Windows Phone Update: May 2010

I've spent the past week in Redmond, mixing my usual round of Microsoft meetings with some serious Windows Phone 7 face time. This experience isn't for immediate publication: I'm writing a book, Windows Phone Secrets, and I need early access to a representative device so I can get this tome finished before the product ships in late 2010. But I did sit down with Microsoft partner group program manager Charlie Kindel and senior product manager Greg Sullivan to discuss some of the Windows Phone issues that have come up publicly since Microsoft unveiled the system in February and then expanded on that at MIX in March. And this, at least, was on the record.

As an aside, I've known both of these guys for a long time, and their moves from other parts of Microsoft to join the Windows Phone team has done much to stoke my excitement about this product. And while I can't really discuss many things I learned this week, I have yet to encounter anything about Windows Phone to quell the enthusiasm. So far, this thing just continues to impress.

But there are questions. And it seems like every time someone, no matter where they are in the world, wants an answer to those questions, Charlie Kindel's name turns up. So what the heck. I know Charlie Kindel. Let's see what he has to say.

"This is sort of a knot," he says, when I question why he's quote online so much these days. "I am the developer guy, not the end user guy."


Moving on to the bigger issues, I asked about copy and paste, and if ever there were a bogeyman threatening to derail the Windows Phone train, it's this one.

"There's no actual copy and paste mechanism in Windows Phone right now," he says, "but we are focused on a very specific set of scenarios for this release. So where people have used copy and paste traditionally, we've enabled features that let you accelerate those tasks. For example, in the web browser, if you encounter a phone number, you can tap it and you get the ability to add it to contacts, dial it, and so on. But we're always thinking about the future, and of course we've heard the feedback from users that there is interest."

Another thorny issue: Some high-profile developers, like Mozilla and Skype, have questioned whether they can produce the sorts of solutions they want without access to "native code." (That is, the Windows Phone 7 development environment is purely .NET managed code based on Silverlight and XNA.)

"The cool thing about the mobile space is that it?s ripe for innovation," Kindel told me. "The downside is that we can't do everything at once. We have to have focus. And we made a decision around what we would focus on for this turn of the crank, for the first version. We knew this would create difficulties for certain third parties to build on. It's impossible to build a high performance race car on a mountain bike frame. They're good for certain things only. But we made the decision to focus on things we will do really, really well. For those that we didn't, we feel that we're better off waiting until we can do them really, really well."

In other words, Microsoft is approaching Windows Phone much in the same way that Apple approaches those products that it creates. The company knows that the gen1 version will be lacking in certain areas because they want to do what they can do as well as possible. Over time, whatever things are lacking will be addressed. And this isn't the first time Microsoft has done this: There are parallels that can be drawn between Windows Phone and the Zune PC software, which had a few gaping holes when it was first redone from scratch in version 2, but was otherwise excellent. The difference between Apple and Microsoft, of course, is transparency. Microsoft is being upfront about what's missing from Windows Phone, and that's something Apple would never do.

"We're taking a long term view here," Sullivan added. "In Windows Phone 7, the user experience is the focus. It's the prime directive. Everything else takes a back seat."

On a related note, one of the biggest problems with Windows Mobile, the predecessor of Windows Phone, is that Microsoft couldn't update the software on those devices because of the sheer size and diversity of the ecosystem. That's not going to be an issue with Windows Phone, because part of Microsoft's rethinking of its mobile platform involves taking ownership of system updating to ensure that when it does want to fix issues like those mentioned above, it can do so.

"When we reset and took a hard look at how we built Windows Mobile in the past and decided to change our game, we invested in our engineering system and [brought in the right people] from big Windows," Kindel explained. "We have world class expertise around building engineering systems that are predictable and of high quality."

"So the first thing is to revamp it, the build system, how code gets checked in, making sure that our mainline [build tree] is always kept clean. Second is a major change in our partner relationships. With Windows Mobile, we delivered the OS as an embedded OS, they had a la carte access to change things. In Windows Phone 7, we are taking more of a general purpose OS approach. We deliver a complete experience to our partners and do all the heavy lifting around drivers, dialers, and so on. We still allow some customization and flexibility in the marketplace, but we're now in a position where we have the systems in place to effectively and reliably deliver updates to users. Windows Mobile had such a wide variety of devices, it was difficult to do updates."

"We needed to be more prescriptive with the hardware ecosystem, create more homogeneity, a consistent hardware platform. This contributes to us being more able to deliver updates more quickly with more predictability and across all the devices out there. So we recognize that not delivering updates was a major problem [with Windows Mobile]. We've fixed that."

What's still up in the air is what the update schedule will look like. I don't believe this is a state secret per se, I think Microsoft is still uncertain what the frequency will be like. But all it has to do is look to Apple to see the benefits of owning the update pipe and giving users more functionality over time without requiring them to buy new hardware. It's the right way to go.

One other confusion I've seen expressed online regards the Windows Phone 7 "hubs", or panaromic experiences. Many developers have claimed that they cannot create their own hubs, while others have claimed that the built-in hubs in Windows Phone 7--Pictures, People, Office, and so on--are not extensible as originally claimed. This is not the case, Kindel said.

"There's a lot of confusion around this, and yet it's relatively simple," he said. "Hubs are just applications. We ship a number of them with Windows Phone, and they all have similar design patterns. A panoramic left to right scrolling model. Interactivity. You can call them hubs or panoramic experiences, it doesn't matter. But anyone can build them. The Netflix app shown at MIX is a great example. The AP Reader. These are examples of third parties building a hub experience."

"The confusion over hubs is likely because we have not made it easy to build them with the CTP tools. There's no built-in control, yet. But we're making it easier now, and will deliver that to developers."

As for the built-in hubs, Kindel says that each offers a different level of third party extensibility. "In some cases, it is zero, but most of them offer some extensibility," he said. "It's nuanced. For example, in this first release we don't currently allow third parties to add different social networking feeds to the People hub. But it shows contacts which have back-end services associated with them, so those feeds can still make their way into the People hub that way. [Windows Live, for example, lets you indirectly access many social networking feeds.] The Music + Video hub has explicit support for extensibility, via additions to the History list, the Now Playing list, and so on. There are specific APIs. Over time, each of the hubs will have specific extensibility added to them. That is the plan."

Of course, hubs aren't the only kind of application supported by Windows Phone Developers are free to create single panel apps--what people would think of simply as an app, or a traditional app that you'd see on any smart phone--as well. "You have the choice," Sullivan said. "You can build a panoramic experience or a single screen app. They're both right. Just use what you need for the app you're creating."

Given the success of the iPad and the uncertainty around HP Slate, which is rumored to be dropping Windows 7 to use the recently acquired smart phone-based Palm WebOS system instead , an obvious question emerges. It's not hard to imagine the Windows Phone interface on a bigger device, something like the iPad. In fact, it would make a heck of a lot more sense than either the iPhone OS or WebOS. Is Microsoft considering making a version of Windows Phone for tablets?

Aside from the expected "no comment" around future plans, Sullivan did note that Microsoft doesn't really think in terms of specific future form factors, but rather has a broader view. "We worry less about that than we do about the exposed platform aspects, the tools, the APIs, and the services consistency," he said. "Think about it. We have XNA running on the phone, we have Silverlight on the phone. From the developer's standpoint, they can target the phone just like they can the PC or Xbox 360 because it's been abstracted for them. It's one platform. And users can have experiences that span these platforms. That offering across a spectrum of screens is unique to Microsoft even today, and it's getting better and better."