Windows Phone 8? Don’t you mean Windows 8?
Windows Phone 8 is the next iteration of Microsoft’s smartphone operating system, due to be unveiled in late October. It’s a hugely important release, vital for the credibility of Microsoft in smartphones and for companies that are using Windows Phone 8 in their handsets - especially Nokia. It’s part of a series of linked product launches, along with Windows 8 and the Surface tablet, through which Microsoft is strengthening the connections between its smartphone, desktop and tablet offerings.
So what’s new?
From an engineering point of view, the biggest change is that Windows Phone 8 is based on the same core technologies that underlie Windows 8. By switching to the Windows NT core, the phone and the desktop and tablet operating systems will share a common networking, security, media and web-browser technology, and a common file system.
That approach should make it easier for developers to reuse Windows code on Windows Phone - in turn making it more attractive to develop for the smartphone.
What about new features?
Windows Phone 8 also supports multi-core processors, plus two new screen resolutions -1,280×768 and 1,280×720. It supports removable MicroSD cards and NFC wireless sharing, which can be used for sharing photos, Office docs, and contacts by tapping a Windows Phone 8 handset against another NFC-equipped device.
The new operating system will also come with Internet Explorer 10, the same browser used by Windows 8 PCs and tablets, plus a digital-wallet feature to store debit and credit cards, coupons and boarding passes - somewhat like the iOS6 Passbook.
When paired with a secure SIM the wallet app can also be used for mobile payments. Windows Phone 8 also builds in Nokia mapping as part of the platform, which could give it another boost following the iOS6 maps debacle. Windows Phone 7 apps will run on Windows 8 but not the other way around.
Updates will be delivered wirelessly over the air, and Microsoft said it will support devices with updates for at least 18 months from device launch.
So what will make Windows Phone devices stand out?
The Start screen for Windows Phone 8 is probably one of the standout features. The Live Tiles concept that came out of Windows Phone 7 returns, but with additional colours and sizes, so users can customise their Start screen - for example, by making the email tile larger or the text tile smaller.
In fact, the Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 user interfaces are very similar, which just emphasises how Microsoft is thinking about its device and operating system portfolio in a much more interconnected way.
Windows 7 phones will get the new Start screen as part of a 7.8 update sometime after Windows Phone 8 is released - but Windows Phone 7 devices themselves cannot be upgraded to Windows Phone 8, which has been the source of some dismay.
What about the apps?
No smartphone can prosper without a significant array of apps. Microsoft said in June that there were already 100,000 apps on the Windows Phone Marketplace, with another 200 new titles being added each day.
Windows Phone 8 also includes a number of updates of interest to developers. Microsoft said Windows Phone 8 has C and C++ support, making it easier to write apps for multiple platforms more quickly. It also means Windows Phone 8 supports popular gaming middleware such as Havok Vision Engine and Autodesk Scaleform, as well as native DirectX-based game development.
It will also allow in-app purchases, and integrated VoIP calls. Improvements to multitasking will allow location-based apps such as exercise trackers or navigation aids to run in the background.
What about business users?
Microsoft has been keen to tout the business-friendly aspects of Windows Phone 8, to lure in those IT departments that are fed up with supporting Androids and iPhones and yearn for something that plays nicely with their existing infrastructure.
As such, Windows Phone 8 boasts technology to encrypt the entire device, including the operating system and data files. It supports the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface secure-boot protocol and features improved app sandboxing, so the phone is better protected from malware with multiple layers of security. It also includes remote-management tools and allows companies to set up their own hub for custom employee apps.
So what about the handsets?
While the new OS hasn’t been formally unveiled, handsets running on it are already being showcased - for example, Nokia’s Lumia 820 and its flagship 920. The phone boasts a 4.5-inch TrueBlack display and dual-core Qualcomm S4 Snapdragon processor, plus Nokia’s PureView software, and wireless charging.
Other handset makers have shown off their devices. Samsung unveiled its ATIV S handset featuring 1GB of onboard RAM, and 8MP autofocus rear camera and 1.9MP front-facing camera, and a choice of 16GB or 32GB versions, both with MicroSD. Also last month HTC showed its Windows Phone 8X and Windows Phone 8S.
Are people really ready to buy Windows Phone devices?
Right now Windows Phone is a smartphone minnow. According to figures from analyst firm IDC, in August it had about a 3.5 per cent market share, compared with Android’s gigantic 68 per cent of the market, and the 17 per cent held by iOS devices. But it is making headway, closing the gap on BlackBerry.
Microsoft and its partners will be hoping the renewed emphasis on design - through features such as Live Tiles - will attract the consumer audience which have so far snubbed Microsoft.
IT directors will want to see how deep the integration is between Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8. For Microsoft getting this right is vital. It’s part of a broader strategy that encompasses tablets through Surface and PCs through Windows 8, and is key in presenting consumers and businesses with an entire hardware ecosystem that they can buy into - as well as fighting off the threat from Apple and to a lesser extent Google.
But success in the consumer market is absolutely essential here, but it’s also vital for partners such as Nokia, which have bet heavily on Windows Phone 8’s success.