Last night, Microsoft hosted its second big press briefing this week, this time taking to the stage at the Windows Phone Summit in the US to reveal the next evolution of its mobile platform. Windows Phone 8 is on the way, and it looks like a brilliant evolution. Time Google finally saw Windows Phone as a threat?
The move from Windows Phone 7 to Windows Phone 8 brings with it tweaks that, in many ways, are a touch predictable. There’s nothing too radical here, but there are enough new features to get us genuinely excited. And to have its rivals worried…
Microsoft’s got Windows 8 landing on desktops soon and it wants both products to look and feel as similar as possible. In that respect, you can see the reason why the Windows Phone 8 Start screen has been super-charged. It’s now more more robust, filling the screen and bringing support for small tiles that take up a quarter of the size of a standard app. This basically means that you can keep a much bigger amount of apps in view, and should keep frantic scrolling to a minimum. It feels a lot more like Windows 8.
Any tile can be resized to one of three sizes now, which boosts their usefulness – making the messages tile 2×1 (the biggest size), for instance, lets you read texts right from the home screen. That sort of customisation is cool, and certainly looks slightly more in keeping with Windows 8 on the PC, but it’s only the tip of what Microsoft’s been working on.
Windows Phone 8 will mark a move up to devices that allow multi-core processors. “We have support for dual-core, quad-core, octo-core, in theory as many as 64-cores,” said Microsoft’s Larry Lieberman.
That comes as part of a move to the Windows NT kernal, which is a huge move on Microsoft’s part to get developers involved. Basically, whether developing for Windows 8 or Windows Phone 8, the process will be largely the same. Microsoft’s hoping that interest in one will fuel interest in the other, leading to a marketplace full of cross-pollinating apps.
Other hardware updates include the decision to tie Windows Phone 8′s focus to three possible resolutions – WVGA, WXGA, and 720p – and to allow full SD card support for the user. That’s great news for anyone who might feel trapped by the limitations of their internal storage.
In terms of extra software, there were three big announcements. Skype, which is now owned by Microsoft, will be better integrated through the system as was predicted, but it won’t be baked in – Skype will still need to be downloaded from the Marketplace like a standard app.
That’s an odd move, but Microsoft’s encouraging competition. Instead of just pumping Skype through Windows Phone 8’s blood, Microsoft has improved the system’s VoIP powers as a whole. The company claims that these VoIP calling powers will be “industry leading,” and even joked that Apple should consider making a FaceTime app for Windows to take advantage of it.
Next up: Maps. Mobile mapping is this season’s big battle. After Apple dramatically pulled Google Maps out of iOS and Google retorted with new features, it seems that there’s now a fresh sense of competition in the app we all take for granted.
Microsoft’s playing its hand sensibly. It’s decided to drop the often poor Bing Maps in favour of the far superior Nokia Maps. This brings with it offline mapping, and it’ll be the primary mapping app in all Windows phone devices, regardless of manufacturer. Nokia Drive will also be available on other devices, but manufacturers will probably have to pay for the privilege.
Lastly, the Wallet Hub is a direct swipe at Apple’s new Passbook app; it brings store cards, boarding passes and vouchers into one place, which will all use NFC – a feature that’ll be standard issue across all Windows Phone 8 devices.
Right, so it’s all sounding good so far, yes? Time for a big chunky bite of bad news: Windows Phone 8’s many hardware changes mean that not a single current Windows Phone handset will be eligible to upgrade.
Not the Nokia Lumia phones, not Samsung’s handsets and not HTC’s. Your Windows Phone handset that’s less than a year old won’t be able to make the jump. Which, if we’re being honest, is a bit poor.
But… before you go jumping off any bridges, here’s a wedge of good news: Microsoft will be updating the current version of Windows Phone to 7.8 soon, which will make it cosmetically identical. You will get the new home screen customisation. Relax.
When will it land? “We’re saying fall for availability of new phones running Windows Phone 8,” said the company’s Greg Sullivan. Expect 7.8 to come at the same time.
This is good for Microsoft. As much as the limited update options might annoy current owners, they’re for legitimate hardware reasons. We can forgive Microsoft for that – especially as its move to include the cosmetic changes in Windows Phone 7.8 will probably appease most.
That aside, Windows Phone 8 now has an edge that it just didn’t before: it’s more powerful, which is nice, but the changes Microsoft has made internally to make things incredibly easy for developers will help no end for the platform as a whole.
Sure, the Windows Phone marketplace is still a country mile behind Android and iOS, but if anything’s going to spur on growth, it’s this. Developers who want to build for Windows 8 on the PC – and there will be a tonne of those – now have almost no excuse not to code for Windows Phone 8 as well.
That’s going to be an interesting partnership. It’s something that Apple has with Mac and iOS, but Google doesn’t really have that sort of system yet; with Google, you’ve got Android and Chrome, but that’s not quite the same because building for those two platforms are inherently different experiences.
The only downside is that between now and Windows Phone 8’s Autumn launch, Nokia, Microsoft and the rest are going to have a job selling Windows Phone handsets to anyone who’s aware that this is coming. Why would you buy a new phone that you know won’t be able to upgrade, when a major update’s coming inside of six months?
Microsoft just has to hope that this inevitable drop off in sales will be more than made up for when Windows Phone 8 does finally drop. Is this the update you’ve ben waiting for? Let us know below.