Microsoft has unveiled Windows Phone 8, its next-generation smartphone operating system. But what exactly does that entail, when can we expect to see devices and what does it mean for people who have Windows phones now?
Behold, the new Windows Phone start screen.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
What are hardware changes?
Support for multi-core processors (like dual-core and quad-core), near-field communication (NFC), new screen resolutions (like 1280x720 HD) and expandable memory slots are the biggest news in terms of hardware changes.
What's with the new start screen?
Microsoft's redesigned start screen (pictured above) spans the width of the screen now. You'll be able to resize each individual live tile from the start screen to one of three sizes. There's also support for new colour themes, which Microsoft didn't list.
What else is new?
There's also support for in-app purchases, and a wallet for storing sensitive account information and loyalty cards, to name a few. There are over-the-air OS updates, instead of tethering to the desktop to update. Windows Phone 8's architecture heavily overlaps with Windows 8 for the desktop and tablet, so there will be a great deal of similarity in the way that the OS handles security, gaming, networking, media playback and so forth.
When can I get it on my Windows phone?
New Windows phones running WP8 will ship in the US autumn. Microsoft also used the term "holiday season", which could really mean anywhere from late September all the way to just before Christmas.
Bad news for existing Windows Phone owners, though: there's no upgrade path from Windows Phone 7.5 handsets to the forthcoming OS. We know; we feel your pain. You just bought your Samsung or Lumia phone, and it's already obsolete. Now, before you get your knickers in a bunch, consider this: it's mostly a hardware foundation that's going to make Windows phones far more competitive going forward.
Well, what can I get, then?
Microsoft threw you a bone. A small bone, but one that it hopes you'll find tasty nonetheless. Windows Phone 7.8 is an upcoming update for current Windows Phones, and will bring some of the new aesthetic features of Windows Phone 8 to older phones, including the updated Live Tiles UI.
Who's making the phones?
Samsung, Nokia, HTC, Huawei and ZTE are Microsoft's five largest partners, but we'll see Windows phones from other manufacturers, as well. Samsung and Nokia have already shown a range of higher-end and more mid-range Windows 7.5 handsets, and Huawei and ZTE have demoed the more affordable, entry-level Windows Phone handsets globally. We expect this trend to continue with Windows Phone 8.
What kind of processors will the phones use?
The high-end Windows phones will use Qualcomm's dual-core Snapdragon S4 Plus processor, which can be tuned for up to 1.7GHz clock speed. Some phones will also source slower processors as a way to manage price and match features for more entry-level phones. Get more details here.
Is there native Skype support?
No, the voice over IP (VoIP) app isn't built in, and you'll still have to download Skype to use it. Microsoft has, however, laid down the foundation for third-party apps like Skype and others to integrate with the phone-call menu, so that any VoIP calls you place and answer look identical to calls that originate from the dialler.
How will it use NFC?
Windows Phone will support NFC for the first time. There are three parts. The first uses Tap + Share — Microsoft's consumer-facing name for NFC — to do all sorts of things, like share URLs among NFC devices and read a "tag" on a business card, poster, menu and so on. The second part makes use of a secure SIM card that the carriers can control, which will enable mobile payments.
Microsoft is also introducing its own wallet hub, which will store sensitive information about your accounts, loyalty cards and so on. It's a very similar system to other third-party wallets available, and to Apple's "passbook" feature for iOS 6.
What is this "talking to apps" thing?
Microsoft demoed an expanded feature in its voice-recognition software, TellMe, where you could speak commands to an app, in this case Audible. Audible used Microsoft's voice application programming interfaces (APIs) to build a command mode into its app for Windows Phone. When you enable the command mode, you'll be able to launch, pause, stop and resume media with your voice. It's a very cool-looking feature that any developer will be able to implement; however, there are two historical problems with this type of app that Microsoft will have to counter. First, voice interpretation is typically spotty, and problems sometimes ensue. Second, it does drain battery — but just how much is yet to be seen on Windows phones.