At CES 2010 it was clear that the future of mobile devices is about to change course in a potentially game-changing way. What was missing, and on the lips of many was the follow-up to Windows Mobile 6.5. Unfortunately, no Windows Mobile update was unveiled at CES 2010, but you know what they say about good things; they come to those who wait. And wait people have, Windows Mobile 6.5 was released in May of last year, and Windows Phone Series 7 should be in phones that hit store shelves by this holiday season. That is a very long wait for an OS that usually takes a year or so between iterations. The first question many people might have is: why the long wait?
A Clean Tablet Slate
The long wait is because Windows Phone Series 7 is not just an update to aging code that started accumulating when Plam ruled the smartphone/PDA roost and Apple was a failing company in dire need of new leadership that it eventually found in one of their ousted founders, Steve Jobs. Microsoft is hoping that their new approach to Windows Mobile will attract a whole new generation of clients. What is Microsoft’s approach? A clean slate; Windows Phone Series 7 is not based on Windows Mobile code at all, but rather it is a close cousin to the Zune operating system. No backwards compatibility for older Windows Mobile apps are planned, but that may not be a bad thing. In fact, the new OS seems to be a fresh take on the entire mobile handset/PDA theme and it might even be used to power slates, tablets, and pads in 2011 and beyond.
Starting new also offers a few major advantages to Microsoft. The first advantage is that they get to see what has worked and what has not worked in many mobile operating systems and app/media stores. Being late to the game let Palm deliver a comparatively inexpensive new phone and OS that won the company rave reviews, and BlackBerry’s constant evolution continues to impress critics and reviewers. Android is still somewhat nascent, but Microsoft will get to learn from their successes and shortcomings as well. In short, sometimes it is good to be last.
The Hardware is Here
What is a good multi-touch OS without the hardware to back it up? One of the best things about the technology shown off at CES 2010 from the perspective of a broadband enthusiast would have to be the mobile-platforms. The latest hardware has enough horsepower to make mobile computing fast, visually compelling and less of a gimmick. The latest hardware is already starting to appear in devices, but even faster and more efficient parts will be available by the holiday season. With devices capable of driving apps that people actually want to use, mobile broadband use should skyrocket. This may or may not present a problem depending on the level of preparedness carriers exhibit in any given market. 4G-capable models may be available at launch, further propelling Windows Phone Series 7 models ahead of the competition.
As with all previous versions of Windows and Windows Mobile, it is likely that Windows Phone Series 7 will allow for a wide variety of hardware choices. One of the factors crippling the iPhone from the perspective of serious business use is the lack of a physical keyboard. Android-powered phones and the newest Palm phones have keyboards, which only serves to make Apple more of a target for phone makers. Unfortunately, all the hardware in the world is nothing without a solid OS and great programs, and this is where Windows Phone Series 7 hopes to fill a gap that not many even knew existed.
It would not be an understatement to suggest that Microsoft and Apple have been rivals for a very long time, and the iPhone’s amazing success must have taken the staff at Redmond by surprise. After all, the Apple iPhone became a nearly overnight sensation and its integrated app store. In fact, the entire industry was turned on its head by Apple, and competitors are only now starting to catch up. The Palm Pre and Android-based phones have respectable libraries, but Microsoft does not want a small slice of the pie. They are looking to invent a whole new pie with Windows Phone Series 7 and offer access to different kinds of stores including a media store and app store. Microsoft is already talking about plans to link Windows Phone Series 7 to their Xbox Live service, which might indicate the possibility of devices powered by Windows Phone Series 7 becoming the next must-have mobile gaming devices. Considering the amount of top-notch games on the iPhone and iPad, that does not seem too far-fetched.
One of the other features of the Windows Phone Series 7 OS is the fact that it is constantly updating contacts and other information based a number of social networking sites. The data is constantly updated, letting people with Windows Phone Series 7 devices keep up to the second with thousands of contacts regardless of where they are. This feature is likely to prove to be second only to the customization of the UI, which combines a high contrast/minimalistic approach with snappy transitions. The ability to promote or demote items up and down the main menu makes a lot of sense, and allows people to sort their favorite functions easily. One thing that is particularly interesting and iPhone-esque is the fact that Microsoft is being very coy regarding multitasking. At this point it would seem that some applications can receive push notifications, but true multitasking may be a thing of the past. Whether or not this is true or a good idea are subject to debate, but Apple has done quite well with a similar arrangement.
Can Microsoft out-do Apple at their own game, especially when nobody else seems able to? Don’t count Microsoft out when it comes to gathering developers. The company essentially railroaded DirectX adoption by buying out a laundry list of developers in the 1990s and early 2000s, and chances are good that the firm could use a similar brute force approach to spur adoption again. Of course, subtler methods may also work now that Microsoft has proven that they can make developer friendly OSes. They jury is out on whether Microsoft’s app, media, and/or other online stores can outdo Apple’s offerings, but one thing is sure: these stores are likely to give wireless broadband connections a real workout.
Hints of Windows 8?
While Windows Phone Series 7 seems exciting in its own right, the idea of reinventing a core OS offering may be a hint of what is to come in the next version of Windows for personal computers. Apple has reinvented itself a few times in terms of OS, but Microsoft has essentially provided a very long line of backwards compatible OSes, some more than others. If Windows Phone Series 7 takes off, it could be taken as an indication that the public accepts the idea of Microsoft starting anew if they have a great series of new ideas. While a clean slate approach may not work for Microsoft, it may not be a fantasy worth giving up on just yet. Having a unified OS that covers mobile devices, gaming consoles, and personal computers is certainly an appealing concept from a software management point of view. Will it ever happen? Possibly, but maybe not in time for Windows 8.
With several months left to wait for announcements, it is likely that a stream of information on Windows Phone Series 7 will slowly scale into a full-scale information eruption just prior to the official launch. Until then we can just sit back and watch for rumors and hope that wireless carriers are preparing for the showdown between Android, WebOS, the iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch OS, and Windows Phone Series 7 devices. Note to wireless carriers: 5GB caps on unlimited plans may have been a good idea before there were so many highly desirable and useful mobile devices, but that is about to change. Please be ready.