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Tet-a-tet. Greg Sullivan on Windows Phone 8 and WP History

During Tech2012 in Amsterdam, Greg Sullivan and I talked for over an hour about Windows Phone 8 and the experience obtained in a year since Windows Phone 7 launch. Greg is the Senior Product Manager in Microsoft's Windows Phone division. Working in Microsoft for almost 26 years, Greg never stopped feeling amazed at the speed of change of the hi-tech world and business. Every decade it seems that the speed limit was reached, but the changes continue to pile up in geometrical progression. The interview came out, in my opinion, interesting for a variety of reasons, but mostly thanks to the openness Greg showed and the truthfulness of his answers to many of my not so simple questions.

EM. Where is WP now? What will happen with the old OS? A lot of people are disappointed with the support cycle, how long it will be? You couldnt update Mango to WP8, now you talking about 18 months of support.

GS. We have a period of support for enterprise customers and particularly we have committed to support platforms for actually more than 18 months. The context here is updates and delivering updates in 18 months for customers with Windows Phone 8. We have a new update policy. We will make updates available for 18 months from a shipment date date regardless of your mobile operator. We'll enable customers to register with the program to deliver updates for 18 months after ship.

EM. Most contracts in the US/Europe last for 24 months. Why 18 months support?

GS. We have to be very careful with how we define support. If support means calling Microsoft and getting answers, etc. we continue to do that. After 18 months we'll continue to do that. In 18 months time we'll provide updates to phones we commit to a minimum of 18 months and will provide updates to phones on particular operator's networks.

The reality is, and, I think, you well aware of it, that on Android Marketplace, for instance, if you'll look at a chart pie of installed versions, you will realize that the majority is version 2.3.x, not 4.x. The number of people who have an ability to upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich is a very small minority of Android users. We do believe it is important to provide updates and to support them. It seems less important for some folks and doesnt seem to impact Android sales. We think we will be able to be different. We think we'll able to compare very favorably to Android in updates with our realistic program. One of the things we heard with WP7 was: "We know you have an update but my carrier hasnt tested it yet. Just give it to me and I'll install it on my phone myself. Thats one of big changes which we do with WP8. Now you will be able to do that. You dont have to wait until your carrier has gone through the testing. In this regard, we will be able to bring everyone an update not depending where you bought your phone. We want to do a good job with bringing updates to phones. We do it today, we will do that even better with our new program. Reality is that a lot of people dont know what version of OS, updates available it doesnt seem to impact Android.

EM. What operators think about this MS program? Because they are really crazy about which updates and when they have to provide.

GS. Id hesitate to speak for them, thats the question for operators. But I can tell you that we are working very closely with them. They understand the reality. Today, for example, if I have an unlocked international phone, I bought hardware unsubsidized, it's not tied to a network, I bring it to the US and put an AT&T SIM into it. Im operating that phone with that software on this network. That scenario they are supporting. They understand that updates need to come to this international device regardless of which carrier was testing them. The fact is that operators understand that in many different scenarios there is a number of people who are using different software on their network. First of all, we do a lot of testing and if something could affect a network we will hopefully find it. Operators want to test firmware by themselves, to stand behind it. But in real world they are only interested in having happy customers. We could debate it. In general, its true that operators are inclined to keep the subscribers. A minority, those of us who really know what version of software is installed on their phones or how to get a new one. We are vocal and influential part of the community and I think operators understand this. If mechanism is provided by us to keep customers happy, then I think they OK with that.

EM. Why did MS announce that all updates to WP8 will be going OTA (Over The Ait)?

GS. We havent articulated all the new features coming with WP8. Besides OTA updates, we want to do a better job with phone backup and recovery. We didnt talk about all the details. Two points: OTA update is industry standard and expected level now. Secondly, the partial advantage of the new platfrom is that we can guarantee the quality without relying on a network, can test the key OS components and update the OS. We did not mention it, but a logical conclusion is that the update process will be easier and simpler for the end user.

EM. Last week there were two presentations from MS one on a tablet, another one on WP8. In my opinion, the presentation about a tablet was pointed at partners more than at the end customers. The WP8 presentation was a little bit messy. For whom did you make this presentation?

GS. Let me go back for a while. Windows Mobile was for a corporate worker, an IT professional. It was delivered when there was a professional information market. The killer applications were email, internet access, business access. In 2007 smartphone market drastically changed to a consumer space. We knew that evolution of that corporate enterprise phenomena will come to wider audience eventually, but iPhone made it happen faster even than we expected. We found out that looking from a consumer angle we didnt have a strong value proposition. WP7 was primarily targeted at the consumer segment to demonstrate that consumer value proposition. We still had mobile productivity tools like SharePoint, MS Office. But from IT pro stand point we frankly lost some features. With WP8 we will re-regain much of IT pro functionality and gain more. And have a very, very competitive position against RIM.

So I think a part of what we do and talk about with this shift to Windows 8 core one of the audiences which strongly benefits from it, is IT professionals and enterprises. We have a full in-device encryption deriving directly from BitLocker, now we have system management. We didnt go into details, but we will support an array of third party system management infrastructures, including our own. The idea is support for native code on a platform for a line of business applications not only to easily code the existing ones but also to create new ones. Support of custom, private distribution of apps through a company hub infrastructure. We have such a good story now that we want keep telling it. And I think that announcements of WP8 last week, they did not tell a lot about consumer features of WP8 we have a lot of them to disclose later, when we will be ready to sell. But we sent a signal to developers, to our partner in ecosystems and to IT pros that this shift to the new core has distinctive advantages, to get them involved into a planning process and to have them understand that. We felt that it was important to communicate that. But you are right we talked about consumers, we talked about developers, we talked about IT pros.

EM. If you creating Windows RT tablet and WP8 smartphone, as I understand it, you could use the same ARM chipset or a platform and minimize investments into drivers and other things. More devices on Windows, less investments in R&D. Like it was in the past with Windows Mobile you invested into the OS and could build a lot of different devices different tiers, form-factors etc. Nowadays, you add support of tablets to this ecosystem and even PC. It means that a PC maker could be manufacturing tablets and even smartphones. They could enter a smartphone race. Did I get it right? And why then HTC is not allowed to build a tablet?

GS. Thats exactly right. Its one of the key benefits, pushing partners to switch to the new OS core. The underlying OS architecture the same now for WP8 and Win8. The benefits to the end consumers are dual core CPU, NFC, etc., but the ecosystem benefits the hardware manufactures as well as our own economy of scales, engineering efforts across all of that.

But you are exactly right. If Im device manufacturer, I write one device driver and I have the SoC on a tablet and a phone, I have one graphic system on both devices and common drivers. And I get a scale on that. And thats exactly the plan. Samsung is the one who wins from that. HTC today isnt Windows OEM, and that may be a question to HTC and Windows team why they on not an early part of this process. My expectation is that HTC wants to extend their expertise in devices to expend the list of ARM architectures at least. I can't speak on behalf of HTC or Windows teams, but I think that they have no history in being a Windows OEM and that is why they arent included in a first launch wave. But I think it exactly right to say that critical mass of expertise and investment you could scale over a large number of sockets is exactly the idea to bring Windows 8 core to Windows Phone.

EM. In the past Microsoft talked a lot about a concept Write once, run anywhere, now with WP8 you mention native code. What about the developers? Is it good to them to change such things so dramatically? Could they return investments in development for WP7?

GS. I won't speculate in terms of number of sockets for developers to plug-in to but its a couple of dynamics that are very important to developers and to us. One of the things that is true. You can today be targeting the existing runtime .Net, C and target Windows Phone 7.5 apps and it will run on Windows Phone 8. So, we have 100 percent binary forward compatibility for every of the 100,000 apps to run on WP8. It is also true that we are expending the platform to include support of native code, as you are well aware, as well as new multitasking scenarios. For the developers is interesting to be exploring these new platform capabilities, high end games (they will used native code, DirectX APIs to do that), location base apps that take advantage of location multitasking, as well as VoIP apps. Developers can continue to target one binary, with one app running across all existing Windows Phone 7 and 8 devices, but if they want to explore the new platform capabilities and features, they will have to rewrite their app. You dont have binary compatibility and you dont have to use "Write once, run anywhere" because of the similarity in underlying core system all of the business logic, all of the network components, graphics Direct3D all APIs are identical on Windows 8 and WP8. A file system, security control they arent similar, they are identical. So the code reuse across a broad part of the apps spectrum is significant. The presentation layer and UX are different and we think they should be different based on environment differences. So you dont have to reuse but there is a scale you will get from the investment, its the same way as a hardware manufacturer gaining scale in writing one driver across different devices. Now, you may want to scale it differently, in a phone you could take advantages of sensors that you may not have on a PC. Thats the difference there. But in the underlying OS there is a high degree of code reuse. Its another dimension of scale which we think will help us its another big story that we will tell later. Windows is a big deal. We got 1.3 billion users. We don't have that many yet on a phone. When Windows comes out with a new version incorporating user interface elements used across, we are going to highlight integration. Especially when now we are utilizing core infrastructure elements that we inherit directly from them. This kind of sharing in both directions something which we will focus on. Now we talk a little bit about the scenario that this enables. What does it mean to have a core OS infrastructure thats similar on a PC, slate, phone, server, web-server, in a cloud service. A common UI presentation that shares the same paradigm across all the elements. You have a platform thats not just some elements loosely connected, it is a unified platform that has a significant API consistency and significant user experience consistency. And you could begin to delivery scenarios that take advantage of that. We could do that. Do something like Xbox SmartGlass and apps for Android, iPhone. Some cloud services with manifestation on iPad, iPhone, Android. We arent saying that it is all or nothing proposition. We have the most complete and well integrated platform. That is we have consistency at user experience lavel and we are only just beginning to show what we can do for the corporate users, for third party devices. Of course it will be better to use our stuff. But we also recognize that there are 250 millions iOS devices, a lot of Android devices and so we are not going to tie you completely to our platform.

EM. We hear a lot of praise for gaming experience on WP7, but even today we see a small number of titles. Now MS saying the same things about WP8. Any difference in approach?

GS. Today we have Xbox live on a phone. It's a kind of a community aspect and ability to join that network in a meaningful way. It's one of the things which we learned on WP7 people who care about Xbox, really care about it. People, who don't care about it, don't care about it at all. It is binary. It's been really interesting.

For the people who really care about Xbox, the fact they can do things take some achievements etc. - is a really important thing. You could share on the Xbox Live network. It's fine, it's not bad. The next level Fable: Coin Golf game is a good example. Publishers did a good job playing on a phone you could get coins to buy some kind of magic in a console game. Its not direct, you don't just play a standard game on a mobile device. The vision is utilizing the fact that there are elements of platforms, which could be used, in different devices. You could use gyroscope, camera, and mobility on a phone and embed them into a game. And that requires tapping into some core infrastructure in a way not easy with today's app platforms and runtimes. It relates to what you mentioned - that not all titles are available on a phone native code solves this. First of all, it will be easy to exploit underline infrastructure and build more immersive, real-time meaningful games with native code because developers could use all sensors, underlying hardware etc. Secondly, it is much easier to get all this existing games onto WP8 if you support native code. If you look on existing games on C++ which are written for other platforms, getting them to Windows Phone is not a port, it is a rewrite. You have to write .NET, XNA etc., there is not a lot of reuse for C/C++. With native code it is a different story. But you need to target the environment, user experience with native code.

When we tied WP8 to Windows8, we believed we will be an industry phenomena. When people see Metro UI, some of them for the first time, our awareness will go up. Its one of the thing which we are in need for our platform. Awareness. We find out when people are using our phone they like it. In general thats true. And thats another point why we so much connected with Windows 8 and Metro UI people like it.

EM. You mentioned that people like Metro UI. If it so good why sales of Windows Phone 7 arent on par with this awareness? What is the problem with sales?

GS. We think about a sequence of things that need to take place for a platform to be successful. You have to start with a good product. If we look at reviews - we have that. Its not enough though. You need a developer ecosystem we just passed 100,000 apps. There seems to be something special about 100,000 apps on a platform thats the point when Android took off and Verizon launched Droid brand. It is unique situation, which probably never will be replicated. But you need a critical mass of developers in ecosystem. You need original availability in languages which people are really caring about. Both in language support, in graphics, in networks - both software and hardware support. We came out with only 5 languages.

We knew that our market share would be less initially in comparison with Windows Mobile. We were available in fewer language, on fewer networks, at a really expensive price point. But we knew we had to start with a great product, built a developer ecosystem, build language support, build regional availability and also build a device range in terms of affordability, what we did with Tango. We bring device with a smaller memory for smaller price in China, it is good example of that. But we need to do more. It is been pointed out that we came out with Smoked by Windows marketing campaign, but we didnt maintain it. We had an approach and strategy changed a couple of times. We need to highlight a core differentiator in user experience in our phones. When you look at you Windows Phone its very clear that its yours. And mine looks like mine. You phone tells who your friends are and live tiles say a lot about you. That's a key differentiator and if you look at iPhone - its the same for everyone.

EM. Different wallpapers?

GS. Yes, different wallpapers. We have it for lock screen.

EM. Metro UI is different from iOS or Android, no doubt about that. On Android you could use widgets to get the same idea as in Metro UI, just a remark. But is UI enough to be successful with the end customers? May be some other features like gaming could highlight WP platform?

GS. It depends on the audience. In general, what we will do is really highlight the difference in phone and how its more personal and more relevant. And it can also really reflect things you care about and bring them to the surface, and integrate things on you behalf that other phones dont. You pointed out that with Android widgets you could achieve the same result. The difference is you have to spend a lot of time to do that on another platform. We highlight that.

For the people who like gaming we will talk about gaming, I already mentioned it.

For the people who work with office documents on their phones, we'll talk to them about that. And we will talk to everybody about everything.

Thats true that it brings the style, Metro UI design language across the wide portfolio of products. The level of personalization which is inherited in it is something what we will highlight. The similarity to Windows 8, Xbox and other products, the experience which be the same and integrated across on you behalf, is not easy to do. You have to do a lot of work.

EM. What about low-end phones like Tango? For WP8 three display resolutions were announced and not one for the low-end phones positioned below Lumia 610. Will the existing WP7.x phones used as a low-end proposition?

GS. We will continue to support existing devices and manufactures will continue to deliver devices based on WP7.x for the near term as long as it makes sense. The lowest resolution for a low end devices is WVGA for WP8 and there will be no fragmentation from that point for UI. We continue to support both versions of the OS, but over time you will see thats the new platform will replace old phones.

EM. T-Mobile isnt launching Lumia 900, the reason behind it is you couldnt get WP8 update on phone. Many people think that it isnt fair or reasonable to buy Lumia 900 right now, if you could buy WP8 smartphones a little bit later.

GS. Lumia 900 is a fantastic phone. It will continue to improve and it will be improved in many ways not a least of each by getting WP8 start experience. The most noticeable feature of WP8 UI will come to Lumia 900. Nokia is going to continue to enhance the phone by adding new services, new camera capabilities, applications. WP is more than OS kernel, it is services that it is connected to Xbox, Xbox Live, Skydrive etc. All these services will be improved over time regardless of WP version which you are using to connect them. I would argue there is no reason to not buy Lumia 900, which is a great phone. Its going to be better over time.

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Eldar Murtazin (eldar@mobile-review.com)
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Published — 08 July 2012

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

 

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