Will Microsoft sustain Windows Phone momentum?

TechEd conference offers a big stage for the mobile OS

At its annual TechEd conference this week, Microsoft has the chance to sustain the momentum of Windows Phone 7 or fumble away the excitement the redesigned mobile OS has created.

At its annual TechEd conference in New Orleans next week, will Microsoft keep building momentum for its re-launched mobile operating system, or fumble it with too little information and action?

Microsoft's Windows Phone news, if there is any, won't be able to escape comparison to Apple's expected news around the iPhone OS 4.0 release and possibly a fourth-generation iPhone handset. Apple's iPhone and now the iPad are huge successes, though they face growing competition from mobile devices running Google's Android OS. With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft is making a risky, high-stakes bid to win a big piece of the mobile market.

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Experienced Windows application developers have high praise for the radically redesigned user interface in Windows Phone 7, which was unveiled in February. But so far, they've been working with early versions of both the operating system and development tools. And without actual handsets, they have had to rely on the PC-based Windows Phone emulator to experiment with the look and feel of their mobile applications.

On their wish list for TechEd news are the following:

* Real handsets that meet the Windows Phone 7 hardware specification, on which to test their applications.

* Beta releases or "release candidate" versions of the operating system itself.

* Beta releases of the various development tools.

* Details about the online Windows Phone 7 Marketplace, and the process of submitting and approving applications.

* More specific target dates for when companies such as HTC, LG and others will release handsets running Windows Phone 7.

* Enterprise-specific features, functions and APIs.

* Some sense of Microsoft's game plan, or at least an idea of future priorities for Windows Phone, such as enabling controlled multi-tasking and enhancing local data storage capabilities.

The more of these expectations that Microsoft can meet, the more it can prove that it has a mobile strategy that's being executed effectively.

A growing number of experienced Windows developers are committing to the Windows Phone platform, provided Microsoft delivers on its initial promises.

"The Apple iPhone completely changed what you expect a UI to look like and work like," says Andy Wigley, co-founder of APPA Mundi Ltd., a Windows development shop in Birmingham, U.K., that specializes in mobile applications.

The then-existing Windows Mobile OS and its development tools suddenly looked "antiquated," he says. "We've been walking into sales opportunities [with corporate customers] and they want an iPhone-style mobile application, and we couldn't do that in Windows Mobile."

Wigley and two other developers who have been working with the initial versions of the OS and development tools shared with us what they like and dislike so far.

1. The ease of developing sophisticated mobile apps.

Unlike Windows Mobile, Windows Phone apps will be "managed code," applications that execute inside a runtime environment, either Microsoft Silverlight for most applications, and XNA Studio for advanced games. Both, along with the Visual Studio toolkit and Expression Blend, an application design tool, make for a powerful development environment.

"As I've been spending more time writing iPhone apps for clients and Windows Phone apps for my own education, the gap between how much easier it is to get something done on Windows Phone vs iPhone is widening," says Kevin Hoffman, chief systems architect with Oak Leaf Waste Management, East Hartford, Conn., and a Windows and iPhone development blogger and author.

Building a stock iPhone app is very easy, Hoffman says. But to customize it is a laborious process. Silverlight makes complex customization in Windows Phone 7 a snap.

It's an eye-opener for developers who struggled in the past with Windows Mobile development, where creating the UI could be "incredibly tedious," says Doug Boling, principal of Boling Consulting, Saratogo, Calif., and author of Programing Microsoft Windows CE.

"It's incredibly liberating for developers not to have to do this," he says. "With Silverlight, it's vastly easier to program for Windows Phone than it is to program for the iPhone."

2. Windows Phone 7 early stage immaturity.

The OS currently is what Microsoft calls a Community Developer Preview, not even beta code. Although developers are impressed with the quality of the code, there's some uncertainty due its relative immaturity.

"The biggest weakness from a developer standpoint is it doesn't seem like things have settled down yet," Hoffman says. "This is because it's not even a 1.0 product yet. So, as developers, we run the risk of having some areas that may change dramatically or may not even exist in the 1.0 version. Or that Microsoft is adding stuff and we don't get to play with it until 1.0 is released."

At the same time, Hoffman and others are impressed with the quality of code so far released. "I was impressed with how mature the first tools were," Wigley says. "The [Windows Phone] emulators are a great environment, and the overall development experience is positive."

3. A fragmented developer help system.

Boling is irritated by the new vogue of having help documents only on the Web, and by having these documents scattered across a diverse set of topics and sites: Silverlight, Windows Phone, Expression Blend and others. "It would be nice if they gathered up the help in one place," he says.

4. Some capabilities have gone missing in action.

Some developers are somewhat frustrated by not having access to some features they've had in the past, specifically multi-tasking and the underlying SQL Server Compact Edition database. For now, Microsoft is not allowing access to these.

"Enterprise customers have a specific requirement -- expose corporate data to their workers or customers in the field," Wigley says. Replicating data from servers to client device, for example, and then programming against the locally stored data was routine for Windows Mobile. "You can do this kind of thing in Windows Phone 7, but it's harder," Wigley says.

"I'm frustrated by the lack of access to PIM data -- contacts, calendar and mail, which can be so useful for building a truly integrated application," Boling says. "I hope applications will be able to access this data in future releases. We need more local access capabilities."

5. Microsoft's not-yet-announced online Windows Phone application marketplace.

Apple's wildly successful App Store shows what's possible and what's necessary for an online marketplace. The iPhone users now expect to be able to find, buy, download and easily install mobile applications, and for the entire process to be simple and seamless.

"What Microsoft has to do is make their marketplace as easy to use, or easier, than Apple's for both consumers and developers," Hoffman says. "I think that's crucial. And I think Microsoft knows how crucial it is."

All three developers caution that desktop experience with Silverlight or XNA won't translate into superior mobile applications without some careful thinking. "It's true that the PC and device development environments are quite similar across the two platforms, but the platforms themselves are not," Boling says. "One thing you don't have to worry about on a PC, for example, is performance. And the UI for an app when you're walking around is fundamentally different from when you're sitting on your butt."

"Windows Phone is powerful," Wigley says. "But it runs on a battery. Compared to a PC, it's effectively a slow computer. And the user interaction, with a smaller screen and touch-driven, is something you want to concentrate on."

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