Last week’s been really busy with MWC and the Windows Phone 7 Series announcement on Monday 15th in Barcelona. A lot has been said about it since then and the general consensus is that Microsoft is doing the right thing by restarting from scratch but some people are still worried or disappointed because of what seems like an “iPhonesque” shift in strategy. I’ll try to share my thoughts with you and hopefully give you a little insight on what can be Microsoft’s next Billion dollar business.
Windows Mobile as we know it started in April 2000 back when it was initially named Pocket PC 2000 and was based on Windows CE 3.0. At that time the idea was to provide users with a device that featured the most commonly used apps and productivity scenarios on the Windows PC in a handheld device. The most logical way to do it was to retain the same UI as the Desktop so that the potential users will already be familiar with the product. Back then capacitive touchscreen weren’t commercially available and the stylus was all the rage. Pocket PC was seen as a breath of fresh air in a market dominated by Palm and had the advantage to tie in with Microsoft’s Office productivity suite. PocketPC devices were praised all over the world especially because of the familiar Windows Like UI that made them easily accessible to the end user. Ironically this same UI will be the platforms downfall in the following years.
PocketPC 2002 was then released in October 2001 and was the first version to include phone functionalities. This release brought new features like VPN, MSN Messenger, Theme support, Spell-Checker etc… Microsoft then followed up with Windows Mobile 2003, WM 2003 SE and finally Windows Mobile 5 in May 2005. WM5 was an important step forward thanks to the persistent memory support which finally allowed devices to run out of battery without Hard-Resetting (on previous versions, when the devices battery went flat the internal memory was totally wiped out so you had to re-install all your software afterwards and always had to remember to back up your files…). Windows Mobile 5 is also an important release because of the fact that this was the last time that Microsoft changed the Kernel version of the OS (Windows CE 5.X). All subsequent releases until now have been based on nearly the same Windows CE Kernel : Windows Mobile 5 = CE 5.1 Windows Mobile 6.X.X =CE 5.2 this means that for the past 5 years the core architecture of Microsoft’s Mobile OS didn’t radically changed and still suffered from several limitations, especially in memory management. For example on Windows CE 5.X each app is limited to 32Mb of virtual memory and even then you don’t get access to all of it because system DLLs are already eating into it. A work-around was discovered less than a year ago and is documented here.
Another direct effect of this “development stagnation” is the lack of support for current & upcoming CPU architectures. The latest Windows Mobile phones could only rely on the sheer horse power instead of their new ARM architecture design and instruction sets because of the fact that the CE 5.2 Kernel didn’t support them. That’s why 4 years old devices are sometimes faster than current phones.
Unfortunately for Microsoft the competition wasn’t standing still and during the same time frame we saw the arrival of Apple’s iPhone, Google’s Android and Palm’s WebOS, all specifically tailored for consumer usage unlike Windows Mobile which (out-of-the-box) only excels in business centric types of scenarios. To overcome Redmond’s shortcomings OEMs started to skin Windows Mobile with their own UIs and tweaks but this resulted in slower performance in some cases and brought to light the total lack of control that Microsoft had over what OEMs where doing Windows Mobile. What was the solution? A Microsoft branded phone giving them total control over the hardware, software, services and experience just like Apple did with the iPhone? Too late IMO. Microsoft already tried a similar scenario with PlayForSure -> Zune and will all know how it all ended up. Unlike the music player business where there’s only one company dominating the market (Apple) or the console market where you only have 2 other companies ,having a Microsoft Phone would mean going against Nokia, Samsung, LG, Sony Ericsson, Apple, Motorola, HTC (half of them being WM OEMs..)etc… The other solution would be to ensure strict policies and tighter control aver what hardware is being used, Software UIs etc.. . But this can turn off OEMs given that Windows Mobile is the last Mobile OS to be closed source and not free (Android and Symbian are free to use and open-source). How can Microsoft make OEMs pay for a Windows Mobile license and then dictate what they can do with it? The answer was announced on February 15th.
Enter Windows Phone 7 Series
For many years Microsoft has been criticized for the lack of synergy between all of its services and products. Even though they are the only company to have products in the living room (Xbox/media center), Desktop (Windows/Office…), Cloud (Windows Live/Hotmail/Azure/Bing) and Mobile (Zune/WinMo) you will be hard-pressed to find an easy way to make all those services & products work and connect together. Windows Phone 7 Series is finally going to make this possible and this is what Microsoft is selling to OEMs: the only solution to connect & interact with the biggest business/media/productivity ecosystem in the world.
Metro: The new face of Microsoft’s User Experience (UX)
To have a consistent user experience across all of its services it is imperative for Microsoft to have a similar UI on all devices. That’s why you’ll notice that the Widows Phone 7 “Metro” UI has similar design cues and navigation mechanisms as Windows Media Center and Zune HD (and Zune desktop software).
This will be the center piece of all of Microsoft’s future consumer products and also the reason why OEMs are prohibited from touching it or hiding it. Love it or hate it but you will have to get used to it. The goal here is to have users focus directly on the functionalities of the products so when somebody has a Windows Phone 7 handset from HTC and then has to use an LG handset he won’t have to waste time re-learning how to navigate the new device. The UX is unified across all of the Windows Phone 7 Series phones letting OEMs focus on the hardware to differentiate from each other.
Metro is also radically different from other icon based UIs (see iPhone) and puts the user directly in front of the information thanks to the text based navigation system. The use of text truncation throughout the user interface teases the user and prompts him to go deeper into the UI to discover additional info. The whole point of the metro UI is give the user as much information as possible on the screen without having him guessing or wasting time going back and forth to find something or be productive.
Social Network integration
Microsoft wants to enable the user get instant access to all of his contacts (and his own) social network updates without having to install applications or third party services (this is something I’ve found out several months ago). To do this, Windows Phone 7 will use Windows Live’s existing agreement with social media networks to gain access to more than 70 feeds at launch. All those feeds will be available through the Peoples hub so you won’t need any third party application installed on your phone to directly interact with you contacts and friends. On the other hand nothing will stop you from installing a Facebook or Twitter app if you need more advanced features. Once again Microsoft is finally using something they already have; Windows Live’s Social Network aggregator, to create a seamless user experience.
Bing: Hasta La Vista Google
One thing that most people don’t realize is the fact that Google’s services have been playing a central part on the majority of the latest Windows Mobile handsets sold in the past years (especially those from HTC). Let’s take for example the HTC HD2…The default search engine on the device is Google (this can’t even be changed in the Sense’ internet tab). The default mapping applications is Google Maps. The localization service that allows the phone to automatically update the time & weather is the Google Locations service. Things have definitely changed now in WP7. Microsoft’s Bing search and Bing Maps are now at the center of the product and even have a dedicated hardware button on each device. Bing Maps (which is built in Silverlight) is the default mapping application and is directly integrated into the user experience. You will obviously still be able to use other search engines or mapping applications if you choose to (and if Google decides to develop it for WP7, and I’m sure they will). Below is a video of of Microsoft’s Chris Pendleton demonstrating the Bing Maps integration in WP7:
Media: Pictures + Music + Video
Everybody wanted a Zune Phone after the launch of the Zune HD a few months ago. Rumors were popping left and right (most of them based on nothing or just totally fabricated by some websites to generate traffic..) and Microsoft finally delivered the best of both worlds. Every Windows Phone 7 Series device will be a Zune. People wondered why the Zune HD wasn’t going to be globally launched, here’s your answer. Zune integration is going to be one of the major selling points of the new OS, but the way it is actually going to work is still not 100% clear. We already know that users will be able to purchase/rent music & videos through the Zune store and that the Zune desktop software will be used to synchronize pictures, Music & videos. What is not known yet is if this will be the only way to manage your multimedia content on WP7 (similar to iTunes and the iPhone). This is IMO one piece of info that Microsoft will hopefully answer shortly. As you probably already know, one of the drawbacks of this technique is that pictures & videos transferred to your iPhone via iTunes, or to your Zune HD via the Zune software, are compressed to a smaller resolution to save memory and improve performance. Unfortunately this will result in the impossibility to carry around your WP7 phone (or Zune HD/iPhone) like an external HD (this is currently one of the best “feature” of Windows Mobile). Codec support still unknown but hopefully it will be similar to the Zune HD (which is getting Xvid support in the next update). One of the most interesting feature announced is automatic synchronization at home when the device is being charged. When you plug your WP7 handset to the charge it up at home the device’s Wifi connection will automatically turn-on, the phone will then locate its self and connect to the user’s desktop to wirelessly sync all the media.
Xbox Live & Gaming
Xbox Live is a big differentiator for the Xbox360 against Sony’s and Nintendo’s consoles, the same can now be said about it on Windows Phone 7 Series against Android, Apple’s iPhone, Nokia etc… With over 20 Million subscribers Microsoft is now hoping that many of them are going to buy a WP7 handset in the next 18 months. For this to happen, Redmond will have to leverage all its gaming experience from the PC & console industry to get big name developers and publishers on board. Microsoft already announced that some Xbox Live arcade games will be available on both the XBOX360 & WP7 and that other gaming scenarios, like multiplayer gaming vs Xbox/PC were in the works. Once again, using what already exist (Xbox live) and integrating it natively into the OS is one of the reasons why Microsoft is finally doing the right thing.
Right now the Zune Marketplace allows users to download music, & video content and games/apps. What is not known yet is if this will be the only marketplace place available on Windows Phone 7 Series or if there will be another one strictly dedicated to applications (Zune only being used to download multimedia content). Looking at the screenshots provided by Microsoft we can see that the Music+Videos hub features a Marketplace link (at the bottom of the first screen) that is not present in the Xbox Live hub. My guess is that there will only be one market that will be linked throughout the OS. For example if a user opens it from the Zune hub he will be automatically directed to the Music & Videos section of the market but if he choose to download a game via the Spotlight section of the Xbox Live hub he will then be directed to the Xbox Live section of the application store. There will also be a Marketplace link in the application section of the phone that will give the user the possibility to browse the whole market for applications, games, music etc…
Productivity: Office on the go
Windows Mobile is known for being one of the best business friendly mobile OS (right next to BlackBerry) so it’s only natural for WP7 to feature Microsoft’s full productivity suite (now with SharePoint integration)even though Microsoft is primary aiming the new OS at the consumer market. Office will natively be integrated but not much has been said or shown yet. The company only said that all the features currently available in Office Mobile 2010 on WM6.X will be part of the WP7 version. Office 2010’s cloud based features & services will play a major role in this newer version, the only unknown being how the actual UI will look like.
Developers: The key to success
Everything I’ve wrote above won’t guaranty Windows Phone 7 Series success if the development tools provided to OEMs and ISV aren’t worth a damn thing. This is why I think that Microsoft’s biggest strength lies in its ability to attract developers in a way that no other company can. A lot has been said about the new restrictions applied to OEM customization and ISV access to native APIs. What some people don’t seem to understand is that Microsoft isn’t a charity. What was happening over at the XDA-Devs community is what I would call an “anomaly” caused by the total lack of coherent development strategy on Windows Mobile throughout the years. Do users really care if an application is coded in C++ or .Net? Nope. Do they care if a bunch of geeks want to build custom ROMS? Nope. What the user wants is a phone that works out of the box and an application that has a UI consistent with the OS’ UI.
Apple’s iPhone SDK & Framework is the reason why the App Store has been such a success and why developers from all over the world are pumping out games and apps on a daily basis. Microsoft is finally “fixing” this with the new Windows Phone Application Platform.
Windows Phone Application Platform
The new Windows Phone Application Platform is built upon three core technologies: Silverlight, XNA and the .NET Compact Framework. Two UI Frameworks will be provided for developing applications: XNA UI framework (based on Direct X/3D) and a Silverlight UI Framework (Expression Blend). Finally the primary developments tools for developing applications on Widows Phone 7 will be Microsoft’s Visual Studio 2010 and Expression Blend.
1) XNA Game Studios
XNA will be the framework of choice for developing games on WP7. Using XNA gives developers the ability to build multi-platform games with the same framework and gives them access to features like Xbox Live integration, Video APIs, Direct 3D, sensor APIs etc. XNA is currently compatible with PCs, XBOX 360 and the Zune devices. The Zune HD is the closest thing to a WP7 phone, so those who want to start developing applications for future handset can try it out now. XNA Games Studios will probably receive a Windows Phone profile update in the coming weeks (during MIX10). More info about XNA here
2) Expression Blend
Expression Blend is Microsoft’s User Interface developing tool for the web, desktop and now Windows Phone 7 Series devices. On the desktop front it lets your create WPF and Silverlight UIs, but only Silverlight development will be possible on WP7. Like I’ve said many times before, Silverlight is going to be one of the center pieces of Microsoft’s future web, mobile & consumer strategy. Silverlight integrates video/audio decoding, 2D/2D HW graphics, Vector Based GFX & Animations all in a single multi-platform runtime that can be run in or out-of-browser (development is done in .NET). Windows Phone 7 Series will, at first, only include out-of-the-browser SL 3 and SL 4 support. For a taste of what can be done with it I suggest you take a look at the new Bing Maps service and NetFlix video streaming. More info about Expression Blend here.
Microsoft will also provide Runtime services on devices that can be used to access services in the Cloud, such as Windows Live, Windows Azure, and third-party services. And best of all, to ensure maximum compatibility across all WP7 handsets, Microsoft will be providing the hardware drivers to the OEMs. All the “missing drivers” headaches on previous generations of Windows Mobile devices are definitely a thing of the past.
The other interesting tit bit I learned at MWC is that Windows Phone 7 will support Direct3D (which I thought was dead on WinMo..) instead of OpenGL ES. The hardware will still be OGL compatible but it seems that Microsoft will only allow D3D development. This will have 2 advantages over OGL:
1) Simplify porting of Xbox Live Arcade games to Windows Phone 7
2) Better driver support. This would explain why Microsoft is saying that they will be providing hardware drivers to the OEMs.
Microsoft is a software company (the biggest in the world) has always been praised for its top-notch dev-tools on the desktop and on Xbox so it’s was logical for them to apply the same strategy here. The only thing I regret is that this wasn’t done before. This led to the anarchy that we have now on Windows Mobile 6.5 devices. Because of the total lack of development control and fragmentation on the hardware side the current Windows Mobile software ecosystem is a total mess. Now it’s finally time for professional developers and hobbyist to step up their game and play by the new rules.
OEM & Mobile Operator Customizations
Even though Microsoft wants to retain full control over the new Mobile platform, OEM customization is still going to be present. Sure, you won’t be seeing any TouchFlo, Sense or TouchWIZ UIs but this won’t stop phone manufactures from adding their own software and services on to their Windows Phone 7 Series handsets. For example, Microsoft has been working closely with LG this past year to help them develop their future handset. The Metro UI will still be present but the OEMs will be allowed to add their own Hubs into their phones. The same applies to carriers. Some of them sell music, videos, games and even have TV channels. A carrier Hub could include all those offering in one single place without cluttering the whole user experience like before. This is quite different from the iPhone strategy where carriers are only allowed to develop apps that users have to download from the App Store and IMO the ”best of both worlds” solution. To be able to achieve this, OEMs and MO will have access to an extended set of managed APIs and limited set of native APIs (unlike regular ISV).
A few months ago I criticized Micrososft’s E&D President, Robbie Bach for saying the following about Windows Mobile 6.5 vs Android:
“If you get Android, you get an operating system that is a version of Linux and a few tools,” Mr. Bach said. “That’s fine. But what are you going to do as your music experience? What will you do for your photos experience?”
He argued that handset makers will need to spend more money to develop a phone using Android than for Windows Mobile.
Now, if he was talking about Windows Phone 7 I would totally agree with him. OEMs now have a valid reason to pay for a Windows Phone license! The tables have turned and now Android has become what Windows Mobile was before last Monday’s announcement. OEMs no longer have to worry about spending R&D on UI development to skin WinMo, include third-party browsers (Opera Mobile) and mapping solutions, etc. Windows Phone 7 Series is finally the whole package; the missing block that lets you connect to all of Microsoft’s services and ecosystem. Will it succeed? I can’t predict the future, but Microsoft, for the thirst time in many years is doing the right things.