Microsoft's Windows Phone 8: First step to a consistent Windows across all platforms

Microsoft announces sweeping changes to the Windows Phone platform; unifies tablet, smartphone, and desktop kernels and in the process positions the company for huge growth in the mobile sector.

This has been a banner week for Microsoft. On Monday the company announced its Surface line of tablet PCs, to mostly positive reactions, and today Redmond went ahead and shook up the smartphone market. At the Windows Phone Summit in San Francisco, Microsoft announced that the next iteration of Windows Phone—aptly named Windows Phone 8—will be based on the Windows NT kernel, unifying the company’s smartphone, tablet, and desktop operating systems. Although much different than Windows Mobile, previous iterations of Windows Phone were based on the scaled-down Windows CE kernel.

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Unifying their smartphone, tablet, and desktop operating systems is a big deal. No, it’s a huge deal. Not only does it mean that Windows Phone will benefit from the many years of performance optimizations and features of the NT kernel, like an excellent scheduler that scales well on multi-core processors, but it will simplify software development for hardware manufactures writing drivers and programmers working to bring their apps to all of Microsoft’s platforms. With Windows Phone 8, app developers will also be able to use C++ core natively, whereas they were limited to Visual Basic .NET or C# with previous versions of Windows Phone. Microsoft did not go into detail, but it’s likely developers will also be able to use many of the same APIs currently available for Windows, like DirectX, for example.

In addition to the NT kernel, many new features are coming to Windows Phone 8. When the new OS and requisite new devices hit the scene sometime in the fall, they will have full support for multi-core processors, Near Field Communication (NFC), and WXGA (1280x768) and 720p resolutions, over and above the 800x480 of current Windows Phone devices. These new capabilities should allow Microsoft and its partners to offer phones with specifications on par with, or better than, competing devices running Android. In fact, Microsoft claimed the move to using the NT kernel with Windows Phone should allow them to more quickly support new hardware as it becomes available. There’s also an updated Start screen that makes better use of available screen real-estate and gives users the ability to resize any of the “live” tiles.

The Live tiles on Windows Phone 8’s Start screen can be configured in three pre-set sizes.

Another bit of good news is that Microsoft is going to allow for end-user Windows Phone updates. Carriers will still have some control over updates, but phones will only alert users when an update for their particular device is actually ready to download. For those who don’t want to wait on their carrier’s approval, however, Microsoft will be offering downloads to update Windows Phone devices manually. This is great news for enthusiasts (like me) who like to experiment with different ROMs on their devices or just keep them on the bleeding edge. The development community is sure to appreciate the speedier availability of updates as well.

It’s not all sunshine and roses, however. Current Windows Phone owners are going to be left out in the cold—for the most part. The current crop of Windows Phones will not be receiving updates to Windows Phone 8. Most devices already running Windows Phone 7.5 will likely be receiving an update to Windows Phone 7.8, but the only major change coming with the 7.8 release that Microsoft has mentioned is the new Start screen. It is very likely that other Windows 8 features will be integrated into the 7.8 update as well, but there’s nothing concrete to report at this time. It’s possible that Windows Phone 7.8 will incorporate some or all of the software-only features that will be compatible with existing hardware, but any updates that are hardware dependent obviously won’t be coming to older phones. What this means for app compatibility in the long term also remains to be seen, but I’d bet that a swathe of Windows Phone 8-only apps are inevitable.

What all of this means is that Microsoft is one step closer to offering end-users a consistent experience across any device running a Microsoft operating system. Although that may not mean much at this particular moment in time, it could have an immense impact in the future. Microsoft is in the unique position to offer consumers a familiar and easy-to-use interface across their desktop systems, tablet PCs, smartphones, and even their televisions if you take the Xbox 360’s media playback capabilities into consideration. I think that’s going to be a key selling point for Microsoft in the coming years and could woo a ton of potential customers.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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