June 20, 2012 at 1:58 PM ET
On Wednesday, Microsoft announced features of its upcoming Windows Phone 8 mobile OS, including built-in turn-by-turn navigation, a secure "wallet" system, a new, faster browser and live tiles that can be custom sized to better fit the Start screen. Perhaps most importantly, the company revealed that the next wave of Windows Phones will really be Windows Phones, because when Windows Phone 8 comes out, it will share a "common core" of software with Windows 8.
OK, I know, that sounds pretty heady, but it means that under the hood, the phone platform will look enough like a Windows PC to share common file formats, networking, security protocols, IT management tools and apps. Yes, that means PC games, business software and even Internet Explorer 10 only need to undergo small modifications to run on the new phone.
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During a live demo in San Francisco, Joe Belfiore, who leads the Windows Phone design and development initiative, showed off a prototype phone running Windows Phone 8 -- specifically eight (get it?) key aspects:
Up-to-date hardware support: Screen resolution can be up to 720p (720x1280) or WXGA (1280x768), and it can run natively on crazy multi-core processors, including one they tested with 64 cores. This also means MicroSD support, so you can buy a 16GB phone, but then add a 32GB card later on.
Native code: This gets a little too wonky for me, but the takeaway is that the development platform used by game developers and others, Direct X, can be used for Windows Phone 8 apps and games. A sweet game will crank on a phone, if the phone has the hardware to support it.
Better sharing with NFC: I'm not crazy about "near field communication," at least not yet, but this technology lets you pass data between compatible devices using the radio technology.
Secure, third-party-friendly wallet: Microsoft developed a wallet technology that's secure enough for banks (credit cards, debit cards) and wireless carriers, but inclusive enough to include frequent flyer programs and grocery store affinity cards, too. One key element is that the security is on the SIM card, not on the phone, so mobile operators can provision it themselves, and users can upgrade phones with a bit more ease.
Turn-by-turn navigation and maps: Nokia is already a close Windows Phone partner, and has shipped phones with maps and turn-by-turn navigation. But now Microsoft is licensing Nokia's navigation technology, including the impressive Navteq mapset that covers the U.S. and most of the rest of the world, for all Windows phones.
Better support for businesses: The shared Windows code means that IT managers will be able to use current tools to push out software and other updates to phones as well as PCs. The file encryption will be the same one currently used in Windows, BitLocker, and there will be increased crossover of Office apps and services.
Custom-sized live tiles: This is what Belfiore called "the sexiest thing in Windows Phone 8," and while I don't find it truly titillating, I will agree with him that it's pretty awesome. Windows Phone Start screens currently suffer from getting too long, because your only choice is to have a tile or not. By letting you shrink the stuff you don't care about, and enlarging the stuff you do, you can make a screen that better reflects your needs, without all the scrolling.
Here's a YouTube video showing how it works:
Belfiore mentioned that Windows Phone 8 would support current apps, rendering them in the new screen resolutions just fine. And the new custom tile sizing works on any tile, including those from apps that were released prior to now.
UPDATE - 4:30 p.m. ET:In a blog post, Belfiore explained that while current Windows Phones won't get updated to Windows Phone 8, there will be a partial upgrade for phones currently running Windows Phone 7.5. It will include the new Start screen, and will be called Windows Phone 7.8.
The obvious question is, will this make Windows Phone more desirable to the masses? Without hesitation, I say that it will. Many of these features are on par with the newest editions of Android and iOS, and the more resources the phone shares with the Windows desktop OS, the better, especially when it comes to IT. The most compelling argument for adoption of something like the Surface Pro is that it can deliver a tablet experience when you need it, and a laptop experience when you need that. Add to that a phone with linked apps, security and communication, and you have a very complete package.
I still think that Microsoft may have a tough time convincing current Windows users to jump to Windows 8, but bringing the phone OS in closer will certainly help. Especially when those Windows users discover that their Android phones' two-year contracts are almost up.
Here's Microsoft's official blog post with a lot more details about Windows Phone 8.