'Many thousands' of pre-release Windows Phone 7 handsets prepped for developers

But Microsoft won't yet go into details on how developers should apply or how they'll be evaluated

Microsoft is getting set to hand out in July 'many thousands' of pre-release phones running the Windows Phone 7 OS, for testing and refining what it hopes will be a flood of applications. But the company so far has left details scarce and confusion reigns.

Microsoft is confirming that "many thousands" of pre-release Windows Phone 7 handsets will be given to selected developers starting in July, but confusion over how that will be done continues.

At its TechEd conference earlier this month, Windows Phone 7 played a minor role compared to the emphasis on cloud computing. Microsoft's Terry Myerson, who runs engineering for Windows Phone 7, told his audience at one session that the pre-release phones for testing applications will be available in July. But since then, there's been almost no elaboration on the process or criterion for selecting developers.

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Developers are trying to fill in the blanks on their own. "My understanding is the only developers who are eligible for these pre-release devices are those who have published Windows Mobile 6+ applications" on the existing Windows Mobile online catalog, says Kevin Hoffman, blogger and author of several books on Windows development. He's also chief systems architect for a waste management company in Connecticut.

Microsoft's overall intent, at least, is clear: deliver the pre-release phones to developers -- from big independent software vendors to one- and two-man software shops, including game creators -- who are seriously investing in, and working with, the current pre-beta code and developer tools for Windows Phone 7.

Having functional handsets on which to load, test and debug Windows Phone 7 applications is critical to many though not all developers. Today, they use a well-regarded emulator program, which is included in the various Windows Phone developer tools, and which runs on a Windows PC. The emulator mimics the phone, including the touch interface. But for designing and fine-tuning a touch application for the radically redesigned mobile OS, there's no substitute for a real phone.

These phones "won't be final build quality -- they are meant for testing and readiness for the [Windows Phone] Marketplace opening later this year," according to a blog post by a Microsoft employee, Brandon Watson, who describes his role as "currently responsible for the Developer Experience team for Windows Phone 7." Unlocked phones for developers will be offered for purchase later this year, after the initial launch of Windows Phone 7 and the first crop of handsets running it, expected this Fall.

As of this writing, no formal announcement of the phone sharing program has been posted to the official Windows Phone blog (in fact, nothing has been posted there since June 7), nor to the main Windows Phone developer site. But a PR spokeswoman said Watson will post some details and clarifications Thursday or Friday on the Windows Phone developer blog.

In a statement this week from a spokeswoman, Microsoft would only say:

"Builds of Windows Phone 7 on prototype hardware have progressed to the point that we will begin sharing test devices with developers in July to further help them create exciting apps and games for Windows Phone 7. Devices will be shared on a limited basis with developers who are engaged in projects with Windows Phone Developer Tools. Eligibility will be determined on a case-by-case through Microsoft's Windows Phone and Developer Evangelist organizations. We'll provide more details about device sharing over the coming weeks."

As it stands, the statement says almost nothing concrete after the first sentence, which in any case simply confirms what Myerson said in person at TechEd. For example, will developers who are deemed "eligible" actually receive a phone or be placed into a group of developers who will then go through another round of winnowing? It also seem to suggest that two separate organizations, Windows Phone engineering and the Developer Evangelist group, will be separately considering applications.

Some additional details, and confusion, were sewn in two additional posts, both by Microsoft's Brandon Watson. The most recent post appeared Monday, June 14, in yet another Windows Phone site, the MSDN Windows Phone Forum. In this post, Watson says that "orchestrating this sort of thing is quite challenging" but doesn't give any details. "We are still in the process of putting the final touches to each of our programs which will enable developers to get devices, so the only thing I can ask is to be patient," he wrote.

Watson makes clear that phone requests will be sifted. "Simply asking for a phone won't be enough...we are looking for committed developers who can demonstrate that they are building real apps," he wrote.

In a June 8 posting from TechEd to his personal blog, Watson outlined what Microsoft means by "committed developers". "[W]e're starting with the developers who have invested in the Silverlight and .NET platforms, registered at Windows Phone Marketplace and have begun building apps with the Windows Phones Developer Tools," he wrote then.

In neither post does he clarify what Microsoft means by a "real app."

Elsewhere Watson suggests, vaguely, that the goal of the shared phone program is to "optimize for developers doing app development." He suggests that two possible selection criteria, also vague, are having a "great idea and…showing progress."

Although the decision on passing out phones will be made by the Windows Phone and Developer Relations groups, Watson says that "your local field [developer?] evangelist" is the person who "will be responsible for actually getting phones to developers." That seems to imply that the local evangelist is handling the phone delivery logistics.

Oddly, Watson encouraged developers to contact him if they were interested in getting a pre-release phone, but at first wouldn't post his e-mail. Instead he encouraged those following him in Twitter to track down his e-mail: @edyg023 how do you get my email? Not that hard to find...that's the first gate to #wp7 goodness. :). Another follower was told: "@MartinPlante don't feel stupid because you can't find my email...get creative! :) But the usual patterns will lead you astray..."

The only problem is that there is another "B. Watson", Ben, at Microsoft, as well as another Brandon and both were flooded with e-mail requests. Finally, one follower, @justinangel, accused the "right" Watson of being a smart ass. Watson replied: "@JustinAngel Wasn't trying to be a smart ass at all. To save Ben some pain on unnecessary emails, my corp email is brwatson@microsoft 

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