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Windows Phone 8: smartphone OS presentation

The first ever Microsoft Windows Phone 8 Summit was held in San Francisco. There, for the first time, they showed some features of the updated or, to be more precise, completely revised smartphone OS and told us about their future partners. During the two-hour event, they really told us a lot of things, but the first impression produced by the presentation is some kind of inconsistency, and there are a few questionable issues. Mainly, those issues are rather about the features selected to be the major ones for the new operating system than about the new system itself. Maybe, this approach is the right choice, but I would set the priorities in some other way. Let's examine the essential topics of the presentation together, as well as what Windows Phone 8 has to offer to users, partners and developers.

Contents:

  1. The intermediate Windows Phone 7.5 Ц the story ends
  2. Windows Phone 8: hello again
  3. Other Features and Apps
  4. Launch Date, Updates and Partners
  5. Concluding Remarks

The intermediate Windows Phone 7.5 Ц the story ends

In March 2012, I wrote that the next Windows Phone version, codenamed Apollo, would not be available to those who buy the current Windows Phone 7/7.5 models. At that time, this information evoked a keen response. And in April, TheVerge even presented their "exclusive" statement that it was true, according to their own source. A month is quite a considerable period of time, but actually it's not that important who was the first to say it. What really matters is that today Microsoft made this information official.

Later, I also wrote that users of WP 7.5 devices would be offered an update in the Apollo style as a compromise. The update would introduce some new applications and interface features, so it would be a sort of comforting prize. Microsoft called this update Version 7.8, and it will be available for all 7.5 devices in October. They didn't mention when it would be or when they would start selling WP8, but I can disclose it to you: it will be October 2012.

Nokia is going to suffer from the absence of a full-fledged update like no one else, as the Finns have been so active with their advertising and PR campaigns for their Lumia WP lineup. In June, the new flagship, Lumia 900, is hitting the shelves in a lot of countries. But this flagship is destined to become a three-month device only, with its high price and no updates available. Thus, this step looks surprising, to say the least.

But it's not Microsoft that produces this surprise: the company gave up the intermediate version of its operating system quite consciously, and all the partners have been well aware of this decision. So why did Nokia, with their sales and markets doing down, decide to advertise Lumia 800/900 so aggressively, knowing that no updates were to follow. As a matter of fact, it's Nokia that has been giving empty promises, knowing from the beginning that they will never be kept.

The Windows Phone 7.8 update features a new start screen, in the general WP8 style, and a few applications Ц and this is it. Getting the WP8 functions on WP7 is technically impossible Ц that's what Microsoft expressed quite clearly today.

Hence, what we actually get is as follows: Microsoft gives up their intermediate smartphone OS, Windows Phone 7.x, and the new version is fully compatible with Windows 8 at the core level, which opens new opportunities for us.

I don't feel like discussing in detail the reasons why they decided to leave WP7.x. We had a big material dealing with the market failure of this operating system. It is still missing some conclusion, and it's coming soon: the necessary information is available now, so we will be able to finish that series.

Microsoft Windows Phone 7: Reasons for Failure. Part I

Microsoft Windows Phone 7: Reasons for Failure. Part II

And I won't discuss either why the customer satisfaction about Windows Phone 7 at the Amazon website in the USA, which was mentioned at the presentation, cannot be the general yardstick of the product. Unfortunately, Amazon is not the temperature meter for the whole market. But still, Microsoft can boast of having positive feedback on that website: 7 out of 9 best smartphones, according to the customer recommendations, run Windows Phone. There's only a single logical question: why don't the sales correspond to those excellent reviews then? But there, we take the risk of being bogged down in the unnecessary talking again Ц the more so because Windows Phone 7.x has been discarded actually.

Windows Phone 8: hello again

The feeling wasn't leaving me that I have already seen all that stuff before. The Microsoft presentation style is easily recognizable. I'd like to mention here that at the WP8 Summit we were only shown some part of the opportunities offered by the new operating system Ц only the features the manufacturer focuses on. Of course, there are some aspects that have been hidden behind the scenes so far, and they will be giving us some additional portions of the information till October comes. But the essential features of the new OS have already been outlined, so no revolutionary changes will follow.

Microsoft's Joe Belfiore started the presentation by saying that the Windows Phone 8 release will give the company's partners the opportunity to introduce a lot of different mobile phone form factors and various hardware. Besides, there will be a great variety of handsets offered at different prices, including low-cost models. This is a very interesting statement. It got lost in the news that followed, but we will return to this point a little bit later.

So, let me tell you about the main new features of the Windows Phone 8 OS Ц the essential ones, or those emphasized by the company itself.

Shared Windows Core. Microsoft decided to completely strike out almost two years of work and give up the Windows Phone 7 legacy. The new OS uses the same core as Windows 8. If we give this decision a near-term outlook, we can safely say that it's going to produce a hard impact on those who have already purchased WP7.x products. On the other hand, the long-term outlook shows this should be a winning strategy for hardware manufacturers: they will be able to produce smartphones, tablets, ultrabooks, or all-in-one solutions. Writing a driver becomes much cheaper as you only have to do it once. Unification of the operating system core is a very strong step that will produce two consequences at a time.

First, it becomes beneficial for the hardware manufacturers to produce more than one type of devices: for instance, not only smartphones but Windows RT or Windows 8 tablets as well, or any other devices. The more different types of devices with the same hardware platform you support, the less the development cost for each of those devices is. So the Microsoft platform looks really advantageous for the computer manufacturing companies that haven't been seen producing smartphones so far. Producing Windows Phone 8 devices will be a logical and well-considered step for them. I'd like to remind you here that at the times of Windows Mobile it was the Asian computer manufacturers that used to build the backbone of the team producing Windows Mobile devices and to seize the lion's share of the market. The quality suffering, the market model was still working. Today, Microsoft is trying to revive that quite successful experience.

Second, as a result of the unification of the operating system core and the development tools (the Native Language), developers will be able to create their software for smartphones, tablets, and for Windows 8 as well. In this new Microsoft ecosystem, developing applications for different types of devices becomes much simpler, and this is another positive opportunity provided by the new operating system.

Here we should take a closer look at the eight distinctive features of WP8 that Microsoft decided to pay special attention to. As you understand, the number is not an accidental choice.

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Hardware requirements

It's not a secret that only Qualcomm chipsets were available for the first generation of Windows Phone 7 and for its further updates. The OS didn't support dual-core processors, while on Android/iOS devices they didn't just appeared but we already see them giving their way to quad-core solutions. In the first production wave, there will also be only Qualcomm chipsets, but they will have two cores (Snapdragon S4 and its modified versions). Keeping in mind that it is powerful enough for today's market, we can conclude that WP8 is going to perform well if compared to other manufacturers. The safety margin is not that big, but the second production wave that will start in February 2013 will also introduce chipsets by other companies, such as NVIDIA. Microsoft assigns primary importance to the productivity of the standard applications bundled with the OS, so scrolling smoothness and speed is the main factor here. There are no practical differences if compared to WP7: the speed is still very good, everything works pretty fast and there are no reasons to complain about anything. This is the strong point of this OS Ц everybody admits that.

What's interesting is that Microsoft applies the same strategy for launching WP8 as for the tablets: a limited number of different devices by a few manufacturers; every mobile phone ensures operation speed and a certain user experience. And only at the next stage the system becomes a mass product Ц ZTE and other manufacturers will come. There's nothing bad about it Ц this strategy is quite advantageous for introduction of a new product.

The new screen resolutions supported by the system: WXGA (1280 x 760 pixels) and 720p (1280 x 720) are added to the standard WVGA (800 х 480). The two new resolutions are quite different from each other in their side ratio. The screen geometry for the first one is comparable to the old screens Ц 15:9, but 720p means 16:9. At the presentation, they made a special emphasis on the fact that the applications developed for the old screens will still perform properly at the new resolutions, no need to re-develop them. Microsoft will take care of the entire adaptation (recompilation). I guess they will apply the same approach like the one used by Apple for running iPhone apps on the iPad screen (scaling). It seems a question how they will manage to do it in games containing no vector graphics. So, we'll see pretty soon how it will be implemented in practice.

It is also worth mentioning that the announced screen resolutions represent another meaning as well: low-end Windows Phone 8 smartphones will have 800 х 480 screens, while the Tango lineup will become obsolete very soon, due to the obvious reasons.

Windows Phone 8 will support replaceable microSD cards, and users will be able to store their files and install applications on them. This is a pretty good change.

IE10

It has become a common ad thing to stress that your phone is using the same browser as your PC. I was not at all crazy about IE9 on WP 7.5 Ц it is fast but has too few settings. WP8 browser is similar and as of now, it has not user customizable settings but is very fast and stable. Its new features include an anti-phishing filter similar to the one Google Chrome uses Ц every time you are about to load a web site with malicious links or content it warns you about it. As of the performance, compared to WP 7.5 browser it has twice as many HTML 5 features and the SunSpider Java Script bench get four times more points. This actually means that WP8 browser is faster than the browsers in Galaxy S3, HTC One X and Apple iPhone 4S with iOS 6 beta. This is surely nice but I have to tell that all the mentioned browsers are fast enough and the problem is usually in the bandwidth of the cellular networks.

Native Code

MS claims that developers can now create apps for Windows 8 and WP8 with half the effort as porting will be extremely easy and both platforms use Direct X. They even mentioned that the same tools will be available for iOS and Android apps but judging by twits of a number of developers it seems to be unlikely.

NFC

Don't really know what to say here. NFC is becoming a standard feature in smartphones and the fact that WP8 now features it is a good thing. The software feature now available in file menu is called Tap&Share Ц only one click to send a file to another device as the NFC is also used for authentication. The biggest question I have is how well it will work with non-Microsoft devices (right now NFC transfer only works between two MS devices on WP8).

Wallet

Microsoft are trying to make the best digital wallet aiming to outdo Google Wallet. This feature might only be popular in the US right now and not much help in Europe and Asia. The Wallet app by Microsoft is a home to all your discount cards (it requires that the card has a digital copy). You can also add your bank cards and pay for apps or use the app on the register in real stores including an NFC feature called Tap to Pay. Unfortunately, MS has not told us who are the partners in this project so we could know where we could use it. Today NFC popularity is restricted by the diversity encrypting methods companies use. For example, you must have an Android device to be able to use Google Wallet. I have had some experience with NFC in Nokia N9 and it left me totally disappointed.

Carriers are also not crazy about Google Wallet so Microsoft opted for a different way Ц they cut in carriers who want a share of the money going through their phones. Microsoft now has a deal with Orange, it main partner in this project. Orange is a European carrier which leaves me confused. So Orange makes NFC transactions only possible via an authorized secure SIM. On the one hand, it raises the safety level of your transaction but on the other it limits your choices by what your carrier offers you. These technologies are undoubtedly the future but the Wallet is still rather crude and I cannot name it as a strong side of the platform.

Another related feature is that map apps will be able to tell you about special offers in your vicinity. You will even be able to collect discounts and offer to later use them when you need them. I have not heard about this before and I find the idea very promising.

Nokia Maps

There was no secret about Bing using Nokia maps (Navteq). All Windows Phone 8 devices will receive a pack of off-line maps, turn-by-turn navigation and an API for compatibility of third party maps. Nokia gave this one of her biggest assets to Microsoft in February 2011 and MS made free for everyone. Nokia tried to look like they were happy with it and promised extra features in their own version of the maps like tracing your route and telling you how many times you used this or that route. Yep.

The Corporate Market

While ordinary people can make a good use of MS Office support the corporate market might be interested in security policies, remote administration, encryption, Windows kernel etc. This is Microsoft's turf. Great many companies use MS products for business and some of them became practically enslaved by its infrastructure still relying on the obsolete Windows Mobile devices which contributes to very significant sales of WM even today.

The Start Screen

I must admit that I am not a big fan of the Metro UI but it is of course a matter of taste only. There are many people who love Live Tiles. I, on the other hand, find it inconvenient. The Start Screen has been given an overhaul in WP8 and now you can set the size of any tile (small, medium, large). The Start Screen can still be scrollable if necessary. Unhandy to my taste.

I don't understand why Microsoft keeps imposing Metro UI with its undoubtedly original but not the most handy design. I think that should Microsoft switch to regular icons it would attract a lot more customers and they would not have to spend 20 minutes explaining how to move tile around the screen and how sexy that is.

The 7.8 mango update has the very same screen design. Microsoft must be fancying it one of the biggest features of their OS. The 7.8 update also gave the user the ability to change the color scheme of the main screen. What can I say? It is not something I would be proud of in my OS.

Back to the table of contents >>>

Other Features and Apps

It was not clear for me, what was the target audience for this event, but apparently the company kept ordinary users and developer in mind. Apart from the key eight elements mentioned above several other important features were mentioned.

To begin with in Windows Phone 8 we have a thoroughly redesigned multitasking capability. For example, geolocation works even in the tumbled down mode, so when you leave the maps app navigation stays on. Once you go back your current location is shown on the maps. VoIP support has been integrated in the system, phonebook and apps and we deal not only with Skype here, which is great. Developers can come up with their own VoIP apps to be integrated into the OS. It is a minor attack on Apple, which does not allow such moves for iOS.

Then WP8 was positioned as a gaming platform, which was clearly emphasized during the presentation. I would highlight this point even more. Indeed, beautiful and УheavyФ games can be created for the platform. This advantage of the platform will come to the fore in 2013, because we will not see decent products until then. The competition with Android and iOS will heat up courtesy of such attractive 3D games.

A downside was the demonstration of gaming capabilities not in real games, but with the help of Havok technology. Unfortunately, ordinary users could not be interested in the graphics, while the image of a troll in one picture was outright funny. The most appealing element of WP8 was almost ignored at the presentation. As a gaming tool WP8 offers new user experience, because the same games will run on desktops, tablets and smartphones alike. These are vertically oriented games, which will keep your best score and similar parameters on all devices despite minor differences in experience. Everything depends on developers, which is part of Microsoft strategy to push the former to create games for a range of devices. Pay attention to the fact that Microsoft attempts to use pragmatic approaches to lure developers into offering solutions for the MS system. The move is correct, but it should have been better articulated at the presentation.

The next Microsoft trick is the voice platform already available to WP7.5 users as Audible. It can open apps, carry out simple tasks and even give voice answers. This simplified version of Siri looks differently. Any developer can get access to the platform and add voice features to their app. We will see if it works out in real life. The software will require Internet connection. During the presentation the first instruction was not recognized, which is fine even for Siri.

Microsoft promises to support all WP7.x applications in WP8 by re-compiling all of them in Cloud without the involvement of developers. It sounds fantastic, but we have to see it really work first. In any case developers will have to test re-compiled apps. Hopefully everything will be fine, but so far I am cautiously pessimistic.

Corporate clients now have Company Hub, where you can place all applications related to your company. This feature is not vital, but shows attention to the corporate market.

Back to the table of contents >>>

Launch Date, Updates and Partners

Sales of first WP8 devices will start in US at the end of September Ц beginning of October, but the exact date has not been finalized yet. Products will become available in the majority of countries at the same time. Microsoft boasts that Windows Phone 8 was translated in 50 languages and will be offered in 180 countries. Four companies were chosen as partners - Nokia, Samsung, Huawei and HTC. In the first months we will have only models built on the Qualcomm chipset.

Moving on to the upgrade issue users can rejoice as all operations will be done without cables (OTA FW Upgrade). Microsoft guarantees the support within 18 months after the announcement of particular products, which is strange as Apple supports its products for 3 years or two times longer. More importantly 18 months are calculated from the unveiling of the model, which takes some time until consumers purchase handsets. If you are not crazy about new models you may buy the phone 4-5 months after the announcement, so you end up only with one year of support. The average contract duration in US or Europe is 24 months, which means that while buying the phone you lose support and upgrades even before your contract expires. I think it is a serious blunder.

The company also starts the fan campaign, when selected users will receive new firmware before everybody else. It is like a beta testing for the masses. We can only welcome such an approach as people will install such firmware anyway, but now there will be an official way to do it.

In terms of prices we can be sure they will be on par with Windows Phone 7.5 at the time of launch. Hopefully we will see different form factors as was the case with WP 7 as Microsoft will attempt to generate interest to their new OS.

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Concluding Remarks

Speaking about the user experience Windows Phone 8 retained the previous interface with several definite improvements. I personally like that the battery icon and signal icon are visible in all apps apart from games and the full-page browser. The addition of Skype will please its dedicated users and their comfort in WP8 will reach the top. We do not know much about the operation time, but we will have to wait until September, when first WP8 devices are unveiled.

In terms of UI and experience WP8 is not a revolutionary step in comparison with WP7. If you like the older version you will be happy with WP8 and otherwise.

Inside WP8 is a completely different OS with the new kernel and features. Its potential easily surpasses that of WP7.x. Nevertheless the potential will not be exploited to the tilt by Microsoft or its partners. You cannot beat everyone in a second, because competition needs time. Everything depends upon the speed of WP8 development. If developers buy into it and consumers pay for products, the OS will succeed. The first wave in October will be considerable as the devices hit the shelves in many countries at the same time. The outcome also depends on Nokia customers, when they will be left out with the old platform (new software will emerge only for WP8, because WP7 cannot meet the technical requirements). The first quarter of 2013 will be a testing period. If the sales do not collapse WP8 will be viable, but if they dip the WP7 failure story may repeat itself, albeit on a smaller scale.

Strategically, Microsoft decided to take unpopular, but necessary measures. They are building a new system for many devices with one OS and user interface. During the presentation nothing was said about tablets, but they were shown in every slide. Such products or to be more precise Windows RT are extremely important for the company, which is explained in our separate article. Tablets and phones will appear in October of 2012, though it is a mistake. They should have been introduced with a 2 month difference. Microsoft fans will not be able to buy an expensive phone together with the tablet. The media attention will be split between these two groups of products as well. It is clear that Microsoft does not want to lose Christmas sales opportunities, but there is a risk that negative feedback can be transferred from one type of product to another.

Finally, I would like to repeat that we have seen key elements of the new OS. More details are to follow though. We tried to describe the strategy of Microsoft, but feel free to ask additional questions in your comments.

P.S. On a lighter side I would like to tell the story how at the presentation we saw a unique feature of cameras in Blackberry 10. If you remember at Blackberry World 2012 the company showed how to take a range of shots and then highlight a smiling face without altering the rest of the photo. This technology belongs to Scalado, whose intellectual property was bought by Nokia and its Windows Phone 8 models from the Lumia range will get this feature in October before Blackberry 10, which will appear on the market later on.

P.P.S. I am not sure I will have good shots from the event, so we will use the photos of our colleagues later to replace them with our original images. Feel free to comment, like and share our article! Thank you for your attention!

The article features photos from theverge.com.

Do you want to talk about this? Please, go to our Forum and let your opinion be known to the author and everybody else.

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Eldar Murtazin (eldar@mobile-review.com)
Twitter
Translated by Maxim Antonenko (maxantonenko@ukr.net), Robert Mugattarov (mugattarov@gmail.com), Serge Gomelsky (s_gomelsky@mail.ru)

Published — 23 June 2012

Have something to add?! Write us... eldar@mobile-review.com

 

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