Reviewing Microsoft’s Windows Phone Summit announcements

Windows Phone 8 Start screen - for some reason we don't have an alt tag here

Microsoft made a lot of big announcements at the Windows Phone Summit this week, particularly the official unveiling of the next major iteration of the software giant’s smartphone OS: Windows Phone 8. Now that the dust has settled, I thought I’d take a closer look at each of the announcements that Microsoft made.

Start screen

The summit was primarily focused on developers, but Microsoft threw consumers a bone with the introduction of an improved Start screen. Designed by Josh Phillips, the Windows Phone 8 start screen (shown above, click here for a bigger image) lets you customize the size of the tiles. This is similar to how Windows 8 works, but oh so much better. The default tile size (medium) is larger than ever before, thanks to the removal of the trough which used to take up the right-hand side of the screen on Windows Phone 7 and 7.5. You can now decide if and when tiles should be double-wide (large), and the quarter-size tiles (small) are perfect for apps you want quick access to but don’t necessarily want taking up a lot of space. The slightly bigger tile size took a few moments to get used to, but I’m already a big fan of the improvements Microsoft has made to the Start screen. My only concern is the lack of any apparent way to access your entire list of apps (which is brought up by swiping from right to left). This feature still exists in Windows Phone 8, but the arrow indicating that there is more content to the right is missing. Current Windows Phone users won’t have any problem at all, but could it be a potentially hidden feature for newcomers?

Multi-core processors

The fact that Windows Phone 8 shares a core with Windows 8 means that Microsoft’s smartphone OS is suddenly light-years more powerful than it ever was before, instantly surpassing the competition by leaps and bounds. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Windows Phone 8’s new ability to support up to 64-core processors. Obviously, it is highly unlikely that we’ll see that many cores on a smartphone in the near future, but the potential actually exists now.

More screen sizes

One common complaint regarding Windows Phone is that it was locked to 800 x 600 pixels. With Windows Phone 8, Microsoft is adding two additional resolutions: 1280 x 760 and 1280 x 768. This is a nice change, but it’s odd that the OS doesn’t support 1366 x 768, which is Windows 8’s recommended minimum resolution.

MicroSD card support

Believe it or not, microSD card support was one of the biggest items on my Windows Phone 8 wish list. Thankfully, Microsoft has indeed added support for external memory, finally allowing you to store your entire music collection on your phone or download zillions of apps and games. A few questions remain about how the phone will actually utilize this storage, however. Unlike the unofficial microSD card support on the Samsung Focus, this will not be a permanent memory upgrade. Will Windows Phone 8 include a file manager in order to allow you to specify which device the data is placed on?

NFC and Wallet

Microsoft’s implementation of Near-Field Communication (NFC) looks like it will be top-notch, allowing you to utilize the technology without worrying about whether or not your carrier wants to support it. The Wallet, too, looks quite good. It blends Apple and Google’s implementations to turn Windows Phone 8 into your central hub for digital payments, important documents, deals, and much more. The real question is, will anyone use NFC? An informal survey of technology enthusiasts and retail service professionals (RSPs) after the summit yielded surprising results: out of the twenty-or-so people present, only two had ever used NFC. This of course, will probably change as the technology becomes more prevalent and widespread. Especially if you’ll be able to use it to initiate multiplayer gaming sessions with other Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 devices.

Internet Explorer 10

We know that IE10 will be included in Windows Phone 8, giving you access to such features as the SmartScreen Filter, but does this extend to the browser’s built-in support for Flash as well? Flash is on the decline, but many websites still require the use of Flash in order to access content. Having support for the technology built into Windows Phone 8 would be great.

Nokia Maps

Placing Nokia Maps on all Windows Phone handsets is a big win for everyone, since Nokia’s mapping service covers a much larger part of the world than Bing Maps. More importantly, auditory turn-by-turn directions and support for offline maps instantly makes many other map apps obsolete. Personally, I hope all of the features in Nokia Drive make it into Windows Phone 8, particularly information like the current speed limit and remaining trip time. I also hope Nokia manages to improve its routing technology, as there have been a few times where the app attempted to take me on a rather convoluted route.

New ways to code apps

Windows Phone 8 still supports apps written using Windows Phone 7.x tools, but Microsoft has also added a variety of new features for developers including the ability to write native code, support for DirectX and Direct3D, in-app purchases, multitasking for location-based apps, in-app voice search, and even support for middleware like Havok Vision Engine, Autodesk Scaleform, Audiokinetic Wwise, and Firelight FMOD. Apps written for Windows 8 can easily be ported to Windows Phone 8, and vice versa. Unfortunately, there is also a major downside to these improvements, which I will discuss later on. Suffice to say that this is great for the future of Windows Phone, but it isn’t so good for early adopters.

VOIP integration

Microsoft is, in a sense, taking on the carriers by allowing VOIP apps (like Skype) to fully integrate with the Windows Phone 8 OS. These apps will need to be downloaded separately, but once they’re installed incoming calls will look, feel, and operate like an actual phone call.

Business enhancements

Giving businesses better control over Windows Phone will help Microsoft in the long run, so the announcement that Windows Phone 8 will include BitLocker device encryption, UEFI secure boot, remote management, and LOB deployment through custom Company Hub and apps is a big one.

New languages

This might not seem like a big deal to those of us in the United States, but Microsoft has actually made sure that Windows Phone 8 supports more than 50 languages and 180 countries. An impressive amount of work no doubt went into making this possible.

Better updates

Finally, Microsoft is improving the Windows Phone update process by committing to keep new devices up to date until 18 months after they are released. This is very reasonable, given that most smartphone purchases come with a two-year contract. Microsoft also hopes to extend the update period for carriers with longer contracts. Additionally, all updates will now be delivered over the air, eliminating the need to plug in your smartphone.

Frankly, Microsoft hit it out of the park with the next iteration of its smartphone OS. We still know next to nothing about the consumer-centric features included in Windows Phone 8, but I’m already very pleased with the progress that Microsoft has made. Unfortunately, there are two big sticking points. One seems like a major issue on the surface, but it’s not that big of a deal in the long run. The other, however, could potentially be an enormous problem for some people. Yes, I am, of course, referring to the update situation for existing devices.

When Microsoft announced that Windows Phone 8 wouldn’t be delivered to any devices currently on the market, many people were outraged. It’s disappointing to think that devices like the Lumia 900, which was just released a few months ago – will not be able to receive any of the great features included in Windows Phone 8. Well, that’s not exactly true. Many – if not all – current devices will receive the Windows Phone 7.8 update, which adds the improved Start screen. Just about everything else, however, requires improved hardware, making it next to impossible to update older models. So while it would be great to get these features, the technical limitations are understandable.

But if you think about it from a logical perspective, this actually wouldn’t be so bad were it not for the updated app model. Not having the latest and greatest features for 18-24 months is annoying, but it’s a feeling that Apple buyers know very well. The real issue here is that apps designed specifically for Windows Phone 8 will not run on Windows Phone 7.x devices. In other words, existing devices will be essentially cut off from most new apps in the Windows Phone Marketplace. Granted, many developers might still write code using the Windows Phone 7.x tools, but with Windows 8 also set for release this fall, lots of developers will probably target the new operating systems. Not having access to a few new features until your contract expires is one thing. Not having access to any new apps and games (well, those that choose to take advantage of Windows Phone 8’s new features) is something else entirely. You’ll be able to download any of the 100,000 apps currently in the Marketplace, as well as anything new that supports Windows Phone 7.x. But that’s it. It had to be done, but it’s a bitter pill to swallow. Thankfully, Windows Phone 8 is fully compatible with all apps, so once you upgrade to a new device, it won’t be an issue.

All in all, Microsoft’s announcements coming out of the Windows Phone Summit were very exciting, but if you recently purchased a Windows Phone, they were also somewhat bittersweet. As always, for a full rundown of all of the features included in Windows Phone 8, keep an eye on Anythingbutiphone’s definitive feature list, which tracks all of the confirmed, rumored, and debunked aspects of the OS.

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William Devereux

William Devereux is the former Microsoft editor at Pocketables, as well as a Microsoft MVP and SkyDrive/Outlook.com Insider. As his title implies, he wrote about all things from Redmond, including Windows 8 and Windows Phone. He is currently carrying a Windows Phone 8X by HTC and a Microsoft Surface with Windows RT tablet.

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