With the arrival of the Nokia Lumia 900, Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 has pulled even with Android and iPhone in many ways, as I'll explain. Of course, the big question is whether that will be enough to siphon users away from Android and iPhone or get new smartphone customers to choose it over Android or iPhone devices.
I'm going to do my best to answer that question for business professionals.
Hands-on with the Lumia 900
When I first got my hands on the Nokia Lumia 900 in a conference room at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, I almost immediately had the impression that it felt like it could become a winner. I had liked its little brother, the Lumia 800, but it felt incomplete and wasn't on the same level as the best smartphones -- yet. However, the big brother, Lumia 900, looked and felt like it could go toe-to-toe with the top mobile contenders.
Now that I've been able to put the final product through its paces and use it alongside the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx, and the Apple iPhone 4S -- the three devices I consider the best phones on the market at the moment -- I have no hesitation in putting the Lumia 900 in the same class with those heavyweights. Again, keep in mind, that I'm evaluating it from the perspective of professionals who are going to be using the device to get work done, and only occasionally using it for entertainment.
Let's start by talking about the display, since smartphone users spend a lot of time looking at it and it determines a lot about the overall experience with the device (not to mention its impact on battery life). The iPhone 4S has the best display on the market, although it's a little small for some people at 3.5 inches. The Samsung Galaxy Nexus isn't quite as smooth and colorful but it's close, and it's much larger (4.65 inches). The way the average user can notice the quality of both of these screens (and see why they are head-and-shoulders above almost every other phone) is when viewing text such as a web page. The edges of the text are completely smooth. It doesn't look like a computer screen. It looks like something printed out on a laser printer. The Lumia 900 has the same effect.
The other thing that is impressive about the Lumia 900's display is that when you swipe up and down to scroll on a page such as a web page, it doesn't hardly refresh at all. It smoothly and instantly scrolls up. This gets to the performance issue. While the Lumia 900 doesn't have the world's most powerful hardware -- my colleague Bill Detwiler has the full hardware analysis -- I never ran into any performance issues with the Lumia 900. It felt every bit as fast as the iPhone 4S and the Galaxy Nexus. In other words, I was rarely ever sitting around waiting for it to complete a task.
This is significant because the Lumia 900 is the first Windows Phone 7 device on a really nice piece of hardware. All of the first fleet of Windows Phone 7 devices were essentially running on last-generation Android hardware from Samsung and HTC, which both saved their best hardware for Android devices during 2011. That's why Microsoft made its billion dollar deal with Nokia to get the Finnish phone maker to exclusively build smartphones running Windows Phone 7. It took almost a year, but with the Lumia 900, the deal is paying off. Microsoft finally has a WP7 device that has reached parity with Android and iPhone.
One area where I have to particularly tip my hat to Microsoft and Nokia is that they've done it with a device that doesn't have as big of an engine under the hood. The Lumia 900 only has a single-core 1.4GHz Qualcomm processor, but like I said, I never ran into any noticeable performance problems with it. That speaks to excellent hardware-software integration and the overall "lightness" of Windows Phone 7 (a quality we don't typically associate with Microsoft software). It also helps the Lumia 900's battery life and it's a big reason why it is priced so aggressively at $99 in the U.S. on AT&T.
Another thing I liked a lot about the Lumia 900 and Windows Phone 7 is the freshness of the design, both in terms of hardware and software. I've talked about this before with WP7. Microsoft didn't do what Android did and copy the iPhone's UI with a collection of app icons. Instead, the "Tiles" in WP7 are essentially a combination of app icons and widgets that can show live data. I also liked that Nokia didn't copy iPhone and Android hardware but went for an original take with the square form factor of the Lumia 900. While some of these software and hardware design elements have the feel of "change for the sake of change" more than functional improvements, it's still nice to see a product that's applying fresh thinking to the smartphone world, which has too often become a sea of sameness lately.
Let's dig into the software a little bit more. The operating system itself is relatively easy to navigate. It's certainly much more self-evident than Android, which can be pretty confusing to figure out for beginners, although part of that is because it's more customizable and configurable. The version 7.5 of WP7 that's on the Lumia 900 is not quite as simple and self-evident as the iPhone but the iPhone UI itself is also more limited. The iPhone doesn't have the power of the "Live Tiles" of WP7, for example.
Of course, we also have to talk about apps, which is where the game is largely won or lost (as Deb Shinder recently pointed out). The apps give these devices infinitely more value. Both iPhone and Android have hundreds of thousands of apps, with iPhone arguably having a better quality catalog because its users spend more money on apps so a lot of developers naturally tend to devote more energy to it. That, in turn, has reinforced the perception of the iPhone as a premium platform. Windows Phone 7 still has less than 100,000 apps in its catalog but the overall quality of apps tends to be closer to iPhone than Android. Microsoft has impressively mobilized a lot of developers to build WP7 apps, but it's still not enough. The best mobile apps are on iPhone and Android, period. Windows Phone 7 has most of the big stuff covered -- social networks, basic news and weather, Kindle, Netflix, Angry Birds, Evernote, etc. -- but most existing iPhone and Android users would have to give up some of their favorite mobile apps if they switched.
The other part of the app equation here is Microsoft Office and other Microsoft software and services. Out of the box, Windows Phone 7 handles Office attachments better than iPhone and Android, but both of those platforms have apps that you can get to work with Office files. WP7 does a nice job of letting you edit Office files on the phone itself, but even it chokes on some files and won't go into edit mode. There's solid SharePoint and SkyDrive integration (and the Xbox integration is decent for entertainment), but Microsoft could certainly do more to integrate the full collaboration capabilities of Exchange and now Skype into Windows Phone. And, it wouldn't hurt to throw IT administrators a bone by giving them some apps for managing System Center or giving developers some tools for app development on the phone itself (TouchDevelop is a nice start).
So, let's sum up. Here are my pros and cons and my bottom line.
- Snappy performance
- Impressive display
- Solid battery life
- Fresh design
- Good hardware/software integration
- Self-evident user experience
- Great price
- Missing apps
- Integration with Microsoft software and services could be better
- Good but not great hardware
For existing Android customers who are tired of killing tasks, worrying about mobile malware, and living with un-updated old Android phones, the Nokia Lumia 900 will be an attractive alternative, especially for business professionals who already have Windows laptops and live in Outlook, Microsoft Office, SharePoint and other Microsoft products at work. It's that group of users that has the most potential of jumping to Windows Phone 7 and the Lumia 900.
Enterprise IT departments are now recommending a lot more smartphones than they are buying and handing out to employees. They are still powerful players as recommenders. The ones that have a lot of Microsoft solutions on the backend are going to be a lot more comfortable recommending Windows Phone 7 now that there's a high-end device on the market at a great price in the Lumia 900. WP7 simply means a lot fewer integration headaches for them when these employees want to connect their devices to the corporate network. Even though both iPhone and Android have made great strides in corporate connectivity, Windows Phone 7 still has an edge in connecting to Microsoft products -- although Microsoft needs to take that advantage a lot farther.
For the IT departments that are still handing out phones to employees, the low price point of the Lumia 900 (even more so for IT departments buying them in the dozens) could be attractive enough that we'll see some companies using these to replace aging BlackBerries.
If this were a footrace then Microsoft has just passed a fading RIM and pulled even with Android and iPhone. The problem, of course, is that Microsoft and Nokia just used all of their energy to pull even, while Google and Apple still have moves to make, with HTC One X, Samsung Galaxy S III, and iPhone 5 on the horizon.
As a professional user myself, I like the Nokia Lumia 900 a lot. I could easily use it as my day-to-day phone for almost everything I do. But, it's not significantly better than Android or iPhone at enough things to make it worth switching from either my iPhone or my Android device, and that's likely going to be the biggest challenge facing the Lumia 900.
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks.