of vital information like the appointment calendar. Type a lunch date into your computer’s browser, and it pops up on the phone.

For photo buffs, there’s a tile that shows off favorite snapshots from Facebook and Microsoft’s own Windows Live service. Microsoft tells me that Flickr and other online photo services are on the way. Windows Phone 7 also promises tight integration with the company’s Xbox Live online gaming service. Subscribers should be able to bring their online personas onto their phones and stay in touch with fellow game buffs. Anyway, that’s the idea. But as of now, Microsoft has not switched on the service.

Indeed, Windows Phone 7, for all its delights, seems a bit undercooked. You can’t yet buy new software apps at the online marketplace, but that’s OK, there are hardly any apps to buy. The phone works well with Microsoft’s Office software, allowing you to read and edit documents, spreadsheets, and slideshows on the go. But you can’t cut and paste text, as you can with the newest iPhone software. Microsoft says it will be adding the feature in a few months.

And what about nested folders, to let you stash multiple apps of the same type under a single icon? That was one of the best recent iPhone upgrades. Granted, the Windows phone automatically nests all games and music files under separate icons, but what about other apps?

Also missing is software that will let you view YouTube videos or read Adobe PDF files. Again, Microsoft says those will be ready by launch time.

The software also suffers from confusing controls. Windows Phone 7 lacks the menu button found on all Android phones for displaying supplemental software commands. As a result, it’s often hard to find vital features, like the “page forward’’ command for the Web browser. I spent an hour hunting for that one.

Still, while Windows Phone 7 is far from perfect, most of its failings are easily mended. At its core, it’s good-looking, fast-running software. Indeed, it’s the first Windows smartphone software that won’t embarrass you before your iPhone-packing friends. Having lost so much ground in this market, Microsoft is still trailing the pack, but at least it’s back in the race. Which means that next year, Steve Ballmer will probably get a bigger check.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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