Windows Phone 8: Microsoft Shows Promise, Plays Catch Up

On Wednesday, Redmond showed off their new Mobile OS to a crowd of eager watchers and rumor mongers’. I can’t say that I’m not a little intrigued by the little OS that could. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been adopted as widespread as Redmond would have hoped, but it’s hoping that Windows Phone 8 will be different.

Within the new announcements, Microsoft announced several features that are an attempt to play catch up with iOS and Android. Unfortunately, some of this catch up is too little too late, but some of it can add more emphasis to great ideas that never worked. The most exciting element for Windows Phone 8 is under the hood (of the OS, not the phone), but let’s work from the outside in. 

New(ish) Home Screen

Apollo comes with a slightly new look. Well okay, it’s actually a new home screen. Well okay, it’s actually a bigger home screen. Since Windows Phone 8 will support higher resolutions (spoiler!), it’s logical for Microsoft to make use of those extra pixels within the home screen. It’s nice to see that Microsoft is seeing higher pixel counts and translating them into greater amounts of content and information access. The fact that Live Tiles act as app short cuts and widgets means that something as simple as adding more space to the home screen actually does ramp up it’s functionality. However, in reality, it’s just more of the same. The home screen was cool, and now it’s bigger. Windows Phone 8 still remains a decent middle ground between the clunky but powerful home screens of Android and the highly simplistic but also highly limited iOS home screens.

More Pixels

As mentioned above, Windows Phone 8 devices will have higher resolutions. Since Microsoft published hardware requirements for the devices, manufacturers have been limited by Microsoft’s demands. Since phone hardware has changed so dramatically during the last year, I think Microsoft will have continue to have trouble catching up if they keep releasing OS’s the way they are.

But anyway, Windows Phone 8 will now support two additional resolutions: 1280 X 768 and 1280 X 720. My first reaction to this was “that’s it?” When we have the iPhone sporting a retina display and Android phones pushing 1080 pixels, announcing that your phones will now support 720p is a bit disappointing.

Multi-Core Processors

Windows Phone 8 will be able to (finally) support multi-core processors. That doesn’t mean just dual-core, but any amount of core. While Windows Phone 8 devices will probably initially come with dual-core processors, expect quad-core products to show up as well. Once again, catch up, but definitely a much needed upgrade.

MicroSD Support

Yes, Windows Phone 8 will actually support microSD cards. Finally! Extra storage! File movement! Theroetically, one could also move items from one phone to another easily too, except that Microsoft has a better way of dealing with that.

Wireless Transmission

I have to admit that this is a little exciting. I loved it when HP unveiled webOS’s ability to wirelessly transmit data, but once again, the OS died. Google was the first surviving OS maker to unveil NFC support, but aside from Samsung and Nexus(aka Samsung) devices, NFC hasn’t picked up steam.

Basically, with NFC, Windows Phone 8 devices will be able to “beam” various files (photos, videos, MS Office files, email contacts) to other Windows Phone 8 devices. Unfortunately, your friends are more likely to have iOS or Android phones, so it’s not really as exciting as you might think, considering the lackluster adoption rate of Windows Phone 7. In fact, even with the lack of Android NFC devices, if you get a Samsung Galaxy S III, you’ll probably be able to use Samsung Beam a lot more often then you’ll be able to use Windows Phone 8 beaming.

However, if Windows Phone 8 does sell well, users will be able to use their webOS-like “Tap + Send” feature to bump two phones together and share content. This will also allow you to bump your Windows Phone 8 phones and tablets together, and if NFC ever makes it to computers, theroetically we may be bumping our phones to our computers as well. While Microsoft didn’t talk about the latter, I can always hope.

Windows Wallet App

With NFC, of course, comes wireless phone payments as well. Google Wallet has already been around for a while, enabling users to put their credit card numbers on their phone and swipe their NFC-capable phone at NFC-capable registers instead of actually using a credit/debit card.

While Google has the unfortunately little used Wallet, Apple has recently unveiled their Passbook system, allowing users to buy event, bus, plane, etc., tickets and passes and use their phone to check in.

Microsoft’s new hilariously named Wallet app (expect Andy Rubin to flip a lid if Android loses marketshare to Windows Phone) combines both together. Wallet will have NFC payments as well as Passbook functionality.

Nokia Maps

Nokia Maps has actually been around already on existing Nokia Windows Phone 7 devices, but supposibly, Nokia Maps will also be available for 3rd parties who build a Windows Phone 8 device. Nokia maps adds functionality that has existed in Android forever and was recently added to iOS. Turn-by-turn navigation. About damn time, I say.

Siri

Well okay, it’s not actually called Siri, although that would be hilarious. Actually, Microsoft decided not to name it, interestingly enough. Windows Phone 8 will have a voice controlled assistant, but it appears that it’s mainly run by Audible, which happens to be the name of the app as well. So Windows Phone customers will be shouting at Audible when they want their phone to do something.

Another interesting note is that this is the only functionality that will  be making it to previous generations, and only those upgraded to Mango. Presumably, this is because Microsoft has created it as an app, rather than an integral part of the operating system, like Apple has. So, I would imagine that it’d work like many Android voice assistant apps (read: disappointing).

Skype

With Microsoft’s recent purchase of Skype, it was just a matter of time before deeply integrated VoIP would make it’s way into Windows Phone 8.

However, with Windows Phone 8, it’s not all about Skype. Microsoft has included deep VoIP integration within the OS itself, allowing even 3rd party VoIP apps to become first-class apps. This means they can access systems that are integral to the OS, like the phone dialer, People Hub, and more. This lends itself to comparisons with FaceTime, except that it’s much more powerful, since you don’t have to juggle multiple contact lists or juggle an app list to start a video call. In fact, Microsoft even joked that Apple should create their own FaceTime app for the Windows Phone Marketplace so that Windows Phone 8 users and iPhones can FaceTime together. I think this close integration for 3rd party apps is brilliant, and I hope Microsoft continues with this trend.

Combining App Markets

Microsoft’s Windows Phone app store will integrate apps from WP7, WP8, and even Windows 8. This means that Microsoft can take it’s existing 100,000 app store and bring it over to new handsets too. That’s great news for Microsoft, since it took forever to get that app store up that high,  but now with PCs and phones sharing many of the same apps, it’ll make it easier than ever for developers to program for phones, tablets, and PCs.

The Intriguing New OS Core

Windows Phone 8 may symbolize some fairly small catch-up-like changes on the surface, but those features hide the most important change for this OS. Windows Phone 8 shares the same kernel, file system, media foundation, device drivers, and security model as Windows 8.

Wait. A Phone with a Desktop Kernel and API?

In case that didn’t hit you, let’s say that again. Windows Phone 8 has the same OS backbone as Windows 8. That makes Windows Phone 8 essentially the same as Windows 8, just with a different and more mobile-centric OS.

Developers should be jumping for joy right now. The reason that the Windows Phone 7 app store barely got to 100,000 was because they had to use the terrible and ancient .NET Compact Framework that actually comes from Windows Compact Embedded (and to a certain extent, Windows Mobile). This meant that developers would be developing for a platform that wasn’t selling and have to use an API that doesn’t translate to any other platform. Now, developers for Windows 8 barely have to do anything to get their apps on Windows Phone 8.

Is it really a mobile OS still?

Here’s another one you might have missed. Windows Phone 8 will share the same file system and media foundation as Windows 8. That means that one of my chief complaints about mobile OSes, terrible or non-existant file systems, has been solved in Windows Phone 8. While it’s no BeOS, the Windows file system is actually pretty good since Windows 7, and it’s getting a pretty major upgrade in Windows 8. To see those changes coming to phones is exciting. Adding the same media foundation means easy content sharing between phones, tablets, PCs, and game consoles. This is the integration that I’ve been waiting for from Microsoft.

While Apple already has this level of integration, and it does it very well, the fact is that the APIs are essentially very different, meaning that level of integration requires apps that convert cross platform. It also means working with the (still) terrible iTunes software in order to share content to a computer. Apple has done a great job of making what should be impossible very possible but it’s nothing like having all devices share the same kernel, APIs and media foundation.

Direct X?

Since Windows Phone 8 shares the same backbone, that means it shares the same code libraries. Developers can not only use C, C++ and SQLite, but they can also use Direct X.

Yes, Direct X support…on a phone.

If the implications of this don’t stagger you, then you might not care about this.

Direct X is the biggest reason why I can never truly get away from Windows. It is the reason why Steam for Mac has a hard time getting games to run as they should. It is the API standard in making computer games. Almost every major non-console game (except that the Xbox  uses Direct X, meaning that almost every major console game in the last several years can work in this analogy) in the last 20-30 years has been made using some version of Direct X. OpenGL tried valiantly to capture the hardcore gaming market, but Microsoft proved too difficult to beat. Direct X is a giant, and while Direct X 10 hit some stumbling blocks, Direct X 11 is simply an amazing graphics API. Seeing that it will come to Windows Phone 8 makes me giddy.

That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to play every PC game on your phone, but it does mean that game developers can easily convert their major PC games to mobile versions to work on tablets and phones without rewriting the code. If Windows Phone 8 gains steam, you can expect that the mobile gaming market will see a much needed boost.

Windows Phone 7 Users Are Screwed

Now all this may sound very exciting, but if you currently have a WP7 device, you should be pissed. None of this is coming to your device. If you want WP8, you need to buy a new phone, simple as that.

To a certain extent, the requirement is understandable. The new home screen requires higher resolution screens. The more powerful kernel, APIs, and support for Windows 8 apps requires the power of a multi-core processor. Wallet and Tap + Share requires an NFC card. None of these things are insurmountable, but certainly would lead to a diminished experience for a current WP7 device.

Hopefully this doesn’t signal a trend for Microsoft, though. Windows Phone 7 was clearly a failure, and I can imagine that Microsoft is wanting to put it behind them, but at the same time, not supporting those that supported them is a huge mistake. The only people that put trust in Microsoft to deliver on a mobile OS are probably going to be reluctant to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt anymore, and Microsoft already has problems getting customers.

So I’ll be interested to see if these devices sell better than WP7. I hope they do, because honestly, the OS has a lot more promise, now.

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