It has been rumored that Microsoft is not planning to stop its Surface efforts with tablets, that there may very well be a Surface smartphone coming down the road as well. In any case, today Microsoft held a Windows Phone 8 (WP8) follow-up media event to last Thursday's Windows 8 and Surface RT launch event.
So – did Microsoft announce a Surface smartphone? No, it did not, and in fact it didn’t even hint that one would be on its way any time soon to join the Surface RT and Surface Pro siblings.
As was to be expected, Microsoft VP of all things WP8, Joe Belfiore took the stage to run us through the suite of new features and capabilities.
The single most important thing about WP8 is that is delivers a Shared core with Windows 8 itself. WP8 is a fully integrated member of the Windows family, and longer term this will – so Microsoft hopes – prove invaluable to the enterprise. Today's announcements, however, were all about the consumer and about consumers making the leap to WP8 phones. Nokia, Samsung and HTC are the three main hardware players of record as of today, and they have all added their interesting twists – although in our opinion the Nokia Lumia 920 remains the flagship product among them.
So then, what did Belfiore actually announce today? Without delving into too many details, let's take a brief look at what WP8 brings to the game today.
WP8 now supports 50 languages and will be available in 191 countries. Nokia and Samsung will certainly have opportunities to make inroads into these markets.
There are now 120,000 WP8 mobile apps. That is certainly a solid increase over recent numbers, though there is yet a long climb yet ahead to 700,000. Belfiore did note that 46 of the top 50 mobile apps are now or will very soon be available.
Belfiore also spoke - as he always does - about the Apple interface, and about Android copying it, and noting of course that not a whole lot of new UI elements have been added - although he did note that the iPhone 5 now gives you…yet another row of icons.
Of course Microsoft has taken this tact dating back to the original Windows Phone introduction in 2010. The original tile interface of the original Metro UI has since evolved and Microsoft has refined the message - but along with the message Microsoft has also done, we believe, an excellent job of delivering the necessary features to actually deliver on the marketing story…there is no real hype here, there is mostly fact. The key angle is that Windows Phone 8 doesn't deliver the smartphone for everyone - rather it delivers the smartphone "for each of us" - with the ability to personal your phone in exactly the way that makes the most sense for every individual.
WP8 accomplishes this through Live Tiles and Live Apps - which give the user the ability to set up their start screens in whatever way makes the most sense, while also ensuring that the tiles provide constantly updated and relevant information. The message here is that every user is able to customize their phone to deliver the live info that YOU care about. Completing the UI picture, WP8 now offers three sizes of tiles, all of which are changeable instantly and on the fly.
WP8 goes so far as to offer a new "kind of lockscreen" which is also powered by live apps. The point here is that the lock screen no longer needs to be static, but will report to the user, through customizable icons and text, whatever kind of information a user might need. Or it can simply scroll through photos. Or it can be optimized for a social or work environment. We're not entirely convinced this is such a big deal, but it obviously is a central theme across all Windows platforms and needed to become part of WP8.
New apps for WP8 include new versions of Facebook, Twitter and Skype - all of which now integrate into the phone experience. Skype, for example, is now always on and ready for a call - but does not run code and eat up battery power to do so.
WP8 also delivers the ability to communicate with apps directly through speech technology. For example, a user can simply ask an app for the location of a restaurant without the need to type it.
Belfiore also held what he thinks is the best, for last on the apps front, and noted that Pandora will be coming to WP8 in early 2013. What’s more, users will gain a whole year of music with NO ads - definitely an applaud-able moment!
New Internal WP8 Capabilities
Next, Belfiore took us through some new - and in some cases, what will prove to be very useful - WP8 capabilities. The first of these capabilities is Data Sense. Finally, users will be able to directly know how WP8 phones and their running apps actually use data. Not sure just how much of your Facebook usage is killing your data allocation? Not sure what app might be the culprit in a sudden or possibly excessive splurge of data usage? The Data Sense live title will let you know.
Further, every Web page a user accesses will automatically be compressed by Data Sense. Generally, Microsoft estimates that users will get 45 percent more use from their existing data plans than they have been getting. What this means is that through Data Sense your 300 MB plan will now allow a user to do much more than was previously the case (so that a 300 MB plan will now allow a user to perhaps access as much as what would otherwise run to perhaps 430 MB - a substantial increase).
Belfiore also noted that Verizon will be the first carrier to get on board with Data Sense. He did not note when the service would go into effect.
Next, WP8 introduces Kids' Corner - a customizable means to allocate a phone interface specifically for one's kids, which means that a user can keeps the phone safe from the prying hands of kids and their knack for accidently accessing a user phone and/or possibly causing potentially nasty things to happen. Basically it boils down to a means to wall off whatever a kid can do from the actual phone itself.
Following the Kids' Corner announcement, Belfiore then introduced Jessica Alba as a WP8 and Kids' Corner spokesperson. Alba has apparently switched from using an iPhone and is now apparently an avid WP8 phone user (she of course had access to an early release of WP8 and to a Nokia Lumia 920). In any case we did learn that Belfiore is either rather short or that Alba is rather tall (all the more so in her very high heels).
Another new feature is "Rooms" - essentially a means of grouping people into…groups - hardly a new idea but WP8 adds the ability to easily and privately communicate with the members of any given group. Out of box WP8 smartphones will come configured with a "family" room. Some aspects of the Room experience will work with iPhones in order to allow people who have not bought into WP8 but are still important members of a group - such as family members - to participate to some degree within WP8 Rooms.
Next Belfiore made note of SkyDrive, which not only handles photos and music but also syncs Office docs and allows their use on any Win 8 device. For example, a OneNote user can record a memo (since OneNote is voice-enabled) and that memo will automatically be translated to text and will, through SkyDrive, become instantly available on all Windows 8 devices. The ability to work with Office in this way is a valuable feature.
Finally, Belfiore noted the more traditional music and vido/photo capabilities available in WP8. These include the introduction of Lenses, which allows any WP8 smartphone photo to immediately be posted up in SkyDrive, where it immediately and automatically becomes available on all Windows devices. SkyDrive offers 7 free GB to start and offers unlimited length of time for storage of content. Finally, Belfiore noted the integration of WP8 and Xbox Music Service - all music (and features, such as playlists) immediately become available on all Win 8 devices immediately through SkyDrive, and any WP8 smartphone now simply becomes a part of this shared ecosystem.
Finally, at the end of the one hour event, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer comes out and offers a quick view of the key Nokia, Samsung and HTC devices. He noted the two year effort involved in ensuring that Win 8 is fully integrated across all possible devices.
Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T are the three key US carriers who will participate in launching WP8. Verizon and T-Mobile will have their launches roughly two to three weeks into November. AT&T which is the only carrier that will have the Nokia Lumia 920, still has not gotten its release dates together! Ballmer was not able to give us a date, noting that AT&T will make that announcement from its end sometime soon.
Last, Microsoft itself will sell every available type of WP8 smartphone - in every conceivable permutation of color choices - in the Microsoft Stores as soon as they become available.
Microsoft used the WP8 event to clearly articulate that the WP8 interface is different - personable, customizable, far more about the "you" than about the phone itself. In truth, there is a great deal to like about WP8. Live tiles, live apps and the variety of available new features do indeed offer a different approach than iOS and Android offer.
If potential buyers are willing to invest the time to explore the UI at the stores - and Microsoft looks like it will make this easy for consumers to do at their stores, it may very well be able to turn a corner on sales.
The release of Windows 8 itself will be a huge step forward for potential sales. A great many users who will upgrade to Win 8 (whether on desktops, laptops, Ultrabooks or tablets) will immediately know what the UI is about when they see a WP8 phone. This is far different than what has transpired over the last two years, where the WP interface was entirely new and perhaps more misunderstood than understood by most consumers.
Our advice is to not be shy about giving WP8 a heavy test run. Users may actually end up very much liking what they find.
Edited by Braden Becker