As a Microsoft MVP, with a spouse who’s an FTE, I wanted to want a Windows Phone from the beginning. When Windows Phone 7 was introduced, I liked the user-friendly, responsive interface, the live tiles, and the fresh, new look. But it was just lacking too many “must have” features — that I already had on my Android phone — for me to make the switch. When WP 7.5 (Mango) came out, with multitasking, tethering, and other improvements, I was tempted again. However, it just wasn’t enough, so I invested in a Galaxy Nexus while waiting for Windows Phone to win me over.
I had little doubt that someday it would. Microsoft has often been slow out of the gate, but they do a great job of playing catch-up. The remaining deal breakers for me were removable storage (microSD), 4G, and a really good camera, although there were a number of additional little things on my wish list.
Starting all over again (again)
In 2010, Microsoft “started over” in the mobile phone software market, dumping their long-time Windows Mobile OS and replacing it with a new and different one they called Windows Phone 7. Yesterday, Microsoft held a Windows Phone Summit in San Francisco, where they gave us a brief sneak preview of Windows Phone 8, which is coming out in the fall. Note that this came one day after the unveiling of their Surface tablets that will run Windows RT and Windows 8.
The excitement at the Summit began with the hoped-for announcement that WP 8 will be built on the idea of “shared code” — that is, instead of being based on Windows CE, it will be based on Windows 8. Once again, it seems, Microsoft is starting over.
That has a lot of implications, most good but some bad, depending on your point of view. For those who took the plunge and bought WP 7/7.5 devices, it means your current hardware won’t be compatible with the new OS. However, WP 7x users were assured that Microsoft will remain committed to them and will provide updates to provide some of the same functionality as WP 8. For those who waited, it means that now you can get a Windows phone without making all those compromises you didn’t want to make. For developers, it means the ability to easily move their apps from Windows 8 to Windows Phone and vice versa.
The presentation by Joe Belfiore (Microsoft corporate vice president) began with the caveat that the focus would be on the platform, not on features. Consequently, there were still many unanswered questions at the end, but there was enough information to get me excited and hopeful that later this year, I just might be ready to finally make the leap to a Windows device as my primary smartphone.
New and improved Start screen
First, the interface just looks better. It’s more customizable, with more colors to choose from (finally) and options to resize individual live tiles to small, medium, or large. Those of us who want it all at our fingertips can fit more tiles onto that all-important “first page” (the portion that shows by default) of the Start Screen. It’s a small change but could prove big in improving usability. An update for current Windows Phone users, which will be called Windows 7.8, will add the new Start Screen to Windows Phone 7.5 devices.
Better hardware for better performance
A big frustration for would-be Windows Phone adopters has been the way the hardware lagged behind that on which other platforms were built. Windows Phones have been single-core, low resolution, 3G devices competing in a multi-core, high definition, 4G world. It appears those issues are being addressed with WP 8. The first WP 8 phones will run on dual-core processors and will support up to 1280×768 displays. AT&T spokespersons have previously said they would launch “the very first 4G LTE Windows Phone smartphones in the U.S.” later this year.
I rejoiced when I heard the news that WP 8 will support removable microSD. That was the one “missing in action” piece that almost kept me from getting the Nexus, and I was disturbed by what appeared to be a trend in the direction of no user-removable flash memory support. Dare I ask for even more? Microsoft could really move out in front if they added support for microSDXC (which allows cards more than 32 GB in capacity), as they’ve done with the Pro version of the Surface tablet.
No traveler left behind
Every time I considered moving from Android to Windows Phone, there was a big roadblock in my way: I didn’t want to give up Google Navigation. Google Nav on my phone has completely replaced my old standalone GPS; it works better, it’s always up-to-date, and it has a more pleasant voice. So, I was happy to hear that WP 8 will have Nokia’s well-known and liked mapping software, with turn-by-turn directions, built-in. It will also work offline, which is something that has presented a problem for me in the past when traveling overseas where I didn’t have a data connection.
“We need to talk”
During the presentation, we saw a demo of a Siri-like speech feature that could be used not just to give commands, but to have a “conversation” with your apps. It didn’t work perfectly (neither does Siri), but it did work pretty well and shows a lot of potential for those who prefer to talk to their phones. The speech platform will now be opened up to all developers. It’s going to be interesting to see what they do with it.
What’s in your wallet?
A great deal of time was spent demonstrating the NFC capabilities of Windows Phone 8. Microsoft has put a lot of effort into creating a functional digital wallet that will hold your debit and credit card information as well as other documents, such as boarding passes, and allow you to pay at NFC-enabled checkout facilities using your phone. NFC can also be used to share data between phones, tablets, laptops, and PCs (that have NFC technology) or read embedded NFC tags on magazine pages, business cards, signs, etc.
Oh, and by the way, the phone will also make phone calls, but not just traditional cellular calls. Developers will be able to create apps that will let you answer VoIP calls made over the Internet, using the same phone interface that you use for calls over the cellular network. Skype integration is another bonus.
Another deal-killer for me, when I was considering a Windows Phone 7 device, was the necessity to connect the phone to Zune on a PC in order to update it. This requirement annoyed me no end when I was testing a Windows Phone. So, it made me very happy indeed to learn that WP 8 updates will be delivered over the air.
Bridging the gap between consumer and enterprise?
Many of the platform features mentioned above can be useful to business users but seem designed especially to appeal to consumers. Others, such as the “killer games” that will be enabled by the new “shared native code” (C and C++) support, are decidedly consumer-oriented. But Microsoft hasn’t forgotten its enterprise base in designing WP 8.
Businesses may finally have a smartphone that has all the functionality of a consumer device but is also secure and manageable enough to make BYOD less of a nightmare for IT. WP 8 offers BitLocker encryption of the entire device, UEFI secure boot like Windows 8, application sandboxing, and remote management using the same tools used to manage Windows 8 PCs.
The introduction of Windows Phone 8 was just a first — and incomplete — look at Microsoft’s latest remake of their mobile OS. I expect criticism of the decision to go with a whole new code base so soon after the Windows Phone 7 “reimagining,” especially from people who recently spent money on a 2nd generation Windows Phone 7 device, such as the Lumia.
However, I think in the long run, the decision to converge the code base across all devices, from phone to tablet to laptop to PC, makes sense. It will provide consistency for users and developers, and device management will be easier for businesses.
For the first time since the debut of Windows Phone 7, I’m excited without reservations. Until this announcement, I was pretty sure my next phone would be a Galaxy Note 2 (or the Verizon equivalent). Now, I’m not so sure. Based on the presentation, most (if not all) of my most important issues have been addressed. We haven’t heard a lot about the new camera app yet, although we do know Nokia phones will have new features that include a self-timer and panorama mode. Picture quality will depend on the hardware and will likely vary.
Is it enough to make me switch? I won’t know for sure until I hold one in my hand and put it through its paces for a few days of real-world use, but I’m cautiously optimistic. I just hope the carriers get behind this new Windows Phone and give it a fighting chance.
Are you willing to give Windows Phone 8 consideration in your organization? Share your thoughts in the discussion thread below.