It's been a long road, hasn't it? Well, in some respects, it hasn't -- in fact, it's only been about two years since development of Windows Phone 7 as we know it today kicked off -- but when you consider that this product will be replacing Windows Mobile 6.5, that puts things in proper perspective. In fact, even the very latest maintenance releases of good ol' WinMo are based on the same rickety underpinnings as version 5.0 was way back in 2005, at a time when WVGA smartphone displays were science fiction, 4G networks were a good two Gs beyond the average American's comprehension, and Engadget looked like this. Nowadays, it's a very different game; eight year-olds have access to mobile email, your phone understands German, and "Yelp" is a verb (okay, actually Yelp is a verb). Indeed, mobile devices are the new PCs -- and companies like Apple and Google are dominating an industry that had once been practically handed to Microsoft on a silver platter. No one -- either inside or outside of Redmond -- is arguing that change isn't desperately (and quickly) needed, because it simply isn't enough to dominate the desktop anymore.
In light of all that, you could call Windows Phone 7 a desperation move to become relevant in the pocket again. Call it whatever you like, but regardless, brand loyalty isn't going to save this product -- it simply has to be good to sell. Scratch that; it actually has to be nearly flawless in a world where iOS 4 and Gingerbread play. Microsoft still has a few months before it intends to get the first volley of Windows Phone 7-based products to the marketplace, but we've recently been provided with reference hardware -- a not-for-retail Samsung called "Taylor" that's closely modeled on the Symbian-based i8910HD -- to get a feel for where they're at as the clock ticks down. Is this shaping up to be a killer platform for the next generation of high-end smartphones? And more importantly, can it win customers? Read on for our first take.