Microsoft downplays Windows Phone 7 at TechEd conference

Microsoft execs offer a few more details on Windows smartphone technology; but key questions remain

Microsoft's radically redesigned mobile OS, Windows Phone 7, played only a supporting role at the vendor's yearly TechEd conference. Executives only talked about some changes to the online applications catalog and a few reasons why enterprises will want to adopt the new platform.

At its annual TechEd conference this year, Microsoft gave its new mobile operating system, Windows Phone 7, only a supporting role to play. The company offered only a few more details about its new online Marketplace site for Windows Phone applications, and about OS features aimed at enterprise users.

The top 6 enterprise issues for Windows Phone 7

The low-key approach may have deflected straight-up comparisons with Apple's annual Worldwide Developer Conference, where CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone 4 running the iOS 4 firmware, which offers a range of features such as controlled application multitasking that are currently lacking in Windows Phone 7. Handsets with Microsoft's radically redesigned mobile operating system are not due until the 2010 "holiday season" and Microsoft this week didn't make the time frame any more specific.

The real focus of TechEd, which this year drew some 6,000 IT professionals and software developers to New Orleans, was extending the security, reliability and functionality of its Windows Azure platform, to enable enterprise data centers to accelerate the shift of behind-the-firewall enterprise systems to the cloud.

Windows Phone 7 was notably missing from the celebration of the cloud. Microsoft executives used the event to talk about two areas: Windows Phone Marketplace, a redesigned online site for finding, buying, and downloading Windows Phone applications; and how the initial release of Windows Phone devices will fit into enterprise requirements.

Yet Microsoft missed the chance to guide developer and enterprise expectations around other key areas of Windows Phone 7.

There was no word on when real handsets will be available to developers for testing applications, nor on when beta versions of the OS and some key development tools will be released. The release timeframe for when companies like HTC, LG, and others will unveil and release handsets running Windows Phone 7 remains frustratingly vague: "the holiday season" and "fourth quarter." Microsoft hasn't been willing to talk about a road map for future Windows Phone development priorities, or even for enterprise-specific features.

Windows Phone and the enterprise

Windows Mobile was designed from the outset to create a unique, intuitive "mobile experience" for users, with the focus being on consumers. The assumption is that many of these same people will want to use such a mobile platform for business as well.

At this point, for business users, Microsoft executives are emphasizing the platform's tight integration with Exchange and SharePoint, an integration designed specifically to be easy and simple for mobile users, and its built-in security.

The Office Hub on the phone features a suite of mobilized versions of Microsoft Office applications like Word. The OS is tightly integrated with Microsoft Exchange in-box, calendar and contacts. And there's a local client app that ties into SharePoint Server.

Instead of creating a Web interface to SharePoint, the phone's SharePoint WorkGroup Client is an application that supports SharePoint documents offline, and synchronizes with the SharePoint server.

"You don't do as much offline on a phone" compared to a PC, says Paul Bryan, a senior director of product management with Microsoft's mobile communications business. "You want more viewing than editing, and [to] keep in synch with the latest [document] version on a server."

Microsoft also has high hopes for OneNote, an existing note-taking application that executives insist will prove highly popular with Windows Phone users.

When Microsoft migrates its hosted Business Productivity Online Suite to the support Exchange Server 2010 and SharePoint 2010, Windows Phone will be able to work with the Suite via Outlook Mobile in a browser and the Office Hub.

Windows Phone security starts with Microsoft's platform security design practices, which it developed for Windows 7. The OS itself sandboxes the managed code applications, meaning each one runs in its own "space" unable to access other applications or parts of the OS. SSL protects e-mail exchanges. The device itself can be protected by a password and PIN combination. The mobile version of Internet Explorer, new for Windows Phone 7, will not run applications, according to Bryan.

The online apps catalog

Windows Phone Marketplace is intended to bring in many more software developers than the older Windows Phone platform. It will be open for business "later this summer," says Todd Biggs, Marketplace's director of product management. At TechEd, Microsoft released a set of documents on various Marketplace policies and guidelines, covering application and content policies, the application certification process, and how Microsoft will handle refunds. 

The new mobile OS runs only what are called managed code applications, which require the runtime environment of either the Microsoft Silverlight framework, for most applications, or Microsoft XNA Studio, for games. Both frameworks and their attendant toolsets have been widely adopted, and Microsoft is betting that developers with expertise in either will jump at the opportunity to develop for Windows Phone. Applications can also be built using Microsoft's full-featured integrated development environment, Visual Studio 2010, and the just-released Expression Blend 4, which is an application design toolset.

Windows Phone 7 includes a Marketplace "hub" – a dedicated area that's tightly integrated with the online site. Users flick through the handset's touchscreen to reach the hub, and can see the newest apps, a featured app, search based on various criteria, and pay for and download apps directly with their phone. No additional software is needed.

Applications submitted to Marketplace will go through a testing and certification process. According to Biggs, Microsoft will load the app on an actual Windows Phone handset and then run a series of technical tests to ensure the app is well-behaved, such as using memory effectively, not interfering with the phone's functions, and has no malicious code.

There will be a review of the application's content. "We check that there's not offensive content," says Biggs, based on criteria set out in the content guidelines.

Any problems, questions, or issues are flagged and Microsoft Marketplace support staff will contact the submitting developer to review, work through and correct the code. "We don't just auto-reject an app," Biggs says. "We tell the developer what in particular is the issue so they can address it. We got a lot of feedback that this is important to developers."

Biggs declined to say how much Microsoft has invested in this kind Marketplace support, or how large the support staff is.

As in the past, developers will pay a $99 annual registration fee, though bona fide students can now register free. Microsoft has dropped the fee for paid applications: developers can submit as many paid apps as they want at no charge. Developers can submit up to five free apps at no additional charge, with each annual registration, but pay $20 for each one thereafter.

(Student developers that register with Microsoft DreamSpark, which is a site designed to give students free access to Microsoft tools and other resources, can enroll for free at Marketplace, entitled to the same unlimited paid and five free apps as regular developers.)

Other new features in Marketplace:

- the Trial API, which lets developers easily offer customers a trial run of their app, before buying it.

- a "worldwide distribution" option, which lets you submit an app once and then have it distributed in any foreign market where Marketplace itself is offered.

- a wider choice of business models: free apps, free with ads, one-time purchase, and "premium," which starts with a trial that can be converted into a purchase.

The revenue sharing formula, with developers keeping 70% of each sale, remains unchanged.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.


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