Microsoft today unveiled a revamped Windows Phone mobile OS that will share key core elements with Windows 8. It also revealed a much more customizable Metro user interface, and changes designed to make the OS more acceptable to corporate IT groups.
Windows Phone 8, when released later this year, will incorporate the same kernel, networking stacks, file systems, and other central components of Windows 8 for desktops, ultrabooks and tablets. Developers will be able to move applications between the both operating systems with very minimal changes, according to Microsoft executives.
Other developer benefits include being able to write one set of drivers that will function identically on both Windows 8 tablets and upcoming Windows Phone handsets.
For end users, the experience of shifting between a Windows Phone 8 handset and a Windows 8 tablet or notebook will be, for Metro style applications, consistent and familiar.
But current Windows Phone 7.5 users will not be able to upgrade to the full Windows Phone 8 release. Instead, Microsoft plans to roll out for these users a "7.8" release that will feature the most visible OS change: a revamped Start screen that gives users the abilities to dramatically change the size and colors of the distinctive Windows Phone tiles. With both versions of the OS, users will be able to shrink and expand tiles much larger and smaller sizes, or organize the layout of tiles as they see fit.
The first Windows Phone 8 handsets will be available later this year, worldwide, initially from HTC, Huawei, Nokia, and Samsung, according to Microsoft.
Microsoft finally will address an array of IT issues with Windows Phone, changes that may spur adoption of Windows Phone in the enterprise market. The new trusted Windows core components will be coupled with Microsoft's BitLocker data encryption and Secure Boot technologies. Enterprise will also be able to create and securely distribute their own Windows Phone apps, via a private cloud or internal apps "store" without having to make use of the online Marketplace site.
Finally, Microsoft says Windows Phone 8 will "support" mobile device management tools. There were no other details but it seems to mean either a new API that can be used by third-party mobile device management vendors or some sort of extensions that allow applications that manage Windows PCs to also manage Windows Phone handsets.
The next generation of Windows Phone devices will be the first with multi-core CPUs. The first crop of new devices this fall will be dual-core handsets on "next generation" Qualcomm silicon. Currently Windows Phone 7.5 supports one resolution, of 800 x 480 pixels. But the new OS version also add two high-definition screen resolutions: 720p (1280 x 720 pixels) and WXGA (1280×768). Existing Windows Phone 7.5 apps will run smoothly without any additional changes on the new phones, even on the higher resolution displays.
For the first time, Windows Phone developers will be able to write native apps, in C and C++ and use Microsoft's DirectX multimedia APIs. These capabilities will likely be first exploited by gamers writing sophisticated mobile games.
The new phones will also support built-in support for Near-field communications radio chips. But more importantly, Windows Phone 8 will add a new "hub" or group of applications, called "Wallet hub." Microsoft is offering an API that lets third-party developers integrate digital coupons, credit cards, debit cards, membership cards on the handset, all able to use an NFC-based connection to execute transactions. And in 2013, Microsoft and its carrier partners will be introducing support for a secure SIM card to encrypt and protect Wallet applications and transactions.
Microsoft will incorporate Nokia's Nokia Maps technology to support detailed local map data, offline map use, and turn by turn directions.
The SDK for Windows Phone 8 will be available "later this summer" according to Microsoft.
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.
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