Microsoft made two big announcements this week.
On June 18, it unveiled Surface, a pair of Windows tablets built by Microsoft in-house; the devices come with kickstands and covers that double as keyboards, allowing users to convert them into laptops. The Surface tablets will run Windows 8 (backed by a third-generation Intel Core processor) and Windows RT (a version of Windows developed for ARM processors).
On June 20, Microsoft whipped the curtain back from Windows Phone 8, the upcoming iteration of its smartphone platform. Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 share a kernel, file system, graphics support, and other elements. That will allow developers to port apps from Windows 8 to Windows Phone 8; moreover, those same developers will have the ability to code natively in C and C++, with additional support for gaming middleware such as Autodesk Scaleform and Havok Vision Engine.
That native code capability is a huge change from the Windows Phone 7 development environment, which was centered on Silverlight. “We knew that the long-term plan was Windows 8,” Greg Sullivan, Windows Phone senior project manager, said in an interview the day after the Windows Phone 8 announcement. “If we’d implemented native code in [Windows Phone 7.x], we wouldn’t have had binary compatibility; we would have had to do a lot of emulation work. Windows Phone 7 apps were abstracted from the underlying layer.”
Windows Phone 8 sharing a core with Windows 8, he added, means that smartphone developers have a platform that will extend into the foreseeable future: “This puppy’s good for the long haul.”
Windows Phone 7.x apps will run on Windows Phone 8, although current Windows Phone 7.x devices won’t have a similar ability to run apps designed for the next-generation platform. “We wanted to ensure that new users would have access to all the applications,” Sullivan said. However, “when you evolve a platform, you can’t take all the functionality downstream.”
“Continue to Invest in the Platform”
For those who purchased a Windows Phone 7.x device, the Windows Phone 8 presentation contained some bad news: their smartphone won’t be upgraded to Windows Phone 8. The consolation prize is Windows Phone 7.8, due later this year, which will give older Windows Phone devices some of the bells and whistles of Windows 8: for example, the ability to adjust the size of the colorful tiles that compose the Windows Phone home-screen.
Sullivan declined to say whether Windows Phone 7.x would be upgraded beyond version 7.8. He was more forthcoming about Microsoft’s decision to announce Windows Phone 8 months ahead of its probable release date; while in theory that might dissuade customers from purchasing a new Windows Phone device, reasoning that Windows Phone 8 will make it somewhat obsolete, the company nonetheless needed to seed the ground for third-party developers: “This is about preparing our ecosystem.”
Hardware Partners, Or Soon-To-Be-Subsidiaries?
Meanwhile, he suggested that investment in the Windows Phone platform by Microsoft’s hardware OEMs will continue into the future. But that doesn’t mean Microsoft will necessarily buy one of those OEMs in order to manufacture its own smartphones in-house. “No plans,” he said. “We’re excited about working with our hardware partners.”
Rumors have drifted around for some time that Microsoft could purchase Nokia, which has thrown its whole corporate weight behind Windows Phone. And even if Microsoft didn’t swoop in to purchase a flailing OEM, it could still build its own hardware in-house, similar to what Google did with the Nexus One. In any case, Microsoft’s decision to handle both the hardware and software sides of its Surface project has sections of the blogosphere chattering that Windows Phone could be next on the list for Microsoft’s newfound hardware religion.
However, that doesn’t seem to be Microsoft’s focus at the moment. For the moment, it’s all about selling the supposed benefits of Windows Phone 8, with its multicore support and new features such as Near-Field Communication (NFC). Whether or not those features will be enough to put Microsoft in true competition with Apple’s iOS and Google Android, it’s clear the company is making a huge bet with its shared-core initiative.