Microsoft has certainly been keeping us all on our toes as of late, and just a couple of days after its big Surface tablet reveal, the Redmond-based team are back in the headlines – this time appearing at the Windows Phone Summit to spill the goods on Windows Phone 8, due for release sometime in the final quarter of this year. So what's new? Well, quite a lot actually.
The most immediate change apparent in Windows Phone 8 is a re-designed Start Screen, which now more closely resembles the user experience (UI) offered by the desktop and tablet iterations of Windows 8. However, these similarities go more than skin deep and Microsoft states that each device running Windows 8 will share a common Core – essentially enabling developers to write apps for each device easier than before. This unification of the Windows platform on all devices appears to be a primary goal for the company going forward.
In addition to the new UI overhaul, Skype will be more fully baked into Windows Phone 8 in order to offer a better experience to users of the VoIP service recently acquired by Microsoft. Incoming calls from Skype and other VoIP services are said to "feel like any other call" and, from the screenshots we've seen thus far, the implementation of this does indeed look very slick.
Bing Maps has been jettisoned in favor of Nokia Maps and Navigation. The new navigation system will feature turn-by-turn instructions and also boast 3D-Mapping and an option to store maps offline. The general consensus seems to be that Nokia's existing mapping capabilities are very good and so this will hopefully prove to be a smart move by Microsoft.
Aiming to leverage its vast office-based market, Microsoft will ship Windows Phone 8 with several business-friendly features which include device encryption, remote management and an all new Company Hub – allowing you to take the job home with you more fully than ever before. In a good way, of course ...
The Wallet hub will support NFC payments as well as the ability to store credit card information, membership cards and so forth. It looks much like a mash-up of Google's NFC payments and Apple's Passbook, and signals the big push coming from the mobile technology sector for this kind of modern wallet-free technology to become commonplace.
Existing Windows Phone users may feel less cause for celebration, as there will not be an upgrade path available to those using Windows Phone 7. The sting is taken out of this somewhat by a promised software update for users of the older devices, which will bring the mobile operating system much of the sheen of its younger replacement, including the redesigned Start Screen.
We reached out to Microsoft for a comment regarding the lack of upgrade possibility for Windows Phone 7 users and a representative confirmed that it simply wasn't feasible to bring the features to the older hardware, stating:
"Many of the new capabilities in Windows Phone 8 are hardware related; things like multicore support, near-field communication (NFC), even the graphics elements rely on hardware that is simply not present in existing Windows Phone devices. So doing the work to get the full Windows Phone 8 release as an upgrade to existing devices just didn’t make sense. Multicore and NFC support don’t add any value to a phone without the hardware to use them. We decided instead to focus on making Windows Phone 8 the best release for the upcoming generation of hardware AND bring some of the marquee features (like the new Start Screen) to existing devices."
The following technical details leaking in from the Summit further cement this notion:
Clearly Microsoft feels that to catch up with the big players in the smartphone scene like Apple and Samsung, some hard sacrifices are going to need to be made. We'll get to decide for ourselves if the company is right later this year.