Photon Phailure

Microsoft’s late-era Windows Phone 7 did away with a decade of evolution. Its Photon project tried to do the same—while keeping the Windows Mobile legacy alive.

By Yuri Litvinenko

Hey all, Ernie here with a piece from Yuri Litvinenko, a journalist from Russia who wrote a great piece on the Microsoft Kin on his personal website a while ago. He’s here to talk about another failed Microsoft mobile endeavor. Psyched to be running this—and hope you feel the same about reading!

Today in Tedium: It’s a make-it-or-break-it situation when a software company decides to scrap an operating system several years in the making. Apple. Failing to ship Copland, averted the crisis by relying on a third-party groundwork—that one led to the creation of macOS. For other companies, like Palm and its spin-offs, projects like Cobalt are left as eternal reminders of their former ambitions. The case of Microsoft and their Photon project is peculiar in this regard. When the company announced a brand-new Windows Phone 7, no one shed a tear over the “true” successor to Windows Mobile 6. Nowadays, though, both platforms are just as irrelevant. But while the former gained a cult following, it’s time to ask: was there truly nothing left of Photon? — Yuri @ Tedium

Today’s GIF highlights an evolution of the Windows Phone design before it moved to the grid-heavy Metro look.

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The market share of handheld computers powered by Microsoft’s operating systems by 2000. The company released its first mobile OS, Windows CE, in 1996—only to face the soaring popularity of Palm handhelds. It took Microsoft another three years to create Pocket PC, a platform designed for the keyboardless form factor Palm popularized.

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The HP 620LX, an early Windows CE machine. (Wikimedia Commons)

Why Microsoft ended up with two mutually incompatible mobile platforms

It’s impossible to imagine 1990s Microsoft entering a market and not eventually dominating it. From operating systems to browsers and office suites, the company enjoyed the power which shaped much of its public image—and eventually put it into hot water involving the investigation by the Department of Justice.

But for some reason, it was never able to get a grasp of the mobile market. Trying to jump on a PDA bandwagon of the early 1990s, it had to look up for Apple which claimed their MessagePads would kickstart the post-PC era. Microsoft’s WinPad system was designed for the same form factor of pen-based computers, with the only defining factor being the x86 processors the system was supposed to run on. In the end, it turned out neither hardware nor software was ready for what the public was expecting, and the WinPad project was canceled.

Microsoft tried to pave its own way afterward. With Windows CE, it opted for a “PC companion” concept, with the devices looking like tiny notebooks. The software, too, was designed to look like a shrunk-down version of Windows 95, complete with the pull-down Start menu. But soon it had to answer 3Com and their snappy Palm PDAs which did not rely on keyboards for text input. It wasn’t until 1999 when Microsoft created another mobile platform, Pocket PC, designed to compete with Palm OS on its own field.

The turn of the millennium was the highest point for both Palm and the PDA market. But soon, it became clear the new decade belonged not to handheld computers, but to mobile phones. Cellphones were gradually absorbing the capabilities of PDAs and marrying them to mobile connectivity. In 2002, Nokia introduced the 7650, the first candybar mobile phone powered by Symbian OS, a direct successor to EPOC used Psion handhelds. While it wasn’t the first smartphone per se, it was the first which looked and controlled like an ordinary phone—no clamshell QWERTY design this time. At the same time, RIM began adding the cellular connectivity to their BlackBerry email pagers, shaping the image of a corporate smartphone. Microsoft could not have ignored that.

Still, PDAs were still noticeably more powerful, and their software relied heavily on touch input. It wasn’t possible to retrofit Pocket PC to make it run on phones, and, once again, Microsoft had to adapt. The end result, Smartphone 2002, shared the kernel and most of the design principles with Pocket PC but was designed with one-handed, keypad-driven navigation in mind.

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The Sendo Z100, which was to run Microsoft’s Smartphone 2002 platform. The phone showed up at trade shows but was never released, a victim of a failed deal. (Wikimedia Commons)

Things would not go well for Smartphone from the start. Microsoft decided to partner with Sendo, the UK phone company, allegedly offering them the position as the only Smartphone manufacturer at launch. But later, Sendo accused Microsoft of breaking the agreement and selling the know-how to HTC, a Taiwanese OEM which did not have its own public brand back then. Eventually, Sendo turned its back on Microsoft’s platform and chose Symbian.

In later years, Palm OS would slowly become technically outdated, and many hardware and software manufacturers moved on to Microsoft’s offerings—but not to Smartphone. Its Pocket PC which eventually turned HTC into one of the leading phone manufacturers, netting them a deal with Google once Android was ready to manufacture. But that would be another, post-iPhone era. As Apple was still mainly in the media player and computing sectors, Microsoft set its eyes upon competing with Nokia, Sony Ericsson, and other keypad phone manufacturers.

“Pocket PC was planned to be phased out to focus on Smartphone ... Microsoft, given RIM-compete as an edict, focused on keyboards over touchscreen.”

Christian Hernandez, a VC at White Star Capital who worked at Microsoft from 2002 to 2006. Looking back to Microsoft’s mobile efforts, he noted that the Windows Mobile team tried to compete with everyone, from Palm to Nokia and Sony Ericsson, for both consumer and enterprise users. “It was too much too jam into a small box,” he observes, adding that the only allies Microsoft had to rely on were their PC partners—and few people wanted a Dell phone.

A demo video of the Photon user interface, which was to be released in 2008. It never happened.

The development of Photon, a unified Windows Mobile system

A year after the inception of its Smartphone platform, Microsoft introduced Windows Mobile 2003. It wasn’t a single operating system, but a marketing banner both Pocket PC and Smartphone were put under. It was the first step, if only the formal one, to minimize the difference between the two platforms.

Further steps were made in May 2005, when Windows Mobile 5.0 was introduced. With the new Pocket PC release, the developers implemented “soft keys”, something seen on most contemporary phones. Hardware manufacturers were encouraged to add them to their designs, so users, in theory, could navigate the system without reaching for the stylus.

As Windows Mobile 5.0 devices began to appear in stores, the internal Microsoft presentation was leaked on the Web, revealing the future of the platform. According to the roadmap, Microsoft was simultaneously developing two versions of Windows Mobile —Crossbow and Photon. While the former was meant to be a comparatively minor improvement, Photon, set to be launched in early 2008, promised new kernel and updated, flexible user interface.

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The Photon user interface. (via Neowin)

A few months later, in December 2005, Microsoft officially introduced Photon to select journalists. The company announced that the new operating system will merge two Windows Mobile platforms into one. It was noted, though, that it will take years for Photon to be completed. “What we saw was hot, it’s without a doubt a big (and much overdue) leap forward for the platform,” said Peter Rojas of Engadget as he tried out the system behind closed doors.

In February 2007, Crossbow was released as Windows Mobile 6. The new OS, sporting Windows Vista-themed interface, was featured as described in the 2005 presentation. It also introduced yet another branding change—a notable one according to Microsoft’s goals. The “Smartphone” moniker was no more, as the keypad-controlled flavor of WM6 got a “Standard” prefix. Pocket PC and Pocket PC Phone editions were respectively renamed “Classic” and “Professional.”

While the Crossbow project was completed in time, the fate of Photon became unclear by the end of the year. In November 2007, a new version of Windows Mobile was once again privately shown to reporters . It wasn’t Photon, though, but a feature update to Windows Mobile 6, announced as Windows Mobile 6.1 in April 2007 and released in October. Photon, which was supposed to be already released at that point, was nowhere to be seen.

Microsoft did not ever talk about Photon again—and when companies stop talking, insiders start doing so. Since 2008, photos, screenshots, and design document excerpts began appearing on the Web. Checking reports against each other provides the grounds to assume Microsoft kept working on Photon till September 2008. (To put things into perspective, Apple’s iPhone 3G and the App Store were launched in July 2008.) By next September, Microsoft’s mobile team was revamped, with several Zune developers getting new positions.

By February 2010, Microsoft announced Windows Phone 7, noting that the new platform breaks the Windows Mobile app support for the sake of new, touch-friendly interface. This was the first time Microsoft had created a succeeding mobile platform without maintaining at least some degree of backwards compatibility—even Pocket PC 2000 had one. Windows Mobile 7, as a binary-compatible successor to WM6, was no more.

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It’s possible the HTC Touch Diamond might be the closest we’ll ever get to an actual in-the-wild Photon phone—due in part to its interface and the guy who made it. (via Dave Brinda’s website)

Five UI changes Microsoft planned to implement in Windows Mobile Photon

  1. Windows Aero design language. Windows Mobile 6 was styled after Windows Vista, but it was more of a skin on top of the groundwork of Pocket PC 2000. It seemed Photon was supposed to add way more eye candy and to make it more coherent with the desktop Windows. Working test builds used blue overtones, glass-like surfaces, and Segoe typography, with more eye candy outlined in the design document.
  2. Motion gestures. Photon designers proposed an extensive motion controls. Some of them, like shaking the phone to shuffle music tracks, were similar to what was already implemented in MP3 players by then. Others, like tilting the phone like a focus ring while taking a photo, seems far less useful.
  3. Extensive horizontal navigation. From the main screen to most of the apps, Photon concepts featured the ability to flick screen left and right to change between tabs. Dubbed “pivot navigation” by Photon developers, the navigation became a crucial part of Windows Phone “hubs.” In 2011, Android introduced swipeable tabs, but while they still appear in Material Design guidelines, they’ve fallen out of fashion by now.
  4. Features soon found on HTC phones. The main screen, as described in the design document, featured not only horizontal navigation but a vertical one, with icons or thumbnails lined on a side of the screen. If you had a Windows Mobile device and felt a sense of déjà vu, that’s because this exact layout was featured in HTC Touch Diamond, as a part of TouchFLO 3D enhancement shell. Turns out Dave Brinda, an art director at Microsoft responsible for Photon look and feel, moved to HTC where he works ever since.
  5. The lack of an on-screen Windows key. In Pocket PC, the bar on top of the screen featured a drop-down Start menu, the staple of Microsoft’s mobile systems since the first version of Windows CE. In Photon, however, the bar was relegated to displaying status info. While some UI concepts feature the Windows orb in the bottom middle of the screen, the place houses an unrelated hamburger menu on most of them. In Windows Phone, pressing the hardware Start button was the only way to invoke the app launcher.

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The LG Fantom, a Windows Mobile 6.5.3-based device.

Windows Mobile got several Photon features, but users didn’t really care

The new Windows Phone platform was announced in Spain, at the MWC conference. But just a month earlier, in Las Vegas, Microsoft had a booth at CES. That one featured another new operating system which, amusingly, Microsoft did not officially introduce. While HTC was stealing the show with HD2, the most technically advanced Windows Mobile device, two humble devices by Toshiba and Pharaos on Microsoft’s booth were running Windows Mobile 6.5.3.

A year before, Windows Mobile 6.5 was introduced as Microsoft’s attempt to add some modern touch functionality to the system. The improvements, which boiled down to a new launcher and wider gaps between on-screen controls, were generally considered too little, too late for Microsoft to compete with iOS and Android. It was the release which famously made Steve Ballmer admit it wasn’t “the full release”, and Microsoft “don’t get some of the things that people want on the highest-end phones.”

It should be noted that, in marketing materials, Windows Mobile 6.5 was called “Windows® phone” (sic) and got a new logo which was quite similar to the one Windows Phone 7 used. Considering the latter was initially referred to “Windows Phone 7 Series”, it seems Microsoft hoped for “6 Series” to continue being developed. Interestingly, when a Microsoft executive announced “Windows Mobile is dead” as he unveiled Windows Phone 7. the company issued a lengthy statement clarifying how important and well-supported Windows Mobile 6.5 will be.

But what about the 6.5.3 release? Despite having a humble revision upgrade, it was the first substantial shake-up of the Pocket PC platform in terms of UI. The Start menu was moved away from the top bar, and tabs could now be switched by flicking the screen horizontally—and if that sounds familiar, that’s because Photon had the exact same features. Windows Mobile 6.5.3 also added circular icons instead of soft keys, which were kind of similar to ones on Windows Phone despite having three-dimensional, “bubbly” look.

It wasn’t even the first time Photon features were silently added to release versions of Windows Mobile. The “standard” (formerly Smartphone) flavor of Windows Mobile 6.1 had a new home screen which, with its Aero effects, was quite similar to the one in the Photon design document. The screen which Pocket PC flavors got with Windows Mobile 6.5 was instead a mishmash of Aero and Metro design languages, bringing the big lowercase text from the latter.

It amuses me that the history of Windows Mobile Photon starts and ends with Microsoft trying to juggle between two different operating systems. Thankfully, we didn’t have to see Microsoft supporting both “series” of Windows Phone for long, as no new consumer devices running the legacy system were released in 2012. The platform continued to be offered for enterprises as an “embedded” offering—for the same reason specialized versions of Windows XP continued to get updates until last month.

You’d never know what made Microsoft made whatever move it decided to do, especially in the Ballmer era. After all, it was a company which bought a successful phone company, restarted the development of a new product because of a not-invented-here mentality, make several teams within itself battle for resources, and created one of biggest disasters in the modern tech history.

The modern Microsoft is all about services, and for that, it doesn’t need its own mobile platform anymore. The company has moved on to infusing Android with Windows connectivity and selling office subscriptions to Office users. Windows 10 Mobile, the last of its kind, is on a life support—if one could even call it that way, considering random breaking apps and recovery tools.

At least Photon kind of faded away without embarrassing itself.


Thanks again to Yuri for writing! Be sure to check out his website and his Twitter account.

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Yuri Litvinenko

Your time was just wasted by Yuri Litvinenko

Yuri Litvinenko is a media and telecom reporter at Kommersant, a Russian business newspaper, and was previously working as a news editor at Kommersant and Vedomosti. In his spare time, he maintains 30pin, an online magazine of consumer tech history.

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