Windows Phone Summit
Well, Apple held their WWDC last week, where it presented iOS 6, along with a few refreshes here and there on their hardware line. While they only demoed 6 of the “hundreds” of new features, it’s safe to assume that these should be near the top, and in that case, iOS6 didn’t really bring that much to the game. Facebook integration, abandoning Google Maps in favour of their own, some (cool) Safari features, they (finally!) can videochat over 3G, and Siri can now discuss sports, yay. Google will be holding its Google I/O next week, where we’re expected to either hear more about Jelly Bean, or maybe a minor update instead. On the other side of the battlefield, Microsoft, who just announced the Surface tablet, held its Windows Phone Camp yesterday in San Francisco.
The mobile landscape
Nothing much has changed in the mobile landscape in recent history. Apple and Google hold large chunks of the market while Microsoft holds a puny slice. Nokia’s help seems to pushing things along nicely, but yeah, Windows Phone is still rather small. We know customer satisfaction with WP7 is great. It sits there at the top alogside iOS, with Android lagging behind. Microsoft yesterday even showed Amazon’s top rated smartphones, and Windows Phones constituted the top three, and made up seven of the top 9 rated smartphones. That’s awesome! Consumers love the phones, it’s just a shame that they don’t buys them!
On the tablet side, iPad is the unchallenged king and Android tablets continue to struggle. With time they have become better, and ICS sure was an improvement, but it’s not enough to challenge Apple. Microsoft’s Surface tablet and their partners’ tablets coming out later this year should shake up things a bit. But yesterday’s event was about the future of Windows Phone, and how that will change everything.
The road to Windows Phone 8
Windows mobile… wasn’t great, to put it nicely. You know that. I know that. And Microsoft knew that. That’s why, 3.5 years ago, Microsoft started to reimagine windows mobile. They were late to do it, yes, but it had to be done. This reimagining resulted, 18 months ago, with the release of Windows Phone 7: a totally revamped, fresh-looking, new OS, completely different to anything that the competition was offering (and still is). It officially marked the beginning of the “Metro era”. Since then Microsoft starting redesigning everything they owned, to follow the Metro design language.
While everyone agreed that the OS looked beautiful, fresh, fluid, and other wonderful marketing terms, and even with the design awards it won at the time, Windows Phone 7.0 still lacked a few basic features at release time. Basic stuff like copy and paste was fixed with the NoDo update, and the later Mango update brought a massive amount of new features to the OS. But the truth is that, even before Mango came out, everybody agreed that “Apollo will be the one”. Windows Phone 8. And that was the theme of yesterday’s Windows Phone Summit. Even when it was all rumours, we knew that WP8 was going to be awesome. And Microsoft delivered.
When Mango came along, Microsoft delivered a lot of features that developers were asking. A lot… but not all. Microsoft wanted to put a great deal of changes into Windows Phone, but they were tied to Windows CE. As we all know, the development of Windows 8 pushed heavily towards the tablet market. With these changes in place they were now able to use the core of Windows 8 in Windows Phone. This had been rumoured before, of course, now it’s confirmed, demoed, and I can’t stress enough that this is, in my opinion, the single most important feature on yesterday’s summit.
Shared Windows Core
So, Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 now share the same internals, what they call the Shared Windows Core, which includes the kernel, networking, multimedia, drivers, graphics, file system, sensors, just to name a few. This means that, for instance, a video driver will work in both Windows and Windows Phone. Sharing internals, by itself, enables a lot of new features to be easily developed in Window Phone, such as support for multi-core processors. Microsoft says they’re really optimizing WP8 for dual-core for this year’s release, quad-core coming as well, but it can now adapt to a 64-core machine, much like Windows 8.
It can also scale to new resolutions: WP8 now supports the original 480x800, along with 1280x720 and 1280x768. What’s more, these resolutions will be invisible for the developer. For anyone who’s worked with WPF, Silverlight, Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8, making resolution independent user interfaces is effortless, so I assume it should be more of the same. They’re also adding support for removable storage, something end-users have wanted for a long time (and possible with some WP7 devices if you were… handy).
Also new to Windows Phone 8, and not unexpected, is the inclusion of Internet Explorer 10. Mango had IE9, Apollo has IE10. No surprise there. Performance-wise, they showed that WP8 out-performs current flagship devices such as the Galaxy S III, the HTC One S and the iPhone 4S (with the iOS6 beta), on a SunSpider test. Nice.
One of the biggest things that developers asked for was also granted: Native Code. Is there any reason for them to have kept it from us this long?, no, but with the Shared Core, that brings new possibilities. As you read earlier, it is possible to write device drivers that work on both platforms, but more than that, you can write apps that work on both Windows 8 and Windows Phone with minor code differences between them. Native Code also enables something else that is also great: DirectX on Windows Phone. Games can be ported from the desktop to the Phone, and code from other platforms (iOS, Android) can also be easily ported to Windows. They later had Havok announce that their engine would come to WP8, and they showed a nice preview of it running on Windows Phone. Really impressive.
New Start Screen
The sexiest feature in the Windows Phone 8, however, is the changes they made to the Start Screen. Gone is that empty space on the right, leaving the tiles to take up the full screen. And there are now three tile sizes, the familiar square and rectangle, and a new smaller square tile, ¼ of the size of the traditional square tile. Every app’s tile size will be configurable by the user, though the developer must take care of icons, information to be displayed, etc.
NFC and Wallet
WP8 will also support NFC which allows new ways of communication between devices. They demoed, sharing a contact between devices, and a phone launching a game session with a Windows 8 tablet. The devices did everything automatically, even setting up an ad-hoc network between them. Neat. They also (briefly) mentioned “improved Bluetooth support”, let’s hope that means what we hope it means since it was there at the top of requested features, right next to native code.
Another fine addition is the mobile Wallet. Using your phone as a wallet naturally raises everyone’s security concern, but Microsoft worked close with mobile operators and the security module will be tied with your SIM card, which differentiates this wallet from the competition.
As a continuation of Nokia’s cooperation with Microsoft, Nokia’s mapping technology will be included in Windows Phone 8. Goodies such as offline maps, maps control for developers, turn-by-turn directions, traffic notifications, place reviews, photo uploading, and a nifty feature called “My Commute” which knows the routes you take every day, and can compare it with alternate routes, noting how long it will take for each one.
Windows Phone 7 was really loved by the business world for lack of critical features, so it will now include device encryption, secure boot, LOB App deployment, Device management, and naturally Office. They have also included a Company Hub, which can be used for news, alerts, company apps, etc.
Other noteworthy feature is that Skype is now integrated into the OS. In fact, any developer can build a full VoIP app and integrate it into WP8. Multitasking has also improved: mapping apps are now allowed use location services in the background, and VoIP apps can do their stuff behind the scenes. Speech has also been improved. It’s no Siri yet, but it does allow developers access so the user can talk to any application. Awesome.
Summing it up…
Bringing the Windows internals to the Phone is, to put it simply, massive. It allows for so much. Much like Windows 8, development can be done in XAML, C#/VB, C/C++ and HTML/JS. Though someone who wants to target both platforms should use XAML, and C++ with DirectX for games.
Regarding the update, as expected, current devices will not be able to update to WP8, there will however be a Windows Phone 7.8 update for current devices (hah, 7.8, I see what you did there) which will be available over de air, bypassing carriers, bringing with it some of the new features, such as the new start screen. Like previous updates, it will also be available earlier for registered users/developers.
All in all, the future of Windows Phone looks great. I am super excited about the Shared Core, and the new features they presented look great. Definitely a great step up from 7.5. This has been a big week for Microsoft. And with Windows 8 on the horizon as well, I feel that Windows Phone’s market share might be heading for a bump.
What can I say, I’m eagerly awaiting holiday season 2012! Well, that is all for today. Now that the events have passed I have some time to keep building up the rest of the website, as well as adding some much needed features.