Just two days after announcing their Surface tablet, Microsoft had another big event at the Windows Phone Summit in San Francisco, launching the next iteration of the Windows Phone operating system, Windows Phone 8. The keynote emphasized new features and APIs which allowed WP8 to, for the most part catch up or even surpass its two main competitors, iOS and Android, and its commonality with the Windows 8/RT ecosystem.
Windows Phone launched in late 2010 and despite its well regarded Metro interface, it hasn’t seen the kind of sales success iOS and Android have. A lot of this has been due to limitations within Windows Phone 7. The APIs aren’t as plentiful, apps aren’t written in native code, and the system is locked to Qualcomm single-core hardware with a 800×480 resolution. Windows Phone 7.5 added some missing features, but for the most part, Windows Phone was still well behind the competition.
With the Windows 8 operating system, Microsoft chose to make a huge break from the established user interface and instead chose a touch based operating system based on the Windows Phone Metro interface. With Windows Phone 8, a lot of what was learned on desktop PCs and tablets (or as Microsoft calls them, Slates) is coming back to the Phone along with some things that are brand new. I do have some bad news, though – if you’re on a device currently running WP7 or 7.5, your road ends here as there will be no upgrade path to WP8. Windows Phone 7.8 with select WP8 features will be your final destination.
While WP7 was a bit of a walled garden, WP8 is designed to be part of a larger ecosystem with Windows RT and Windows 8. For the first time, hardware is not locked. WP8 offers support for multi-core CPUs and screen resolutions. This will allow device makers the kind of freedom they enjoy in making Android devices. In fact, when it comes to hardware, WP 8 shares common drivers with its siblings. If a CPU, GPU, Wi-Fi chip, Bluetooth chip, or cellular radio works on one of the sister OSes, it works on ALL of them. This would also be true for any kind of add-on. For those asking for it, MicroSDs are now fully supported.
For programmers, Windows Phone 8 now supports native code C and C++ programming, in addition to the C# and Visual Basic languages in Windows Phone 7, as well as HTML5. It evens allows developers to mix and match for elements of each program. Windows Phone 8 even shares APIs such as DirectX 11 with its bigger sisters. This allows apps created for one of the operating systems to be quickly ported to the others with little more than device tweaking needed. In fact, the inclusion of C and C++ even allows iOS and Android developers a much easier time porting their existing apps over to Windows Phone. Existing Windows 7.5 apps will automatically be recompiled for WP8 by Microsoft allowing them to focus on the next version. Microsoft is also introducing in-app purchases for the first time on Windows Phone and updates will be going completely over the air.
WP8 also has NFC support with its own wallet app. Implementation is somewhat similar to Apple’s passbook in iOS 6, but with payment support (including credit and debit cards) and a page for deals. The wallet tiles themselves also can link back to full applications. Microsoft also introduced the concept of a secure SIM which allows a customer’s wallet data to be transferred from phone to phone. Secure SIMs will be launching with French carrier Orange with others to follow. Microsoft is also working with AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile to integrate their ISIS mobile payment system in 2013.
Nokia Map technology is present with an offline mode and turn by turn navigation. The local search feature can display available deals that can link back to the wallet app. For communication, WP 8 now treats a VOIP call (like Skype) exactly like a traditional phone call.
Microsoft’s one ace in the hole might be its traditional standing with the corporate IT community and they played that up during the keynote. Microsoft emphasized the trusted Windows core, encrypted secure boot, line of business deployment, and integration with Microsoft Office Apps. They also showed off a Company Hub app for which company services (like, for instance, applying for time off, which they showed) and custom company apps can be accessed. For the IT department, Windows Phone 8 is managed by the same tools that manage desktop Windows.
All in all, if you’re looking for a mobile OS to leapfrog iOS and Android, WP8 doesn’t do that. However, it does make up a great deal of the gap. Depending on how popular the heavy integration with Windows 8/RT and the Xbox is, we could be looking at a three-horse race. The one thing I should note with caution is, we have yet to see a partner WP8 device yet and Hardware is a good part of the equation when it comes to phones.
For more info: Microsoft Windows 8 Blog Post