Microsoft Windows Phone 8: the Known and Unknown

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The release of Windows Phone 8 (WP8) is now imminent, but some big questions still linger in the air. So Brighthand brings you a roundup of five things that are known about Microsoft’s new smartphone platform — and five things that still aren’t.

First, here’s what’s known…

1. Windows Phone 8 will support more powerful features and better screens.

WP8One of the main reasons behind Microsoft‘s operating system (OS) platform update is to embrace new hardware options. Previous versions of the Windows Phone OS didn’t support things like dual-core processors, high resolution screens, or memory cards, which have been practically standard equipment in other devices for years.

Windows Phone 8 devices, in happy contrast, will be able to take advantage of HD-resolution screens, multi-core CPUs, and other more cutting edge technologies like Near Field Communications (NFC), a digital wallet, Internet Explorer (IE) 10, and Xbox Music Pass.

WP8 also boasts a number of updates aimed at providing enterprise-level security, including on-device 128-bit encryption, remote management, Secure Boot, and even the ability to do secure, private distribution for company proprietary apps.

2. WP8 will NOT support previous smartphones.

If you’re one of the people who already bought a Windows Phone 7 device — even the newest and best, like this year’s Lumia 900 — you’ll be left out in the cold. Unfortunately, Microsoft has decided not to allow any Windows Phone 7 devices to be upgraded to WP8, and apps designed for Windows Phone 8 will not be usable on older devices. Windows Phone 7 apps will run on WP8, but not vice versa.

HTC 8xMicrosoft’s purported reason for this is to make a clean break from having to backwards-support older Windows Phones and their extremely limited hardware, which might balk at running some of the more advanced features and apps of WP8. To Microsoft, it seems, no Windows Phone 8 experience is better than a sluggish one.

3. Microsoft promises new devices will be supported with over-the-air updates for a minimum of 18 months.

Perhaps trying to take the sting out of abandoning its pre-existing devices, Microsoft has promised that new Windows Phone 8 devices will be kept fresh with at least 18 months of OS updates, starting at the time of their release.  So if you buy a WP8 phone at launch, you can rest assured that there won’t be a major update next fall. While 18 months is not quite as long as the two-year standard service contract that ties people to their phones, it’s a lot better than the lack of a guarantee that comes with most other devices.

Also debuting with WP8 is the ability for over-the-air system updates. Microsoft is eliminating the need to use Zune software for updates, thereby bringing WP8 in line with the other major smartphone platforms in being able to deliver new versions directly to users.

4. “Enthusiasts” will get early sneak peeks at future upgrades.

According to Microsoft, another feature of the new update system will allow certain people to get a sneak peek at the new updates that are being pushed out. “Registered enthusiasts” will receive updates first, before these are rolled out to the general public.

While this might be seen by some as Microsoft using enthusiasts as unpaid testers, it does provide a nice perk for the people who like Windows Phone the most. It also holds the potential to help Microsoft head off any trouble with updates before the new software gets to the non-technical public. At this time, there’s no word on how “registered enthusiast” will be defined. Will becoming one be as simple as saying so in the settings for your Microsoft account?

5. “Windows Runtime” means easier development across Windows devices.

Windows Phone 8 Home ScreensThe biggest “under the hood” change in Windows Phone 8 is that it’s now built on what’s called “Windows Runtime.” This is in accordance with Microsoft’s new plan for wooing Windows PC developers and extending app development across its entire computing line.

In essence, Windows Runtime is a common base available to developers across all of the upcoming Windows platforms: Windows 8, Windows RT, and Windows Phone 8. The idea is that someone who is experienced developing apps for Windows 8 PCs can easily make the transition to developing for Windows Phone, and vice versa — and that developers can quickly and cleanly port their apps from one platform to another.

Of course, there will be some differences between these three OS, and with that comes the possibility of confusion among users when their Windows Phone apps won’t run on their Windows tablets, for instance. Now, though, there’ll be much less of a gap than there used to be for developers and users to deal with.

In contrast, Windows Phone 7 — and Windows Mobile before it — were built on the increasingly obsolete Windows CE kernel. With WP8, Windows Phone is now based on a full-scale modern desktop architecture, like the Darwin-based iOS and Linux-based Android.

And here’s what’s unknown…

1. What support for “new form factors” really means.

The early presentations and lists of features for WP8 frequently mention “new form factors” (usually in the same breath with the larger screens). However, it isn’t yet at all clear what that actually means.

Microsoft has given no indication as to whether “new form factors” means larger screens, or an allowance for keyboards, or even more radical departures like clamshell devices or wearable smartphones. Fathoming the answer to this question is made more difficult by the fact that all the devices announced so far from Nokia, HTC, and Samsung have featured the same basic one piece, big-screen design we’ve seen on all previous Windows Phone devices, not hinting at all about any major departures from the norm.

2. Whether a Microsoft-branded smartphone is on the way.

Samsung WP8With Microsoft’s “Surface” tablets soon to be launched come persistent reports that Microsoft may even be planning its own Windows Phone 8 device, aimed directly at the Apple iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S III. If that turns out to be true, Microsoft will land in the position of directly competing with the companies it’s counting on to build other WP8 smartphones, like HTC and Nokia.

It’s also unknown whether a Surface-type smartphone would outshine the models available at launch, giving early adopters a headache trying to figure out whether to buy a competing model now or wait.

3. The extent of integration with the rest of Microsoft’s ecosystem.

It’s no secret that SkyDrive is going to be even more a part of Windows Phone 8. Meanwhile, in a bid to compete against music services ranging from iTunes to Spotify, Microsoft announced plans on October 4 to extend its Xbox streaming music service to Windows 8 as well as Windows Phone 8, iOS, and Android devices.

On the other hand, the fate of integration between WP8 and the rest of Microsoft’s ecosystem remains pretty much a mystery.

4. How many apps will be available.Nokia Drive

A thriving set of apps is the lifeblood of any smartphone platform. But it’s one of the areas  where Windows Phone has always trailed iOS and Android.

Traditionally, Microsoft’s developer base for Windows Phone 7 has been weak. It’s still an open question as to whether Windows Runtime and more up-to-date hardware will help Microsoft lure more developers on to the platform.

We do know, however, that Nokia Drive, the GPS voice-guided navigation part of Nokia Maps, will be available on all Windows 8 devices. So this is one app area where WP8 is likely to shine (particularly in comparison to iOS 6, with its inaccurate Apple Maps!).

5. We don’t know what we don’t know!

While a good deal of information is out there about the highlights of WP8, the fact remains that the source of most of it is Microsoft, as opposed to either developers or users who’ve actually worked with Windows Phone 8.

We also don’t know whether there are additional features that either Microsoft hasn’t promoted or that just haven’t leaked yet; the company has even prevented members of the media from navigating the OS on their own when handling demo units of WP8 devices at press events. So while we have a fairly good picture of the basics of Windows Phone 8, there’s still a lot of room for surprises.

 

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