For Windows Phone users, the world is a different place today.
Microsoft’s announcements at yesterday’s Windows Phone Summit brought some welcome news to some current and prospective users of the platform: Windows Phone 8 will arrive in time for the holiday season, and it’s bringing with it the sort of improvements you’d expect from a major point upgrade. The new version appears poised to correct many of the weaknesses of its predecessor, and it’ll be bringing some fun and useful new capabilities to boot.
While the Microsoft announcement was going on, I was fully immersed in the US Samsung Galaxy S III launch event, so I could only follow the news via fleeting glimpses at my Twitter feed. Having used a Windows Phone as my daily driver for much of last fall, I was excited by many of the new features, in particular the new Start screen and support for higher-resolution displays. Neither of those were a surprise; in fact not much of the “Windows 8 preview” was, given what we were expecting.
One thing, however, caught my attention. When I shared the news with a neighbor, we both raised our eyebrows.
Of course, this wasn’t a surprise either. For months, the rumor mill had been pretty consistent in smacking down any speculation that current devices would get the Windows Phone 8 upgrade. Still, it’s one thing to entertain speculation, and quite another to see the announcement in black and white. And as you’re probably aware, Windows Phone users as a group have a tendency to be rather … vocal. So I figured this “7.8″ business wasn’t going to go over terribly well.
The crux of the beef is this: Microsoft’s new operating system, Windows Phone 8, has more advanced capabilities and won’t be available until the fall. When it launches, it will require new, as-yet-unannounced hardware. No current hardware, including the vaunted Nokia Lumia line, has the necessary horsepower to run the new OS. Yet Microsoft continues to sell its existing WP7 devices even as the fuse burns down to their extinction.
Of course, that’s the case with any fast-moving industry. Mobile technology is notorious for going stale the minute you leave the store with it. But that’s the nature of the landscape. Older products enjoy quite a comfy home on retail shelves everywhere. After all, the iPhone 4 and even the iPhone 3GS are still offered for sale alongside the newer iPhone 4S, despite their aging feature sets. It would be the height of absurdity to suggest that a manufacturer stop pushing its existing product line just because an improved one is on the horizon; advancement and evolution would stop dead in their tracks.
So it’s not a protest against evolution that I’m seeing in the comments across the internet – at least not in the reasonable ones. And Microsoft has obviously given thought to covering its bases where existing users are concerned; Windows Phone 7.8 looks to provide the maximum equivalency to Windows Phone 8 possible, given the current device generation’s less-capable hardware.
The biggest complaints I see, and the ones that give me the most pause, concern the shift in the platform’s foundation. Specifically, Windows Phone 8 is being built on the NT kernel, a characteristic it shares with its desktop-and-tablet sibling, Windows 8. While that offers some advantages like ease of application development across multiple Windows platforms, it also means that developing for Windows Phone 8 is a whole different ball game than for WP7. If the transition isn’t adroitly managed, Microsoft could find itself with a developer base focusing almost entirely on building apps for WP8, leaving the WP7 app ecosystem to wither on the vine.
That doom-and-gloom forecast is a pretty unlikely scenario, though, as Microsoft made a point of saying that all 100,000+ WP7 apps will be able to run just fine inside WP8. This is a sloppy analogy because I’m not a developer, but this transition reminds me a little of Palm’s shift from the Mojo to the Enyo development framework over the course of webOS’ lifetime. The change was significant and not without its challenges, but it didn’t stunt the growth of Palm’s App Catalog (such as it was, anyway). Considering how motivated Microsoft is to make Windows Phone a success, I fully expect the transition to go even more smoothly in this instance.
But broad corporate predictions aside, what does this path mean for the individual user? I carried the Lumia 900 for a while and I really enjoyed my time with it. If it still served as my daily driver, how would I feel about yesterday’s announcement? Disappointed? Sure, a little. Left out? A tad. But alienated or angry? No, absolutely not.
Windows Phone 7.8 will bring everything possible to existing Windows Phone devices, including support for the most obvious visual enhancement: the new Start Screen with its three tile sizes and color customization options. Other enhancements are still unclear at this early stage, but much of the improvement in Windows 8 is hardware-dependent. Dual-core processors, NFC capabilities, and higher-resolution displays aren’t features you can download in an over-the-air update. As I mentioned earlier, rapid hardware development is the name of the game when it comes to mobile technology. And even the average consumer realizes this.
So all this “slap in the face” rhetoric needs to stop. Redmond didn’t stab anyone in the back, and it didn’t betray its customers. It’s just doing what companies do: it’s moving forward. I’m not in the habit of apologizing for Microsoft: I think a lot of these enhancements and improvements are significantly overdue. But with Windows Phone 8, the company is taking the steps it needs to take to evolve its product. It’s doing the right thing by porting as many of the improvements as possible to a special version for its existing customers, giving them as close to a WP8 experience on their WP7 devices as possible. “When you pull that Lumia out of your pocket after you’ve received that 7.8 update,” Microsoft’s Greg Sullivan told The Verge, “it will look and feel the same as a Windows Phone 8 device.”
The company is even being more honest about it than some of its competitors, giving the interim package a partial-point bump only. Apple doesn’t do that: even though each major OS iteration advertises a full-point increase, the software doesn’t deliver a constant experience across multiple device generations. My older device runs a different version of iOS than your newer device, even though both are called “iOS 5.” That’s stupid. Given the choice, I prefer Microsoft’s approach.
All in all, the situation isn’t ideal, but it’s not the doomsday-bringing flame tornado that so many seem to think it is. Even a few months after its release, and even in the face of all the controversy, I still recommend the Lumia 900 to my smartphone-seeking friends on AT&T. From where I’m sitting, the future remains bright for Windows Phone … whether its suffix is 7, 8, or 7.8.
Disagree? Agree? Hopping mad that you’re stuck with an “outdated” piece of technology in your new Lumia? Jump on down to the comment section and take the new Disqus for a spin. Okay, it’s a few weeks old, but I still like calling it “new.” It’s fancy. Go’head and get acquainted with it, sharing your opinion in the process. Just keep it friendly, na’ mean?
Greg Sullivan quote via The Verge
Some photos via Engadget