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Windows Phone 8 in detail: new Start Screen, multi-core support, VoIP integration, and NFC

Microsoft's latest mobile operating system gets its grand unveiling

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Windows Phone 8 hed
Windows Phone 8 hed

Microsoft is lifting the curtain to provide a preview of some of the software and hardware changes for its Windows Phone 8 operating system today. NFC, dual- and quad-core support are all set, and Microsoft has shifted over to the NT kernel for Windows Phone 8 to make it even easier for developers to code for its mobile and desktop ecosystems. There's a new Wallet hub, deeper integration of Skype, and an updated Start Screen interface with support for small tiles. Despite the improvements and hardware support, Microsoft will not release this particular update to existing devices. Instead, the company plans to rollout a Windows Phone 7.8 update separately that will bring some of Windows Phone 8’s user interface changes to existing devices, but many of the other improvements will require new hardware.

After shipping an initial Windows Phone 7 release in November 2010 and a major 7.5 "Mango" update less than a year ago, Microsoft’s mobile efforts excel in some areas but also lack the big name app support and feature sets of its rivals iOS and Android. While Microsoft isn't discussing all of its Windows Phone 8 features today, it's clear the fundamental platform change will help the company achieve feature parity in some areas, greater support for a wide range of hardware, and ultimately attract new users to Windows Phone. Discover the first details about Windows Phone 8 right here.

Windows Core for Windows Phone 8

The biggest change in Windows Phone 8 is Microsoft's transition to the NT kernel and related operating system elements — defined as the Windows Core. Steve Ballmer and company have been hinting at the change for months, but Microsoft is detailing this fully today. Windows Phone 8 will share the same kernel, file system, media foundation, device drivers, and parts of the security model from Windows 8. While this might seem like overkill for a phone operating system, the core elements of the Windows NT architecture will allow Windows Phone 8 to support multi-core processors, device encryption, removable storage with microSD cards, and a whole host of improvements for IT pros and businesses.

Developers will also benefit from a shared Windows Core in Windows Phone 8. Rather than taking advantage of the .NET Compact Framework in Windows Phone 7, Windows Phone 8 moves to a Core CLR which will allow managed code to run in a manner identical to how it runs on desktop Windows, with improved performance benefits and shared components for developers to leverage across desktop and phone apps. Despite this change, all 100,000 existing Windows Phone apps will continue to run on Windows Phone 8. "We architected Windows Phone 8 in a way to drive full application compatibility so that every existing application will continue to run," says Microsoft's Larry Lieberman. Developers will get access to new tools and an updated SDK later this summer that are based on Visual Studio 2012 — supporting apps for both Windows Phone and Windows Phone 8.

"Developers will be able to leverage one codebase to drive an application," says Lieberman. "They can use one code base to build applications that will run across Windows Phone and Windows 8 devices." The changes also mean that developers can use native C and C++ libraries, alongside SQLite and Direct X support. "This means is that it's going to be radically simpler for games studios to port their games to Windows Phone," explains Lieberman. "Developers will be able to build games for Windows and Windows Phone at the same time."

Developers will be able to build games for Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 at the same time


Hardware - multi-core processors, three screen resolutions, NFC, and full SD support

With a shift to the shared NT kernel, Microsoft brings with it an array of support for multi-core processors and device drivers. "We have support for dual-core, quad-core, octo-core, in theory as many as 64-cores," says Lieberman, all as a direct result of the move to the Windows 8 Kernel. Although Microsoft isn't discussing hardware specifics and device announcements, the company is confirming there will be dual-core handsets initially. Those handsets will also support two new screen resolutions introduced in Windows Phone 8. Nokia, Huawei, Samsung, and HTC will all launch Windows Phone 8 hardware across 180 countries.

Windows Phone 8 will support three resolutions in total: WVGA, WXGA, and 720p. Discussing the various leaks about Windows Phone 8, Microsoft's Greg Sullivan confirmed to us that the company did have another resolution under consideration. "It was essentially 640 x 480 for a type of device that we're not gonna do." Microsoft dropped the idea primarily because of the disparity in aspect ratio and the impact on app developers. The three screen resolutions supported in Windows Phone 8 will have similar aspect ratios (two at 15:9 and one at 16:9) to ensure there's no separation in classes of applications. "A developer doesn't need to do anything to take advantage of the new screen resolutions," says Lieberman. "We will automatically scale all of the assets of the application appropriately." App developers will have the opportunity to optimize their apps with higher resolution imagery and additional assets, but they won't have to.

"Google has the NFC payment part, Apple has the Passbook thing, we'll have both."

Microsoft will also officially support NFC directly within the Windows Phone operating system for the first time. Windows Phone 8 includes a new Wallet hub designed to support NFC payments and the ability to store credit card information, member cards, and frequent flier cards. "Google has the NFC payment part, Apple has the Passbook thing, we'll have both," says Sullivan. You can expect to see a variety of partnerships for NFC payments, including Chase bank, and Orange France. Microsoft is also showing off a way to surface deals in its Wallet hub, using Groupon to show a deal panel in the panorama of the hub itself. Additionally, there's a new feature called Tap + Send that takes advantage of Windows Phone 8's NFC hardware support. Similar to Android's Beam function, it allows you to bump a phone against another device to share content. Microsoft is integrating the tap feature into Windows 8 so content can be easily shared across the two operating systems.

Another big hardware change in Windows Phone 8 is full SD support, thanks again to the Windows 8 kernel. SD cards will act like removable external storage in Windows Phone 8, allowing users to transfer music, photos, video, and even install applications. Existing SD card support in Windows Phone 7 was always troublesome. Intended to be used only by the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM), only certain SD cards would work well enough to extend the storage system and the card could not be removed and used in another device. It was ugly and the majority of manufacturers opted to ditch micro SD slots on recent devices as a result. The new support will only be available to Windows Phone 8 devices, not existing Windows Phone 7 ones with SD slots.


Windows Phone 8 user interface

The main Windows Phone 8 user interface change that Microsoft is showing right now is its improved Start Screen. "We're going to have three sizes of live tiles, small, medium, and large," says Sullivan, pointing out that the existing ones in Windows Phone 7 are medium and large versions. "The small tiles will enable us to fit more on the start screen, and to have things that don't require a lot of real estate to convey information." Inline with this change, Microsoft is also expanding the screen real-estate that you’re going to be able to place live tiles on. The trough along the right hand side of the Start Screen will now be filled with tiles. "It's going to fill up the whole screen," explains Sullivan.

Users will also get the ability to customize the size of every tile, so each one can now be small, medium, or large. Likewise, developers will now be able to create a custom large tile — something that was previously reserved for OEMs and Microsoft’s first party hubs in Windows Phone 7. Microsoft has updated its first-party apps to take advantage of the smaller tiles, and the company will automatically generate smaller tiles for third-party applications — providing developers with an option to create a custom version too. Although Microsoft isn’t discussing any further UI changes, the company is also showing off more color customization and personalization options for the new Start Screen in Windows Phone 8. Microsoft is also adopting Windows 8's Metro style logo for new Windows Phone 8 devices.


Skype and VoIP integration

We touched on Microsoft’s new Wallet NFC hub in Windows Phone 8, but the company has created other ways to extend existing hubs. "There's been discussion about native Skype integration," says Sullivan. "That's not really how I'd characterize this." Microsoft is building in the APIs and infrastructure to support generalized VoIP applications in Windows Phone 8, including Skype and others. "Skype largely will just be an application that you'll be able to download that will take advantage of the VoIP integration that we think will be industry leading," explains Sullivan. The integration means VoIP applications will become a full first-class app on Windows Phone 8 handsets, allowing them to integrate into the phone dialer, People Hub, and more. Sullivan believes the integration is so good that he jokes Apple should create its own FaceTime app on Windows Phone 8, "it'll actually be better integrated on Windows Phone than it is on the iPhone." The functionality is clearly a platform by itself, allowing app developers to plug into it in a seamless way. "Skype is fully gonna take advantage of that," says Sullivan, "but it'll still be an app you download."

Microsoft is also demonstrating its updated Internet Explorer 10 browser on Windows Phone 8. The new and improved browser borrows the same desktop code used in the Windows 8 Internet Explorer 10 variant, and brings with it some security-related improvements. Internet Explorer 10 mobile will include a phishing filter and Microsoft's SmartScreen URL reputation system — allowing Windows Phone 8 users to leverage the data used across millions of Windows systems to warn against malicious sites and phishing schemes. The company isn't revealing a whole lot more about its browser update for Windows Phone 8, although previous leaks suggest it might be preparing to leverage built-in server-side compression to reduce data usage.

Nokia Maps will now fuel the first party map experience in Windows Phone 8

Another big takeaway from today’s announcements is Microsoft’s work with Nokia. After announcing its partnership with the Finnish handset maker in early 2011, the pair have worked together on a range of Lumia handsets. Nokia is announcing today that it will be distributing a software update to enable internet tethering on its Lumia 710 and 800 handsets. That’s not the only announcement for today though. We knew Bing and Nokia’s Map technologies were slowly aligning, but Microsoft is taking that even further in Windows Phone 8. "Nokia Maps will now fuel the first party map experience on the device," explains Lieberman, "it will be available to third party developers as a control to add to their applications." The change will see Nokia’s NAVTEQ data fuel the mapping experience in Windows Phone 8 and "in a lot of other places too" for Microsoft’s services. Nokia Maps will bring support for offline maps and better global coverage of mapping data — something that Microsoft’s Bing Maps lacked previously. Microsoft isn’t saying exactly how the experience will be branded, but Lieberman says it’s "going to be very clear to users" that it’s fuelled by Nokia data.

Enterprise and business features

The final highlight from today’s sneak peek at Windows Phone 8 is a renewed focus on enterprise and business users. After years of failed attempts with Windows Mobile to capture enterprise market share from RIM’s BlackBerry devices, many believed Windows Phone 7 would focus on this particular crowd of users. "In some ways...we regressed in terms of enterprise functionality from an IT pro standpoint with Windows Phone 7," admits Sullivan. "With this shift to the Core, we will regain and attract beyond what we had [in Windows Mobile 6.5] in terms of the IT pro features." One big aspect for big business and enterprise users is on-device encryption, something that Microsoft plans to support in Windows Phone 8. Microsoft is also adding support for device management, internal line-of-business software, and a private marketplace for application distribution in the enterprise. "Some of the key things that our enterprise and IT customers have been asking for will be enabled," promises Sullivan, a move that will please Microsoft’s crowd of IT pros who had been calling for such features.

Microsoft’s event today is only a sneak peek at where Windows Phone 8 is heading, outlining the Windows Core changes and some features to expect in future handsets — a demonstration that feels like a reaction to a number of recent leaks. "We're not showing all of Windows Phone," explains Sullivan. "We're really just showing some of the platform elements, primarily relevant to developers and IT pros." Microsoft is taking a secret approach for some other end user capabilities that the company plans to introduce closer to availability. "Our hope is that we'll be able to keep some of the stuff secret until closer to launch," says Sullivan, which indicates that this is only a small glimpse at Microsoft’s plans. "We are not talking about any other UI changes...the rest you’ll be hearing about later."

existing Windows Phone users might feel a little left out by the sweeping hardware changes that are coming

So, when is Windows Phone 8 arriving? Much like Microsoft’s Surface tablet devices, the company isn’t disclosing availability dates just yet. "We’re saying fall for availability of new phones running Windows Phone 8," says Sullivan. Existing Windows Phone 7.x users will also receive the 7.8 update around that time, bringing UI updates and other undisclosed "core customer experiences." From our early discussions with Microsoft it appears Windows Phone 8 is still very much a work in progress at this stage, but the company is planning some type of program to seed developers with pre-release hardware — as its done in the past for Mango. The update feels like a promising one for potential Windows Phone candidates, but we get the feeling existing Windows Phone users might feel a little left out by the sweeping hardware changes that are coming. The company is clearly trying to address some changes in its phone operating system by appeasing existing users with an update, but it’s unclear at this stage exactly how much functionality Windows Phone 7.8 will gain from its 8.0 counterpart.

Nevertheless, Microsoft is taking a giant step towards a future where developers can write once and run everywhere (Windows, Windows Phone, Xbox) with some minor tweaks and changes. Such a step might open its phone platform to the quality apps it so badly needs and deserves. Although SDK and developer tools details are thin on the ground, it appears as though Microsoft has addressed some common complaints around application development for Windows Phone. Metro is about to get its biggest test yet with Windows 8 in a few months time. If Windows 8’s Metro style applications are a hit then that’s bound to benefit Windows Phone 8 too, as developers have an easier way to share common code across each platform. Alternatively there’s the possibility that app developers will stick to the x86 platform and continue to push desktop apps, avoiding Microsoft’s Metro world. It seems unlikely that developers would want to ignore an opportunity on millions of potential Windows 8 PCs and phones, but a number of them have ignored Windows Phone so far. Now it seems Microsoft is willing to partially ignore its existing user base of Windows Phone 7 users in its strive towards greater hardware support and features in Windows Phone 8. Microsoft’s vague details on Windows Phone 7.8 leave it as an unknown entity that could generate ill-feeling towards the company from recent, or even early Windows Phone adopters.

Whatever happens, there’s a lot more to Windows Phone 8 than Microsoft has unveiled today. Whether that results in some feature improvements across the board, backported to Windows Phone 7.8, remains to be seen — but Microsoft will be hopeful that its small taster session will be enough to satisfy Windows Phone fans for now.