When Nokia chose to embrace Windows Phone with open arms in February 2011, Microsoft needed Nokia more than Nokia needed Microsoft. A little over a year into the partnership, with Symbian being virtually killed off and MeeGo/Harmattan being non existant, Nokia needed Microosft to deliver like it has never before. For Nokia’s safe Microsoft needed to knock this one right out of the park.
Windows Phone 8 was finally announced at Microsoft’s Windows Phone Summit late yesterday night. This was a developer preview, a sneak peak to the platform changes that MS is bringing to Windows Phone, with more details about consumer centric features to follow.
In early January I did a post about 7 things Windows Phone needs to do better in 2012, and I am glad to say that most of them have been addressed. Windows Phone 8 infact is a whole new operating system, completely different from Windows Phone Mango. The only thing that really remains is the Metro UI, under the hood its a whole new ball game. It borrows a lot of code from Windows 8, and is based on the Windows NT kernel, shares common networking, security, media and web browser technology, and a common file system. Another thing that remains is the support for existing Windows Phone apps, all 100,000 of them, they will run unmodified on WP8.
But before we delve into what I think of WP8, here’s a quick rundown of the major improvements Windows Phone 8 brings.
- New Start screen: One slightly unexpected, but still very welcome move was MS redesigning the start screen. Putting huge tiles on the top of the screen just to receive notifications didn’t make sense. Now you can turn them into small icons that despite looking like icons on Android or iOS, still work like live tiles. If you choose you can also turn them into the gigantic blocks that were earlier reserved for the Pictures hub and Calendar. If third party developers put in slightly extra work, all three live tile sizes can have varying functionality depending on the screen real estate available to them.
- Multi-core processor support: Not dual-core, but multi-core. So going forward don’t be surprised if you see Windows Phone devices running on a quad-core chip. Although the keynote stated that the optimisations so far have been done with dual-core in mind, so don’t expect quad-core devices in 2012.
- Bigger, sharper screens: Windows Phone 8 supports two new screen resolutions—1280×768 and 1280×720. A feature Windows Phone 7.5 was sorely missing. I just hope that manufacturers choose to adopt the 1280×768 resolution that is wider than the 16:9 1280×720. Most of time you use the phone in the portarait mode and having a narrow yet tall display is no joy at all. Manufacturers should stick to 15:9 or slightly wider for phones and 4:3 for tablets.
- MicroSD support, file system access: During the keynote, the words ‘microSD as a delivery vehicle for music, apps etc’ were used. So you can swap microSD’s between phones, or to copy stuff from the PC. This means that the file system is finally visible to end users on Windows Phone. You should no longer be restricted to using Zune or something similar to sync your music across. Think Symbian, Android. Ideally, you should also be able to use the phone itself in the mass storage profile, similar to how Nokia’s other phones work. This will make a lot of people happy.
- NFC sharing & Wallet: Tap your phone to share photos, documents etc with another NFC enabled device. Cool, and something a modern smartphone should support. What is especially cool is that Microsoft is also bringing adhoc peer to peer WIFI support. So even if you’re in the middle of the desert and want to send a large video file to a friend, the phones will connect using NFC and create an adhoc WIFI network to share the file at speeds which are much faster than bluetooth. No word on whether you can share music this way, but hey, there’s always the option to swap the microSD. Then there’s the Wallet. It keeps keep debit and credit cards, coupons, boarding passes and when paired with a secure SIM from your carrier, you can also pay for things with a tap of your phone. It’ll take some time coming, don’t expect payments to work before 2013.
- Nokia Maps & Navigation for all: No longer a Nokia exclusive, but excellent news for the platform. The best part is that Nokia Maps now will also support offline access as well. Previously map data for Nokia Maps had to be downloaded online, while you could store maps for navigation in Nokia Drive.
- Cooler apps and games: Native code will go a long way in bringing better games, and more fluid apps to Windows Phone. Things will no longer run inside an emulator and along with better multitasking support, things like Skype, WhatsApp and other apps that need to stay alive in the background will perform much better.
- Improved bluetooth support: This phrase was thrown around, but not really commented upon. Given how used-to bluetooth sharing Nokia’s users have been, I’m almost certain that Nokia would have pushed Microsoft to support this functionality. If file system access and bluetooth sharing turns out to be present, which it seems to be, it’ll help shut a lot of critics up.
- Better Enterprise support: Not something the everyday user cares about, but MS has brought in device encryption, secure boot, remote management and a company hub to really make WP8 attractive to the enterprise market.
- Better update policies: MS clearly understands that they have burnt a lot of their existing users. To build a bridge, they are promising updates for ‘at least’ 18 months for every new WP8 device. So whoever buys a new Windows Phone is being assured that he/she won’t be thrown under the bus again. Next, updates will be delivered over the air. Excellent. Finally for all eager users who can’t wait for firmware updates, MS is creating a program that will give registered enthusiasts early access to updates prior to broad availability. Its a win-win for all, eager users get access to cool stuff early, and MS gets a ton of free beta testers.
This huge set of changes solves almost every problem I had with the platform. I hated seeing a splash screen everytime an app launched, but with better multitasking and native code that should become a thing of the past. Better push notifications for the platform will also help, and things like Skype and Whats App should now have a pretty seamless experience on Windows Phone. VOIP apps infact will work just like regular phone calls, deeply integrated. One thing I believe MS could still have implemented was a notification hub, and I’m still not sure if third party apps can show notifications on the lock screen now. The smaller live tiles do help, and the lack of a notification center will not be an issue for most people.
Now lets get to the bad news, albeit expected. The current generation Windows Phones will not be upgradeable to WP8. Instead they’ll be transitioned onto Windows Phone 7.8 that features the all new WP8 startscreen and a few other things that haven’t been announced. I wouldn’t expect anything major, but things like new accent colours for the tiles should make the cut. This is a major problem for Nokia. New Windows Phone 8 devices are at least 4 months away, and the obvious question is why would anyone buy a current genration Windows Phone? Devices like the Lumia 900 are still to launch in major markets like India, and its hard to justify buying a product which will be outdated before the end of the year. Nokia for their part are trying to bring as much value to the existing devices as they possibly can. Samsung or HTC have nothing to say when it comes to supporting their existing users.
Nokia will be introducing Marketplace apps like digital Camera Extras that brings panorama shots, a self-timer, action shot for capturing movement and smart group shot for creating the perfect group shot from several different images; new features for Nokia Drive and Nokia Transport; Contact Share to send contact information via Email and SMS, a Counter app to help you keep a track of your data usage, or voice calls, then there’s Play To for DLNA streaming, new Zynga games and updates like WiFi tethering and flip-to-silence. Firmware updates for the Lumia800 and 710 roll out on June 27.
Some of these apps are must haves and really bridge the functionality gap that Windows Phone Mango leaves, but will they be enough? Despite the Windows Phone 7.8 update existing Windows Phone devices will not have better multitasking or deep VOIP support and apps that are specially made for Windows Phone 8 won’t run on existing devices either. To be fair, there isn’t much that Nokia or any other manufacturer could have done. These problems stem from Microsoft’s shortsighted hardware requirements for Windows Phone Mango. Windows Phone 8 is made for dual core processors and upwards and porting the new kernel to a single core processor doesn’t make much sense.
Its not as if Windows Phone Mango/Tango is going away, mid end devices will still run the same OS, WP8 is high-end for now. There is a market for the current Lumias, but at a much lower price point. Post the official WP8 no-no from Microsoft, even the Lumia 900 cannot command a $600+ pricetag.
Now start the most excruciating three months that Nokia’s ever seen, Q3 will be brutal. But fortunately there is light at the end of the tunnel. Windows Phone 8 has everything that a modern day smartphone should have – high performance specs, flexibility (NFC sharing, microSD support), great social integration, ability to support killer graphics and multitasking. With Nokia’s design and superior optics (plus the Scalado magic) we could really see Nokia’s first real Windows Phone hurrah!
Nokia World is slated for September 5-6, 2012. But unlike previous years, this one is invitation-only and will ‘cater primarily to our operator and retail partners‘. But since media presence isn’t mentioned, I’m not sure Nokia is willing to publicly show off its first Windows Phone 8 devices by then. But when they do decide to lift the curtains, the launch must be global. Unlike the Lumia 800 or 900 roll-out. The devices must ship the day of the keynote, across the world and on all major carriers. Its a tough ask, but its close to make or break time for Nokia.
Nokia, I’m looking for a 4.3″ 1280 x 768 display, at least a N8 level camera if PureView for Windows Phone isn’t ready by then, dual-core, 1800 mAh or bigger battery and a Lumia 900 like design. Of course with goodies like NFC etc built-in. Should be easy enough. Bring on Q4 then.