In the same vein as many Symbian ^3 users, Microsoft’s Windows Phone has at least one or two updates every year and these are generally applicable to all devices. Thanks to the stringent hardware requirements placed on the phones themselves, you could go to any manufacturer who has one and know that you wouldn’t be missing out on a better software experience on another handset. Its the same idea that applies to the desktop market, but with the difference that Windows 7 on a low-end desktop and a higher-end one can feel drastically different. But that’s obviously not my focus for today.

Last month Microsoft previewed Windows Phone 8 to the world and I never quite caught up with the news to bring it to you, dear reader. But today I can and you’d best take this in before you go in for a closer look – if you have a device currently running Windows Phone 7.5, you can’t upgrade to Windows Phone 8. You need a whole new device for that. 

Microsoft showed off the OS and announced the updates and the new hardware requirements on the 20th of last month. As of today, six manufacturers have confirmed that they will have devices ready in time for launch; Nokia, Huawei, Samsung, HTC, ZTE and Acer have all confirmed that they are working on something. The latter two have confirmed that they’ll be merely following the trend, while the former four promise to have handsets ready for purchase almost right after the launch in order to drive sales.

When the launch will be is anyone’s guess, but I’d bet a good amount of jelly beans from Fruit and Veg that it will somewhat coincide with the release of Windows 8 on the desktop and for tablets in October this year. Reports have been floating around the net pointing at a November release which is about what I’d expect. It gives manufacturers time to put the finishing touches on their devices and time for Microsoft to work out any remaining kinks while smoothing out WP8 integration with Windows 8 on the desktop.

But there’s a general feeling of excited interest from the public and developers about the new software and I think only current owners who signed up for a WP7.5-packing device like a Lumia in the last year or so will feel the upgrade urge if they’re locked into a 24-month contract. But there’s something for those owners too, the details of which I’ll divulge below.

UPDATED HARDWARE SUPPORT AND A SHARED KERNEL

Microsoft’s patient argument against other offerings like Android and even RIM’s Blackberry OS 7.1 is that the hardware has been standardised so that the performance across all devices is similar. This is an ideal used by both Apple with iOS and Nokia with their earlier Symbian ^3 devices, all sharing the same hardware base and thusly creating a more efficient OS, since everything remains the same regardless of the handset you’re using and no further development is needed to create the same user experience on different handsets. Its the reason why a Nokia N8 user can’t really point a finger and laugh at someone brandishing a C6-01, because they’re both the same phones when you get under the skin.

An old infographic that showed how easy it actually is to find the one Windows Phone handset that suits you the most.

So lets get one thing straight. Because Android runs on a varying number of devices you can appreciate the fact that Gingerbread, for example, runs okay on a low-end Galaxy Ace but performs much more superbly on a Galaxy SII. Just like the fact that the Jelly Bean update runs fine on the Nexus S but lightning-quick on the Galaxy SIII, you can’t choose one Android handset over the other and expect the experience to be the same – there will be wildly varying differences.

Choosing a Windows Phone handset means you’re getting the same experience as other WP users running the same software. This means that that you only have to differentiate between screen size, battery life and a small number of other things without worrying that one app would work better on a higher-end phone. Crippling the experience just to fit into a lower price point isn’t something that any company should plan on doing, which is why with the Tango update to support devices with lower-end hardware, Nokia’s Lumia 610 is a great alternative to other phones in the same price range without crippling the experience too much, even with the lower RAM and slower CPU clocks.

This all changes (or gets more complex, you decide) with new hardware requirements for Windows Phone 8 devices. Microsoft has now added support in for new, more modern hardware, covering:

  • Multi-core processor support (Likely to be used for dual core devices, but support for quad-core, and beyond, processors is also included)
  • Additional screen resolutions (1280×768 and 1280×720 (i.e. 720p), in addition to the existing 480×800. Existing apps will not need to be updated, with the system automatically scaling them.)
  • MicroSD card support for external, removable storage (This will allow for easier transfers of media and other files to other devices – something users have wanted for ages!)
  • NFC (Near-Field Connect; used for accessing data and information from NFC tags, initiating wireless connections with other devices and enabling mobile payments.)

Its also a good thing to take note that Windows Phone 8 shares a kernel with the Windows 8 desktop OS and also the version of Windows 8 that runs on ARM-based devices. With a unified code base, its possible that Microsoft can patch the software vulnerabilities in the desktop OS and have that same hole filled up in the mobile one. Having some sort of integration between to two also works really well if they share some of the same code, so right off the bat Microsoft is aiming for a more unified software experience no matter which device you’re using.

PC-LESS SOFTWARE UPGRADES AND UPDATES, GLOBAL AVAILABILITY

Another grip users have is the inability to update your device without the Zune software installed on your desktop. You have to plug in the device and use the desktop software to manage it, from loading on videos and photos (the videos which have to be recoded) to managing updates and constantly clicking that “Check for Updates” button to see if there’s anything out for you yet.

Windows Phone 8 will now do over-the-air updates much like Nokia’s method with Symbian, requiring only a charger to be plugged in and a wireless signal with data available to do it. With a SD card, there’s a greater chance that you may never need to use the Zune software ever again, except for recoding those damn videos. Microsoft has also said that all devices will be supported for a minimum period of at least 18 months from release, indicating that the Redmond-based company hopes you’ll keep on upgrading to newer phones once your contract/s run out.

Early adopters of phones might also be allowed early access to newer software versions and upcoming updates, probably in some form of a beta software access program that one can sign into. Its a nice nod to users who have had to wait for ages with Android handsets for their updates because of manufacturer optimisations or network requirements. Windows Phone 8 will now also support 50 languages with the Marketplace available in more than 180 countries worldwide, a huge jump from the 60-odd ones currently being serviced.

INTERNET EXPLORER 10 IS THE SAME AS THE METRO EXPERIENCE

Microsoft’s stalwart, Internet Explorer, gets to appear on both Windows Phone and Windows 8 using the same underlying code for both systems. The new browser will bring along Microsoft’s anti-phishing protection, now labeled “Smart Screen”, to protect users from loading up malicious websites that have been identified by Microsoft. The anti-phishing technology was first seen in I.E. 7 and many users were worried and put on their “Internet Hero” badges with the expectation theat the company could use the technology to prevent users to visit websites from the company’s competitors, or block things like politically-motivated websites that the company didn’t agree with. This didn’t happen, but that won’t stop those original worry-warts from worrying some more.

The new browser will improve Javascript performance and will have better HTML5 support, something that I’ve been playing with myself in the last year. Somewhere on the internet are early benchmarks that suggested that the Javascript performance in the browser is actually better than the iPhone 4s with iOS6 and the Galaxy SIII with Android ICS – I’d take that with a pinch of salt for now, but it does sound promising.

However, as I’ll elaborate further when I have the next episode of my Windows 8 Analysis up later this week, I.E. 10 doesn’t fully support Flash-based websites. There is a version of Adobe Flash Player in the works for the Metro and desktop versions of the browser, but its unlikely that all websites will work as well as HTML5-based ones. Some food for thought for web developers and an early warning for those who make their living building Flash-based websites and browser-based programs or games.

ENHANCED MAPPING FEATURES AND BETTER NAVIGATION

Courtesy of the Nokia partnership, Windows Phone 8 will have the Nokia Where platform integrated into the OS, but it won’t be branded as such in the other handsets made by other manufacturers. One of the key reasons for choosing a Lumia device over any others is still the excellent free voice-guided navigation that has been the company’s lovechild since their acquisition of Navteq in 2007.

If you’re on a Symbian device, currently the Where platform is baked into the Maps application as the “Guides” option, which offers you information on the location you’re in with regard to shops, nearby ATMs and what’s happening locally. Currently the default software in WP7.5, “Local Scout” works really well if you live in any country that’s not in Africa, meaning that if Microsoft wants to service those 180-plus countries they’d better have some way of doing it well right off the bat – using the platform that took Nokia five years to perfect is probably the best way to go.

WALLET, TO KEEP OF TRACK OF HOW MUCH MONEY YOU DON’T HAVE

In keeping with the NFC update, Microsoft also decided to update the wallet functionality to help keep a track of all the little things you spend your money on. The Wallet can be used to keep track of debit and credit cards, retailer loyalty cards, boarding cards and other membership cards. There’s also support for secure payments, enabled via NFC and a secure element on the SIM, although this will require operator support.

Sadly the wallet is highly carrier-dependant if you’re thinking of using your airtime for mobile payments. All NFC payments have to be secure, regardless of whether they’re linked to your airtime or your bank account and I very much doubt our local networks are ready for this type of thing, considering the amount of time they spend bickering with each other and confusing the customer with the most ridiculous smartphone data plans on the planet (Cell C, you’re thankfully exempt from this).

Unlike other NFC methods, Microsoft’s officially supported method uses a secure element on the SIM card, which means that widespread adoption will become easier considering the ability is no longer fully baked into the phone itself. It also opens up a wide range of ways for your cell operator to charge you more money for using NFC, so keep an eye out on how things will roll before making your purchase of a WP8 handset. This also introduces the benefit that you can simply move your SIM card from phone to phone, using the same method of NFC payments so long as the same software is used in the other phones.

Considering how useful NFC tags are to handing out vouchers and coupons to visiting customers, there’s extra functionality in Wallet to support coupon and voucher hand-0uts. In the future, it’d be entirely possible to use FourSquare to check into a popular location by hovering over the NFC tag and the wallet notifies you that you now qualify for one free drink or meal from said establishment because you’ve used the NFC tag to check in. I like that kind of future.

THE START SCREEN BECOMES MUCH MORE FLEXIBLE

I’ve never much liked the original Windows Phone start screen since all the tiles are the same size and not all of them can be colour-coded, introducing some frustration to users who would have just like to customise their phone a little bit. The new Start screen does that and a whole lot more.

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 It not stretches and fulls up the whole screen and doesn’t have that ridiculous space-wasting sidebar to the right that lead you to the Applications list. You can now customise the size of tiles and their individual colours, much like the Metro interface on the Windows 8 OS. What’s displayed on the tile will depends on its size, with developers able to provide a different implementation for each tile size. For example the Messaging tile in a large size will scroll through a list of new messages, where as at medium and small sizes it will display a count of new messages.

Its a pretty big update for those of you who already have a Windows Phone and use the Start screen extensively. Its arguably a better setup than the Live Screens seen in Android and Symbian OS and may end up being more functional and efficient than both. Remember, the goal Microsoft had when starting development on the OS and the user experience in Windows Phone was to have all the information you needed either in front of you or a swipe away – this is pretty much fortifying that goal.

A BETTER ENTERPRISE EXPERIENCE WITH ANTI-THEFT MEASURES

In the last year and a bit that Windows Phone has been gaining ground, it has had some success in the enterprise market, particularly ones where Network Administrators felt that it wasn’t feasible rolling out iPhones, Android hansets or anything from the ailing company that is RIM. Windows Phone, especially the 7.5 update, improved security in enterprise environments and even introduced a few new features that could be governed by your Active Directory server. With Microsoft making a larger push into the cloud with Skydrive integration on the phones and a bigger focus on enterprise-friendliness, its no wonder other mobile manufacturers are looking at getting in on some of the action.

Thanks to the shared kernel, there’s both Secure Boot and Bitlocker Drive Encryption on-board, giving the device some much-needed security in the enterprise and business environments. You can also do things like remote-lock and remote-wipe of the phones but that’s a given for most handsets available today in one way or another. Applications are also sandboxed in a more efficient way and can be individually secured.

There’s also now a greater amount of software and security policies Active Directory admins can now use to manage the phones if they’re to be integrated into the existing network. This whole trend of people bringing their own devices to work is better-managed if its not a schlep making everything work right off the bat. Also present is the new Company Hub (pictured above), which provides companies with the ability to create a custom Windows Phone Hub for distributing line of business (LOB) apps, alerts and other corporate information. Microsoft will be providing templates and guidance to make it as easy as possible for companies to create their own branded experience of Windows Phone.

DEVELOPER NODS AND BETTER APPS ALL-ROUND

What was really a headache in the past was porting your apps in parts from a Windows desktop to your Windows Phone. Because things ran in the .NET framework there was some mucking about to be done to get everything working before you went into gold phase and the inevitable app submission (forumites on the Game.dev section on the NAG forums will surely agree). Moving to a shared kernel means that its now easier to port apps from one device to another and there’s also a shared native API set to abuse for your own benefit. Devs can, at their choosing, also create shared C++ components, shaving down the time to port an app from the phone to the desktop and vice versa.

In addition, the native C++ support heralds a big chance for the mobile OS to make further inroads to games on the platform. Its easier to share code between platforms like WP8 and iOS or Anrdoid, thanks to the C++ support and that means better multi-platform titles. For example, Microsoft announced that the gaming middleware engines Havok Vision Engine, Autodesk Scaleform, Audiokinetic Wwise, and Firelight FMOD, as well as native DirectX-based development, will be supported by Windows Phone 8. In effect, there will be three development options on Windows Phone 8: XAML with C#/VB code, native C++/C code and HTML 5 (through the browser, similar to the Boot to Gecko initiative).

Once submitted, apps are recompiled into machine code in the Marketplace’s cloud servers, simplifying the process further and bringing more performance improvements. Apps that were originally made for Windows 7.5 and the upcoming 7.8 will work flawlessly and will also be re-compiled by Microsoft to ensure the same performance improvements are felt and noticed by users. Apps can be paid-for or free, with Microsoft also promising that in-app payments will also be supported. A lot more tricks are hiding up the sleeves of the company which will only be apparent with the release of the updates Windows Phone SDK, which will probably hit at around the same time as the rest of the Microsoft software releases.

MULTI-TASKING AND FINALLY SHUTTING UP ANDROID USERS

There are still a couple of things that weren’t demoed by Microsoft, most notably any changes the company may or may not have made to multi-tasking in WP8. While that’s still something to be debated in future, there are signs that this has been changed as well. For example, Microsoft has announced that location-based apps like Nokia’s Drive will be able to run in the background, keeping you tracked and issuing you with voice commands while you’re doing something else or have the phone locked.

There will also be voice control for applications that support it, with improvements to the text-to-speech algorithm as well as better Speech APIs for voice control of the phone and its functions. In another demo, the company showed voice control with the Audible app, performing a search, starting and pausing playback of a pre-loaded video as well as skipping chapters, all using the power of the vocal cords you were born with.

Skype, now owned by Microsoft, showing deeper integration.

In addition, one area in which Nokia in particular always excelled was the use of VOIP to avoid high call charges your network operator might have levied on you. Microsoft showed better Skype integration with voice calling as a standard feature, suggesting that you may be chatting away on your data connection in future and avoiding those ridiculous per-minute billing charges we have to deal with. VOIP apps will be able to run in the background and there will be little difference between a VOIP call and a standard voice call, with the API available to all developers looking to make inroads into the VOIP market.

BUT WHAT ABOUT WINDOWS PHONE 7.5 USERS?

Well I’d have to say you guys won’t be getting all of the same updates – Microsoft rather has targeting existing users with the Windows Phone 7.8 upgrade they’ve got planned. The first thing you’d have to take in, though, is that apps and games targeted for Windows Phone 8 won’t work on 7.8, no matter how hard you try.

What you will still get is a few software and performance improvements that the company has yet to detail, in addition to also gaining the new Start screen to match those of newer handsets. Windows Phone 8 is a shift in technology and focus, but not one so far that you’ll be left out on the older platforms.

The biggest things you will be missing out on, though, are the NFC payments and the better games and apps designed for the upgraded hardware. You’ll still get games but the differences will be as pronounced as the Tegra 3-optimised games for Android that I showed you during CES 2012. But have no fear, because your phone will still work the day after and there will still be stuff for you to buy from the store and play with.

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