Yesterday evening, Microsoft Germany hosted a press event in Munich where it followed-up the MIX10 announcements from last week. For sure, the highlight was Microsoft's upcoming Windows Phone 7 Series smartphone platform but Microsoft also provided some insights of its updated Silverlight platform which became even more interesting now after Windows Phone 7 Series uses Silverlight as one of its development environments as well as of the upcoming Internet Explorer 9. According to Microsoft, it's MIX10 conference was a full success as it was the biggest MIX event ever and you have to keep in mind that Microsoft unveiled its schedule last minute - after any early bird discounts.
Anyway, back to yesterday evening and Windows Phone 7 Series. During the presentation, Microsoft again confirmed the Windows Phone 7 Series hardware requirements which are:
- a 4 or more contacts point capacitive WVGA (480 x 800) or HVGA (320 x 480) touchscreen
- a 5 megapixel or higher camera with flash-light and dedicated camera button
- start, search back buttons
- aGPS, accelerometer, compass, light and proximity sensors
- common detailed multimedia specifications with codec and DirectX 9 acceleration
- at least 256 MB RAM and 8 GB flash ROM
- ARM-based Cortex/Scorpion or better CPUs
And while it's irrelevant for both - end-users as well as developers - Microsoft again confirmed that Windows Phone 7 Series is running on top of Microsoft's latest Windows CE version Windows CE 6 - unlike today's Windows Mobile smartphones which still run on Windows CE 5.
Unfortunately, Microsoft again confirmed that Windows Phone 7 Series will neither support expandable memory, namely micro SD cards, nor will it features an accessible file system. This means a user is pretty much locked down into the device memory - if no cloud services (like Microsoft Live Mesh) are used as well as it's impossible to access any content through USB (for instance for listening music on a PC rather than on the device or viewing on the device stored photos on a PC). Microsoft's Zune software is the one and only way to access any device content.
The second part of the presentation was about the radical changes for developers. Unlike all previous versions of Windows Mobile, which allowed to either run native code (such as C#) or managed code (such as .NET), Windows Phone 7 Series will only allow to run managed code (either Silverlight or XNA) and developers won't be able to develop anything in native code anymore!
While Microsoft's Silverlight is expected to be used for the majority of Windows Phone 7 Series applications, Microsoft's XNA is the preferred environment for high-performance 2D and 3D games which enables developers to easily port games between Windows, Xbox, Windows Phone 7 Series (and Zune HD).
For the end-suder, both technologies aren't anything new - most might have seen Silverlight embedded videos on websites and Xbox users have played XNA games already. Nevertheless, in the first step Microsoft will not provide a Silverlight plug-in for Internet Explorer Mobile which actually means that it will be still impossible to watch videos on websites which are using Silverlight instead of Adobe's Flash technology (for instance Microsoft's MIX10 website which used Silverlight for live streaming the MIX10 keynotes).
Anyway - for the end user this model of only two supported managed code frameworks has advantages and disadvantages. One of the advantages is that users can expect way more robust and consistent applications for Windows Phone 7 Series devices, following a consistent user experience.
A drawback might be the limitation of possible applications. For instance this morning Mozilla announced to set its Firefox Mobile developments on hold because Microsoft is only featuring managed code but Mozilla requires to run native code. Another - yet not answered - question is (just as an example) if this managed code will allow to run 3rd party soft-keyboards rather than the original QWERTY keyboard only.
Nevertheless, doesn't matter if an application was developed with Silverlight or XNA, the only way to install it on a Windows Phone 7 Series device is to download it from Microsoft's new and upcoming Windows Phone Marketplace which is based on today's Windows Mobile Marketplace for Mobile, not on the Zune Applications Marketplace. Microsoft isn't allowing any side-load installation which means that programs can't be downloaded from a website - as possible with today's Windows Mobile smartphones.
After an application was developed and debugged, it needs to be submitted to Microsoft for validation and certification before it will be available to download from the Windows Phone Marketplace. And Microsoft is following other examples where it has pretty strict requirements what an application is allowed to do/show or not (think about porn-stuff). However, and that's a major difference, Microsoft is providing developers a clear guideline and therefore - if once approved - the developer of a certain application doesn't have to fear to get the app removed later for some uncertain reasons.
In terms of the validation and certification process, Microsoft talks about a couple of days/weeks - not about months - so an application should make it to the Marketplace pretty fast. Quite comparable to other market places out there is the revenue-share where Microsoft is giving 70 % to the developer and keeping 30 % for itself. That's not bad at all, especially if you keep in mind that all required development tools (namely Microsoft Expression Blend for Windows Phone and Microsoft Visual Studio 2010 Express for Windows Phone) are now available free of charge, unlike the professional Windows Mobile development tools which were pretty expensive!
Furthermore developers are able to offer a commercial application as a trial version - by offering one single application. Such an application can be either downloaded as a function-limited or time-bombed trial version or as a full version. The end user clearly benefits from this approach since every application will be available in the market one time only and the end user can decide which version he wants to download. This should keep the Marketplace clean and easier to browse through.
Microsoft's new Windows Phone 7 Series is different from anything Windows Mobile which we have seen before. Interesting enough it's way closer to the late 90's Windows CE Palm-sized PCs (P/PC) or Handheld PCs (H/PCs) or early 2000 Pocket PCs instead where Microsoft also required a set of hardware and design features - Microsoft gave up later for the benefit of more competition and wider differentiation. And differentiation is a good keyword: Yet I'm not exactly sure how hardware manufactures will be able to differentiate from each other. Sure, hardware can be designed different - some with and some without hardware keyboards but at the end of the day the requirements will make all devices pretty similar. This shouldn't be a disadvantage for the end user but it reduces hardware manufactures (and the brands) to ODMs. But anyway - that's a topic manufactures and carriers have to think about - not consumers.
For consumers, Windows Phone 7 Series brings many advantages - as well as a couple of disadvantages. First of all the new - so called Metro design which is fresh and different. That's good and Microsoft worked really hard to have a real restart! And I'm also a big fan that Microsoft has broken with any backward capability since only such a dramatic restart allows to build something new and different. And as it looks like, Microsoft has engaged enough developers already to be part of the new Windows Phone platform (see my previous column "THOUGHT: What does Windows Phone 7 Series need to have a Head Start?").
On the other hand, we will lose some old friend be became cozy with during the past years. For instance the lack of cut & paste, the possibility to install all kind of applications from any website or the simple USB access to our photos, videos and music. While cut & paste might be a software update only, to enable it in a later version of Windows Phone 7Series again, the lack of side-load is by design and I hardly expect Microsoft will change this design anytime soon again. Only time will tell if the benefit of a brand new and different platform will excuse the lack of features but it's clear that Microsoft has to work hard to convince old-time Windows Mobile users.
Anyway - Windows Phone 7 Series still looks promising enough for me that I'm still looking forward to it launch in the second half 2010. But then it has to prove that it was worth to wait all the years!
Cheers ~ Arne