overabillion

Today, Microsoft will unveil its plans for Windows Phone 8, previously code-named Apollo, the coming major reset of its smart phone platform, and based on Windows 8 technologies. Long-time readers of this site will recall that a ton of Windows Phone 8 information leaked back in February. But there's so much more to discuss.

But let’s start at the beginning.

I’ve been sitting on a treasure trove of Windows Phone 8 (and other general Windows Phone) information since December 2011. In this knee-jerk, bloggerific world we now live in, that I sometimes don’t instantly publish everything I know about certain topics is perhaps confusing to some people. But I feel very strongly that Windows Phone deserves to not just survive but thrive, and observing that Microsoft and its top smart phone partner Nokia were in the midst of a difficult transition in this time period—treading water with Windows Phone 7.5 while Nokia tried to re-enter the US market by delivering new devices that would soon be orphaned—I decided to hold off.

But I also have more pressing responsibilities to the readers of this site, to podcast listeners, and even more generally to the users of Microsoft’s platforms. I take that responsibility very seriously. And while I rated Windows Phone 7.5 and the devices on which it ran without any thought to potential future upgrades, I knew information about the next Windows Phone platform would leak, perhaps in bits and pieces, and that I could simply confirm or deny these reports based on what I knew to be true.

In early February, however, a massive leak of Windows Phone 8 information hit the web. It was based on an internal Microsoft video, aimed at its partners at Nokia. This video featured Joe Belfiore reading from an off-camera PowerPoint presentation I already had in my possession and adding a bit of his own ad-lib commentary. It was the real thing, a major information drop, and it was impossible to ignore. So I didn’t ignore it. The result was Windows Phone 8 Preview, the most comprehensive look at the next Windows Phone available anywhere.

Until now.

This week, Microsoft is holding a special Windows Phone Summit in San Francisco. It was originally going to be a two-day event for developers, but with Microsoft secretly plotting a new BUILD conference for later in the year (shh!), the software giant silently changed its plans and recast the Summit as its first public preview of Windows Phone 8.

Put simply, everything that was previously published in Windows Phone 8 Preview is correct. Nothing has changed, and Microsoft is set to deliver this major new Windows Phone version, really a new Windows 8 product edition, in Q4 2012, in keeping with its annual release schedule. But since this is a heaping helping of new, I thought it would be wise to step back and expand greatly on this previous article. And as you’re about to discover, there’s a lot happening in this release.

Why Windows Phone 8?

Where Windows Phone 7 was a “reset” of Microsoft’s smart phone strategy and a fresh and innovative new look at what a smart phone platform could be, it hasn’t exactly set the world on fire. This is a shame, since Windows Phone is an amazing product, a superior software platform, and a more intuitive and usable system than anything being disgorged by Apple or Google. The Windows Phone user experience, called Metro, is so good that it’s been adopted by the whole of Microsoft and is being used in Windows 8 and RT, the Xbox, all of the company’s web and online services, and anywhere else Microsoft comes in contact with its customers. It’s a big deal.

It’s also not going anywhere in Windows Phone 8, which will feature a very familiar user experience. But with this release, Microsoft is thinking a bit more holistically. Where Windows Phone 7.x targeted “the smart phone market,” or, more precisely, those customers who are new to the smart phone market, Windows Phone 8 takes a different approach. It’s obvious, in retrospect, almost humorously so. That is, Windows Phone 8 is targeted at the 1.3+ billion people who use Windows.

Microsoft believes—accurately, I think—that there is a massive, massive market—perhaps the single biggest technology market on earth—that wants a cohesive, intertwined, and connected system that works across their PCs and computing devices, smart phones, living room entertainment, and online services and web. And everything they’ve been doing over the past year is heading towards this future, with Windows 8 and RT, of course, with the recently announced Microsoft Surface tablets, with the Xbox 360 and, next year, the next generation Xbox, with the online services and marketplaces that serve these platforms, and more. This is an ecosystem that can rival, even surpass, anything that Apple or Google can muster. And its cohesiveness is perhaps Microsoft’s greatest strength.

On a related note, Windows users are starting to fight back. Actually, that’s not fair. Windows users are starting to fight, period. They’re fighting the same, bland, stupid-simple lemmingness of Apple and the copycat engineering of Google. They starting to speak up, defend their product and service decisions, and lash out that those who are silly enough to publicly announce that they don’t get it. This is unprecedented in the Windows world, where the very notion of Windows fanboys has been an almost ludicrous fantasy, a tiny and barely-heard-from minority of people who never came close to approaching the religious zeal of Apple bigots, Linux weirdos, or whatever.

I experimented a bit with this theory during the build-up and announcement of the Microsoft Surface tablet—sorry—and was wonderfully surprised by the bite and bile of those who couldn’t—wouldn’t—accept any criticism of this excellent device that they just had to have. None of the Surface tablet backers had even seen the device in person, just Microsoft’s sort-of-photo renders and various live coverage posts from the announcement. They don't know the cost, or the battery life. But they want one, bad. The Windows world, long the safe harbor for those who value common sense and logic, is succumbing to emotion.

Folks, Windows Phone 8 is for that crowd. And it’s a big one. If you’re reading this site, chances are you’re part of that crowd, that big tent.

What’s new in Windows Phone 8?

At a conceptual level, Windows Phone 8 consists of two major tenets, or trends: Scale and choice, and Windows reimagined. There are also several other big pushes, or “supporting cast feature areas,” with this release, including seamless communication, lighting up the world around you, smarter apps, and business use.

tenets

Scale and choice

Anyone who’s followed Windows Phone since its February 2010 announcement knows that this platform has dribbled into the market in a somewhat alarmingly slow rate. As originally conceived, Windows Phone 7 targeted high-end smart phones only, but by the 2011 release of Windows Phone 7.5 and the appearance of a new partner in Nokia, Microsoft started heading downmarket as well. This strategy reached a strange apex (well, nadir) with Windows Phone “Tango,” a curious release targeting very low-end phones and the emerging markets where Nokia, in particular, was seen as having a strong presence.

During this time, however, the smart phone market changed around Microsoft. What was once a high-end phone—the single core processor, 800 x 480 screen, and 8 to 16 GB of storage that marked Windows Phone 7.x—is now decidedly low-end. And Microsoft’s competitors are racing forward with dual- and quad core designs, massively high resolutions with tight pixel counts, and other features.

Windows Phone 8 seeks to address these market changes. It supports higher end processors with multiple cores. It will support three screen resolutions: A planned fourth resolution, a lowly 640 x 480, was thankfully dropped because of the difficulty it would have placed on developers. It will formally support removable and expandable microSD storage.

But Microsoft isn’t heading back to the luxury end of the market. Instead, it will target a wide breadth of device and capability types and my expectation is that we’ll see a reset of what a “low-end phone” means with this release, with emerging markets getting inexpensive devices that, just a year or two ago, would have been considered very high-end—and expensive—indeed.

Like other smart phone vendors, Microsoft is also working to cut the costs for users in other ways. For example, a new feature called Data Smart, which is based on the metered broadband connection capabilities in Windows 8, will help ensure that users get the most out of their data plans. A variety of techniques help achieve this. First, Windows Phone 8 reduces the amount of data it transmits, by handing off to Wi-Fi whenever possible and by using a new cloud-based browser proxy service that limits the amount of data used by Internet Explorer 10 and apps by compressing web traffic. Microsoft says that this proxy service—which sounds very similar to what Amazon is doing with its Kindle Fire-based browser—saves about 30 percent in bandwidth usage.

datasmart_01

datasmart_02

Microsoft is also building a user experience into Windows Phone that will help users understand their data usage. This, again, is similar to what Microsoft is doing with Windows 8, but in this case you can get a live tile-based heads-up display on your data usage on the fly. You can also see how much data individual apps are transmitting. Additionally, Microsoft is adding a new feature to Local Scout that will help you find nearby Wi-Fi hotspots. And in many countries, Windows Phone 8 can be configured to automatically offload from cellular data to mobile operator-owned Wi-Fi networks, without any user action required.

Windows reimagined

While it’s convenient to think that Microsoft is relaunching Windows Phone (again) this year, the truth is more dramatic: Microsoft is relaunching Windows this year. And Windows Phone is no longer a standalone product. It is, rather, a part of the Windows 8 family of products.

From a user experience standpoint, Windows Phone 8 will look and work much like the existing Windows Phone versions. It will feature a vertically scrolling Start screen, as before, and not the horizontally scrolling Start screen you see in Windows 8. Of course, the big difference this time around, usage wise, is that this Metro experience isn’t just relegated to Windows Phone; it’s used virtually everywhere by Microsoft’s many products and services. And the company refers to this now as “the new familiar,” a user experience that will very soon be used by some several hundreds of millions of users across Windows 8 and RT, Windows Phone, the Xbox, Microsoft’s web services, and more.

Under the covers, Windows Phone 8 is similar to, but not the same as Windows RT, though both run on ARM-based systems. Instead, Windows Phone 8 targets devices that are phones and use screens that are smaller than 7-inches in size. It uses a similar but different set of APIs: Where Windows 8/RT utilizes the WinRT APIs, Windows Phone 8 utilizes the WinRTP (WinRT Phone) APIs (though this name is perhaps not final). You cannot write a single app that runs on Windows Phone 8, Windows 8, and Windows RT. You can, however, pretty easily port an app from Windows 8/RT to Windows Phone 8.

Windows Phone 8 shares the same technological underpinnings as Windows 8 and the ARM-based Windows RT. It uses the same NT-based kernel, networking stack, security, sensors, multimedia platform, web browser, and other components as Windows 8/RT. This provides a highly reliable, highly secure, modern operating system with known scalability and hardware compatibility prowess.

Windows Phone 8 will also provide some interesting cross-screen shared experiences with Windows 8 (PCs), Windows RT (tablets and devices), Xbox (HDTV/living room) and the web, including the companion experiences provided by Xbox Companion (today)/Xbox SmartGlass (soon), Play To, and Play on Xbox. But it will take these capabilities in new directions, too. You’ll be able to manage your Windows Phone 8 handset from your PC using a new Metro-style sync app or from the web, over the air. You’ll be able to share content from your PC or tablet to the phone using standard home networking sharing technologies.

You’ll be able to use SkyDrive not just for documents and pictures, but also for music and videos, and access them directly from new Xbox Music and Xbox Video apps. You will also be able to navigate into your phone’s storage using the SkyDrive devices functionality, just as you can with Windows PCs, and copy content (like camera-taken photos) back and forth seamlessly.

The Games hub is being replaced by an Xbox LIVE Games app modeled after the same app in Windows 8. It will provide the same marketplace browsing capabilities as its Windows 8-based brother, and also all of the avatar editing and stats browsing you’d expect.

And Windows Phone 8 will of course include Internet Explorer 10, just like Windows 8, providing access to the latest browser rendering engine and capabilities. 

Seamless communications

Windows Phone 8 will build on the social networking integration of the past and provide support for new social networks, particularly those in China, while adding more functionality. It will support Rich Communications Suite (RCSe) with a dedicated app, co-designed and built with Nokia, that meets operator requirements and provides cross-communications app integration. What this basically means is that the number of ways in which you can reach out to contacts from their Windows Phone-based contact card will expand dramatically and, thanks to extensibility hooks, can grow over time. So, for example, a future RCSe-based Yahoo Messenger app (I’m making up this example) could register a “Chat” link on contact cards in the People app.

rcse

Speaking of communications, Windows Phone 8 will include a “revised” Skype app that offers an RCSe-like experience for contacts, so that a “Skype” option will appear next to phone numbers, messaging links, and the like, for those contacts that use Skype. In this sense, Skype will indeed be more deeply integrated in Windows Phone 8, as some have suspected and reported, but it’s still a standalone app, one that can be removed by the user, the carrier, or the hardware maker, and not a deeply integrated component of Windows Phone 8. That said , it will also offer a nicer, more natural and phone-like experience that works in the background and lets you navigate other parts of the system while doing a Skype “call.”

skype_in_contactcard

Lights up the world around you

Windows Phone does a nice job of helping people on the go learn more about their surroundings thanks to features like Bing, Local Scout, and Maps, and they’re all getting updated. Local Scout, for example, will offer a new personal recommendations feature. But Windows Phone 8 is also extending these capabilities with new location- and context-sensitive features that should be of interest.

Windows Phone 8 will support NFC “tap and share” just like Windows 8, though I suspect this capability will be far more common on the very portable Windows Phone handsets than on Windows 8/RT devices. And when used in tandem with a new Wallet and payment experience, co-created with Nokia, users will be able to make electronic payments over NFC as well. This Wallet experience is mobile operator friendly: It can be branded and customized by your operator and can work with a secure element on the SIM or in the device itself.

The Camera app is perhaps the most unexpectedly controversial feature of Windows Phone, thanks to its low quality and a weird extensibility model that allows device makers to not only determine which camera features are included, but what those features are named in the UI. In Windows Phone 8, Microsoft has partnered with Nokia to offer a dramatically better Camera, one that offers a “world class” experience.

camera

Here’s how it works: Windows Phone includes a basic Camera with great new features that provide most of what users are looking for. But it is also extensible via a new class of so-called Lens apps, which lets third party apps plug into the Camera experience and appear—rather than the Camera app—when the user presses the camera button. Later, when you browse through your taken pictures, you can see which were taken with particular lens apps, and you can then edit it within that app. Microsoft says that the possibilities of this camera extensibility, combined with the work Nokia is doing with camera optics, is “mind-blowing.”

Smarter app platform

Windows Phone apps are already smarter than apps on other platforms, thanks to integrated capabilities like tile notifications, deep linking, integration with Bing, and so on. But in Windows Phone 8, this is getting even better. Microsoft is adding app-to-app communication using the same contracts functionality found in Windows 8. It supporting apps written in native code for the first time, another side effect of based the system on Windows 8, providing better performance (especially for DirectX-based games) and simpler porting of apps between Windows Phone and iOS, Android, and even Windows 8.

Microsoft is dramatically expanding its backend Marketplace to be available in basically every single country in which Windows Phone is sold. In an interesting historical note, Microsoft expected in December 2011 to have over 100,000 apps in the Marketplace by the time Windows Phone 8 launched—and, yes, it will run all existing Windows Phone 7.x apps—but it announced this week that it had already hit that target, roughly 6 months ahead of schedule. So much for the dearth of apps.

Microsoft is further integrating Bing into the Marketplace, bolstering the current search capabilities with automatic lists of known good apps that are matched to the user’s buying and downloading habits. These personalized lists will be familiar to anyone who’s looked at the Windows Store in Windows 8, and will include such things as Top Free Apps, Top Apps for You, New and Notable, and so on.

Built for business

One of the legitimate knocks against Windows Phone 7.x is that the consumer-focused platform wasn’t suitable for certain businesses because it lacked some key technologies such as device and storage card encryption. These arguments are no longer valid in Windows Phone 8.

Windows Phone 8 provides always-on device encryption, which like the similar feature in Windows RT is based on the mature BitLocker encryption technologies from Windows 8. This encryption works with both device and storage card storage, is hardware accelerated, and is on by default.

Windows Phone 8 also supports Secure Boot, just like Windows 8. Secure Boot is technically a feature of the UEFI firmware type and it provides always-on protection against malware, including before the OS is loaded at boot time.

Windows Phone 8 will include new Office 2013-based Office apps.

Windows Phone 8 will include device manageability capabilities that exceed what’s possible with just Exchange ActiveSync (EAS). I assume and expect that this will be the same management functionality that Microsoft is building for Windows RT.

And it will support side-loading of line of business (LOB) apps, meaning that enterprises will be able to deploy apps to Windows Phone securely, just as they can now for iOS and Android. (Microsoft will build support for this into its Windows Intune PC and device management service.)

Not-so-final thoughts

As Joe Belfiore said in the leaked video, Microsoft believes that Windows Phone 8 is a big and exciting release, one that was made in collaboration with Nokia and will drive sales of new devices to a much bigger audience than has happened so far. I believe all of that to be the case. And while I often question how much time must pass before Windows Phone really makes it big, it’s hard to look at this stack of information and not be impressed. Windows Phone is a big deal.

There is one more thing.

I’ve lied to you, a bit. This massive document—over 3,400 words, or about the average length of a Building Windows Phone 8 blog post—only very temporarily represents “the most comprehensive look at the next Windows Phone available anywhere.” And that’s because this is what I’ve posted from before the Windows Phone Summit, based on information I’ve had since late last year. Once today's event has actually concluded, I’ll be writing more about Windows Phone 8, a lot more, filling in the details and providing new information too.

We’re just getting started here. :)