Earlier this week, while hurricane Sandy harassed the east coat and forced Google to release Android 4.2 and its new Nexus devices via an unceremonious blog post, Microsoft held an event in San Francisco that finally filled in the remaining Windows Phone 8 blanks. Following the release of Windows 8, Surface, and updates to Xbox, we now have a very solid idea of the direction that Microsoft is heading in — a plotted course that will bring the good ship Microsoft barging into your mobile life, whether you like it or not.
For the last couple of years, Windows Phone has been the lame horse of Microsoft’s software stable. While Windows 7 has enjoyed massive success, and Xbox continues to go from strength to strength, Windows Phone 7 and 7.5 have puttered along in the wake of iOS and Android, threatening to go under whenever Apple or Google make a sudden move. Through sheer force of will (and brute-force marketing dollars), Microsoft has mustered just 3.5% of the worldwide smartphone market.
If you’ve ever used Windows Phone 7.5, its diminutive share of the market will probably come as a surprise. You see, one of the best kept secrets of the mobile device domain is that Windows Phone 7.5 is actually rather cool. While it doesn’t have the flexibility of Android, or iOS’s wealth of apps, Windows Phone is both slicker and easier to use. In much the same way that iOS “just works,” as does Windows Phone 7.5. While Android certainly has more home screen real estate, WP7.5′s Start screen is much more lively and personal. Really, unless you’re a power user (and most smartphone users aren’t), Windows Phone is a fantastic mobile OS.
Why has Windows Phone failed to attract users, then? No one knows for sure. The network effect certainly plays a role — when WP7 arrived it had to start from scratch, while there were already millions of iOS and Android users recommending their respective OSes to friends and family. Ecosystem lock-in also plays a role; once you’ve got your phone set up, and spent some money on apps, it seems foolhardy to switch to another platform. In most market research, most consumers have reported that they’re just not interested in Windows Phone. Ultimately, WP7′s failing adoption is probably best explained with the help of a particular bear-defecating-in-the-woods phrase: Windows Phone might be an excellent smartphone OS, but if no one is there to see it, who cares?
Introducing Windows Phone 8, the savior
Windows Phone 8, then, is all about actually getting people to use it, so that they can fall in love with it and thus tell their friends and family to buy a WP8 device. To pull this off, Microsoft seems to be taking a three-pronged approach, by providing killer features, killer hardware, and killer marketing.
For the most part, Windows Phone 8 looks and feels like WP7 — but that’s where the similarities end. Old apps will be forwards-compatible, but the age-old Windows CE underpinnings have been gutted and replaced with an almost-complete Windows 8 kernel and library stack. As a result, Windows 8 Metro apps will work on WP8 with very few changes — and WP8 gains support for apps written in C/C++ native code, too. WP8 also uses Windows 8′s network code, file system, low-level security features, and even has the same support for up to 64 processor cores.
In terms of unique, user-facing features, there is Kids Corner (a sandbox full of kids games available from the lock screen), Data Sense (a suite of tools, including data compression, that cuts down on data usage), and Rooms (a concept similar to Google+’s circles, but on a larger, more inclusive scale).
Perhaps most importantly, though, it finally sounds like WP8 will be able to compete with the app ecosystems of other mobile platforms. WP7 is now up to 120,000 apps, most of which are compatible with WP8. With WP8, Microsoft says it now has 46 out of the top 50 iOS/Android apps. Windows Phone 8 also debuts Live Apps; apps which can interact with your lock screen — such as Facebook, which can update your lock screen with personalized photo mosaics.
On the hardware front, Windows Phone 8 is launching with strong offerings from HTC, Nokia, and Samsung, all of which have a dual-core Snapdragon S4 SoC, a good rear-facing camera, and a large, high-resolution display. As before, Microsoft is keeping a fairly tight leash on Windows Phone hardware specs, so it will be quite hard to find a “bad” WP8 device (though next year, with Exynos 5 and quad-core Snapdragons on the market, Microsoft will hopefully update the minimum spec). Windows Phone 8 also dictates a hardware camera button, which should appeal to avid picture takers. In the Nokia Lumia 920′s case, there’s a best-in-class, optically stabilized camera, too.
And then there’s the marketing — oh boy is Microsoft plowing a lot into marketing. As you may already know, Microsoft’s marketing budget for Windows 8, Surface, and Windows Phone 8 is somewhere in the region of $ 1.5-$ 2 billion. Most of this will be consumed by blanket advertising on TV, websites, and in magazines — but, in a first for the mobile OS wars, Microsoft is also forking out on celebrity endorsements. At an event on Monday, Microsoft wheeled out Jessica Alba to tell the world about how much she loves Windows Phone 8. (In addition, though I’m sure they weren’t paid as much as Alba, Windows Phone manager Joe Belfiore also brought his kids on stage to demo the new Kids Corner feature. Has Microsoft jumped the shark?).
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