Reset: Microsoft Announces Windows Phone 8

On June 20, Microsoft announced the next version of their mobile operating system, Windows Phone 8, at a San Francisco based event called the Windows Phone Developer Summit. At the event, Microsoft outlined the short term future for Windows Phone, including new features developed for use in the enterprise. Windows Phone 7 was described by Microsoft as a reset for its mobile OS, replacing Windows Mobile 6.x.  What was announced today appears to effectively be another reset, with Windows Phone being aligned closely with Windows. This time around, though, there is a focus on maintaining backwards app compatibility and improved support for enterprise scenarios, both of which were sorely missing when Windows Phone 7 was introduced. Windows Phone 8 is expected to be made available on new phone hardware in Fall 2012, though no date was announced.

There are a number of major changes to the operating system from existing Windows Phone 7 versions. Chief among them is the replacement of the platform on which Windows Phone is built. Windows Mobile and Windows Phone 7 were developed on top of Windows CE 6, which is being replaced in Windows Phone 8 with the NT-based Windows 8 core. The same Windows core now underpins phone, tablet, desktop, and server form factors. Microsoft’s massive, multi-year effort to componentize Windows (aka MinWin) enables it to run in smaller form factors with less system overhead. The shift to the Windows core brings support for multi-core CPUs, standard Windows file systems (NTFS), Windows security features, official support for removable storage, native development, and ease of development across hardware form factors.

Microsoft has announced that the Windows Phone Marketplace recently surpassed the 100,000 app mark.  While WP8 will maintain compatibility with all existing WP7 applications, the reverse will not be true. Applications written for WP8 will not be able to run on older devices. Windows Phone 8 will now support native development, using C and C++, in addition to managed code using .NET languages. Previously, WP7 only supported Silverlight based applications, with limited access to hardware. It appears that Windows Phone 8 applications will still be sandboxed for security, but will have access to Contracts similar to Windows 8 for inter-app communication. The OS will provide deep integration for VOIP communications for Microsoft and 3rd party apps, with ability to leverage system controls for making and receiving calls and background multitasking support.

The use of the Windows NT core will enable additional security scenarios for Windows Phone 8. On device encryption will be supported for both native storage and removable microSD cards. There will also be support for SecureBoot, a feature of UEFI based systems that prevents tampering with system files prior to the OS boot. Enterprise device management is expected to be available for WP8 devices, similar to upcoming Windows RT devices. There is little detail on how this will be accomplished, but Exchange ActiveSync support is likely, though there may be additional features beyond what EAS provides. There will be support for internal distribution of mobile applications to enterprise devices rather than having to use the public app Marketplace.  There appears to be a “company hub” that may be used for internal app distribution.

The major UI change discussed was the Start screen, which will remain similar in style to WP7, but now expanded to fill the screen and introduces an additional smaller tile size. This allows more layout and customization possibilities for the Start screen, and allows for more information to be relayed on the Live Tile. It was presented as a big deal, but should not affect users much. Most other UI elements demonstrated were similar to existing versions, but Microsoft stated that more information was to come on the UI. From a software perspective, Microsoft noted that Internet Explorer 10 will be included, and will provide much improved Javascript performance and HTML5 support.  One slide showed IE10 performance on the SunSpider benchmark besting similarly iOS 6 beta and Android devices.  The maps used in Windows Phone 8 will shift from Bing Maps to Nokia’s map technologies.  This will provide support for more detailed global maps, turn-by-turn navigation with offline maps support, and the ability for developers to leverage the maps in their own apps via a control.  Offline maps, in particular, will reduce mobile bandwidth usage by allowing the user to store map data locally rather than pulling it over the air as they move about.  Multitasking improvements should better allow map based applications to run in the background.

In terms of hardware, Windows Phone 7 was effectively hamstrung by the Windows CE 6 platform on which it was built. It only supported a single CPU core and a maximum of 512MB RAM. Windows Phone 8 will support newer ARM-based System-on-Chip (SoC) silicon from Qualcomm. Specifically, the ARM-based Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Plus (aka Krait), which includes the Adreno 225 GPU. The speeds of the CPU cores and GPU are currently unknown.  Anandtech says that the initial phones will use the Qualcomm MSM8960.  Per Wikipedia, the MSM8960 offers 2 Krait cores running at 1.5-1.7GHz, 1MB of L2 cache, dual channel memory, and is built on a 28nm process.  The old Snapdragon S2 based SoC used in WP7 devices were built on a 45nm process, and are less efficient that the new architecture.  The initial WP8 devices on the market will be dual-core, though the operating system itself supports up to 64-cores. Storage and memory requirements were not discussed, though the use of the Windows core will effectively remove the OS RAM limitations. While Windows Phone 7 used a screen resolution of 800×480, WP8 will also support 1280×720 and 1280×768. It’s unclear why the extra 48 pixel-width in the 1280×768 phones.  The encryption functions will be hardware accelerated, thus minimizing system overhead. Near Field Communications (NFC) will be supported, demonstrated today using a tap-to-share function with a Windows RT tablet, and electronic Wallet based secure transaction support via NFC.

Existing Windows Phones will not have an upgrade path to Windows Phone 8, but will instead receive an update to version 7.8. This version will include the new Start screen UI, but will not provide support for most of the features coming in WP8. It is unknown exactly what other functionality will be present in Windows Phone 7.8.  Paul Thurrott has mentioned that Microsoft will deliver the update direct to customers, bypassing the carriers.  This is good news for Windows Phone customers, as some carriers have been very resistant to deploying updates that include bug and security fixes.  Given that existing WP7 devices shipped with 512MB RAM, single CPU core, and older GPU, it’s not that surprising that Windows Phone 8 is not being supported on those devices.  To provide such support the OS have to perform well on those exact specs, yet the system requirements for Windows Phone 8 are unknown at this point.  Speculation – It may be that single core CPU on an aging architecture would not provide the user experience that Microsoft is targeting.  In addition, significant effort would likely be required to ensure driver support for the older Snapdragon SoC.  Remember that this is no longer running on Windows CE.

Removable storage support is something that phone manufacturers should take advantage of to differentiate from iPhone and compete with Android devices that offer such functionality. Windows Phone 7 never offered full support for removable storage. A microSD slot was included in the Samsung Focus, but in order to leverage it, a full reset of the phone would be required, and the card internal storage and card would be treated as a single storage pool. Given that, a card with consistent random read/write performance would be required, and there is no solid spec for such performance metrics for SD cards. Even cards within a brand could vary wildly in random performance. Thus, Microsoft, Samsung, and AT&T never fully supported the use of the microSD slot. This appears to have been resolved in Windows Phone 8. It will be interesting to see how the additional flash memory is treated, when a microSD card is inserted in a WP8 device.

Moving to the Windows core will strengthen the platform for competition in the long term.  From a raw spec sheet perspective, Windows Phone will be able to compete with Android and iOS more effectively, with OEMs and carriers able to market multi-core devices with modern CPUs and larger amounts of RAM. As well, the improvements in the Start screen should make for a nice, very distinctive display set against the iOS and Android competition.  In terms of gaming, native development and use of DirectX in combination with improved SoC performance should provide for smoother, better looking gaming experiences.  From an enterprise view, it is good to see that Microsoft is returning to providing good enterprise support. Microsoft was able to provide fairly strong enterprise support and manageability for Windows Mobile 6.x, which was all but abandoned in Windows Phone 7. This will provide another option for enterprises, as RIM continues to struggle. With Blackberry faltering, there is an opportunity for Windows Phone 8 to stake a sizable claim in the enterprise.  While many bits of information were made available at the Summit, there are still many questions that remain. More information should be available through the summer and fall as the release approaches. It will be interesting to see how much the security and manageability story has improved and what effect it has on enterprise adoption.

All in all, this is a massive change for Windows Phone. While the market share of Windows Phone (~4-5%) is small in comparison to iOS (~30%) and Android (~50%), it has solid developer support, reaching 100,000 applications in the Marketplace about 18 months. The switch to a Windows NT based core and ease of development for multiple form factors will likely continue to improve developer support. The changes coming in Windows Phone 8 are staggering, but for the most part appear very positive. Whether they are enough to drive consumers to the platform remains to be seen. However, IDC has projected that Windows Phone will surpass iOS marketshare by 2016.

Windows Phone 8 Announcement Stream via MSDN

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