Windows Phone 8, which Microsoft partially unveiled this week, is the company’s third version of its mobile OS. And for some experienced Windows Phone developers, Microsoft got it all right.
“Windows Phone has been full of innovations since day one, but there was also a lot of catching up to do to reach parity with iOS, Android and Microsoft’s previous mobile platform, Windows Mobile. The time for catching up is over,” says Nick Landry, senior product manager with Infragistics, a Cranbury, N.J. vendor of user interface development tools, and Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) for eight years with Microsoft’s mobile platforms.
And for the first time, Windows Phone will have both the features and global reach to challenge Android and iOS. When it launches later this year, Windows Phone 8 will be available in more countries than iPhone is, according to Microsoft. Landry argues this will make Windows Phone a truly global alternative for both Android and iOS – a “more secure and cohesive experience than Android” and, for many, a more affordable one than iOS.
For these code writers, Windows Phone 8 brings two broad benefits: new hardware options, and a more extensive software infrastructure that can support an array of sophisticated and highly integrated mobile applications.
On the hardware side, Windows Phone 8 adds two new screen resolutions (both high-definition), support for multi-core CPUs, removable MicroSD storage cards, and integrated Near-Field Communications (NFC) radio chips.
“The ability to take advantage of more powerful hardware in a phone form factor is pretty compelling,” says Ginny Caughey, president of Carolina Software, a Wilmington N.C. vendor of waste management software. She, too, is a Microsoft Windows Phone Development MVP. To date, Windows Phone devices have used only a single-core Qualcomm processor, although to extremely good effect. Microsoft executives said this week that the next crop of Windows Phones, expected sometime this fall, will use the latest dual-core Qualcomm silicon.
“Android has been touting multi-core phones for a while now, but they needed that just to provide a decent experience since the single-core Android phones were so sluggish and unresponsive,” Landry says. “Looking at the ‘Smoked by Windows Phone’ campaign, with single-core Windows Phones smoking dual-core devices in everyday tasks almost 100% of the time, [and] multi-core Windows Phones means unparalleled power & speed.”
(“Smoked by Windows Phone” is a clever marketing campaign where Microsoft employees at the company’s retail stores or trade shows such as Consumer Electronics Show or Mobile World Congress challenge users of other phone brands to compete against a Windows Phone handset in a variety of common smartphone tasks.)
Landry, who’s one of the developers who have been working with Microsoft on features for the Windows Phone 8 SDK, thinks the storage card support will have big implications.
“I’ve been very vocal about the fact that 16-Gbyte devices was not enough for power users or heavy media consumers,” he says. “Storage cards…make it affordable for users to buy a lower-end device, and allow them to add storage as their needs grow.” By contrast, he says, Apple “forces you to dish-out $300 for a 32-Gbyte iPhone even when subsidized, but a lot of buyers don’t yet know if they’ll even need it.”
But it’s the extension of the Windows Phone software infrastructure – new APIs, apps, and services -- that has Caughey and Landry most excited.
“Windows Phone 8 will allow me to build more powerful and useful apps than ever before,” Caughey says. “One example might be using the new Speech API for voice recognition/dictation [integrated with an app], instead of relying only on a virtual keyboard for data entry.”
“Windows Phone has always had a good voice system in the Tellme service [based on Microsoft’s $800 million 2007 acquisition of Tellme Networks],” Caughey says. “What’s new in WP8 is that 3rd party developers will be able to leverage it too. I suspect they are also making enhancements on the Tellme service side, but I don’t recall any announcements about that.
Landry knows, but isn’t telling (much of what’s in Windows Phone 8, especially for end users, is still under wraps).
“I cannot comment too much on voice recognition [and text-to-speech] yet, but you can expect to see voice become a lot more pervasive as more and more apps use it,” he says. “[Apple’s] Siri is an app, it's not a platform. Microsoft Research has been working for decades on voice recognition and speech synthesis and we're seeing the fruit of that research in Windows Phone.”
In Windows Phone 8, developers could write a Twitter client app that reads tweets to you while driving and accepts commands like "Read my latest mentions," Landry says. Or when playing a game, voice commands like "switch to rocket launcher" can replace the clutter of onscreen buttons. “If you want examples of how voice can be integrated with computers, just watch ‘Star Trek,’” he says.
Similarly, the integration of Nokia Maps, based on the map, traffic and location data of Nokia’s Navteq subsidiary, and a new API to access them, is a major step forward for both consumers and developers in Windows Phone 8, Landry says. “It’s now iOS that is in catch-up mode compared to the depth and breadth of Navteq/Nokia,” he says.
Existing Windows Phone 7.5 apps will be able to run unchanged on Windows Phone 8, thought without exploiting the new features, Caughey notes. At the same, the new version will let developers write Windows Phone apps, including games, or libraries with C++ for the first time. “This is a major change and should really please developers on other platforms that have C++ code and/or skills already,” she says. Microsoft is also port the SQLite . The public domain, embedded SQLite database widely used on other platforms, now will be included with Windows Phone 8, “so that would make porting apps to Windows Phone a lot easier,” Caughey says.
Current Windows Phone user will not be able to upgrade to the full Windows Phone 8, a decision that has already caused criticism by some. But neither Caughey nor Landry see this as a problem, and it may end up benefiting some prospective buyers. Caughey points out that the current generation of phones simply can’t use many of the key features, such as the new high-def resolutions or NFC, and other new features could tax the current single-core CPU.
“Price-sensitive buyers might not want to purchase a high-end Windows Phone 8 device anyway and might prefer a very good [and less expensive] Windows Phone 7.5 handset,” she says.
“I understand the initial negative reaction some may have, but they quickly forget how much worse the situation is for Android users,” Landry says. “And looking at Apple and iOS 5 and 6, the same story is already happening [there], where Facetime, Siri and other features have been denied to iPhone 3G, 3GS and 4 users. Apple is just clever enough to hide it and not openly advertise separate versions. Microsoft is very honest about it. I do think Microsoft could have gone further and give more of Windows Phone 8 to current 7.5 owners, but I like that the essentials are there in 7.8. It just doesn’t make sense to give support for more screen resolutions, NFC, storage cards and multi-cores when the current phones simply can’t benefit from it.”
Finally, both agree that new enterprise features in Windows Phone 8 could trigger much wider acceptance by the corporate market. The new OS version offers the “Company Hub” on each phone, which can feature applications published by the enterprise itself, bypassing the online Marketplace. And the next generation phones will have Microsoft’s BitLocker data encryption and secure boot technologies, among other changes.
“I think Windows Phone 8 is particularly important for enterprise developers,” Caughey says. “The new security features in Windows Phone 8 are what those people have been requesting for a while, and the new Company Hub will appeal to large organizations.”
“For the last two years, the number one request I get from enterprise developers and companies is [for] the ability to provision their own applications to their workforce without publishing them to the public marketplace,” Landry says. “Having your own ‘Company Hub’ will also really make it easy for employees to discover those apps and get updates.”
Despite the fact that Microsoft has so far failed to gain traction with Windows Phone, and that its global market share compared to iOS and Android remains in single digits, it actually seems to be gaining developer support. Landry himself was an iPhone user (and has an iPad), but abandoned it to grab one of the first Windows Phone handsets in 2010. “As a developer, the Windows Phone developer tools have been stellar since day one, which explains the rapid adoption by developers despite the lower market share,” he says.
The Windows Phone Marketplace recently added the 100,000th app, with nearly half of the newest ones added since the start of 2012, reaching that milestone faster than Android did. [AllAboutWindowsPhone.com has a detailed analysis of the Marketplace.)
Flurry, which offers mobile application analytics and an advertising platform, recently blogged data that shows relative support for several mobile platforms between the second quarter of 2011 and the second quarter of 2012. Though the Windows Phone share is still in single digits, its growth rate is vastly faster: 521% year over year (albeit from a much smaller base), compared to 66% for iOS and 82% for Android.
"Year-over-year, developer support has shifted, with Microsoft's dent becoming more [much more] visible, now representing 4% during Q2 2012," writes Peter Farago, Flurry's vice president of marketing. "Whatever the reason, it's clear that Microsoft still knows how to attract third party developer support."
Landry and Caughey undoubtedly agree.
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for “Network World.”
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