Microsoft have a plan and a road map for Windows Phone.
Let’s start with the obvious, the no-brainer and work back. Remember where we started. They have a plan.
When Microsoft launched Windows Phone in 2010 their road-map showed them that a go-to-market product was NOT a fully realised product. Fragmentation was inevitable and backward compatibility was always going to be the challenge. For hardware we have now know since June that Windows Phone 8 will not be an upgrade for Gen 1/2/2.5 devices, and that a “compromise” update will instead be offered with the WP8 start/home screen enhancements and other as yet largely unknown possible tweaks/improvements. Similarly existing Apps compatibility across breaks was iron-clad…or is it? For Developers, timely access to the universally acclaimed SDK for Windows Phone was expected to continue with WP8 and for OEM’s, launching new WP8 devices with carrier details, pricing and availability should have been easy…so what’s going on at Redmond?
Windows Phone 8 looks set to deliver an exciting mix of new Hardware-based capabilities such as NFC, Wireless Charging, Imaging innovation, Micro-SD support, Improved Screen Resolutions and more. It is also sure to include a virtual Santa-Claus sack full of OS tweaks, improvements, new capabilities – but on those we know very little. Microsoft has of course elected to keep all but a handful of the main new WP8 features to themselves until their quite late-in-the-piece unofficial Windows Phone 8 launch date in the US of October 29th, three days after Windows 8 and Surface launch in the States and selected markets (for Surface). In fact, Microsoft’s WP8 reveal is expected to be over a month from now. Prior to this, we have already seen Samsung, Nokia and HTC all publicly launch their new Windows Phone 8 devices – without any focus on the OS features, just their specific hardware,device and services information.
In actual fact media around the world have yet to even really get their hands on Microsoft’s OS on these new devices. Journalists were flown in to attend the Nokia New York launch of their Lumia 820/920 handsets. Like those watching live on web-stream, they instead saw the key-note from the venue in-person. If they were lucky at the end of the launch, they were allowed to see the device up close – not hold – look at it up close (with the start screen displayed), as the device was carefully held by Nokia staff so no additional WP8 information could be gleamed. Both privately and publicly, tech journo’s were left questioning this tight control of the event – and in what should have been a fantastic event with incredible new devices and buzz, instead some of this excitement was accompanied by a bitter after-taste. The same for the Samsung ATIV-S launch, and then the latest device presentation by HTC of their 8x and 8s Windows Phone 8 handsets. The tech world was left wondering on prices and availability (and carriers in most cases) with devices truly whetting the appetite based on hardware and design, but with a big ?mystery? on everything else.
By contrast, Apple announced the pricing and almost immediate availability for their new iFruit 5. Hold that thought.
Next we had the inexplicable changes to the SDK for Developers. Recently Microsoft opened their new SDK for Windows Phone 8 to existing Developers via their WP Developer Blog. In a departure from prior instances (NoDo/Mango/Tango) the updates were not made available to all current signed-up Developers. Instead, the application form is an invite to be considered for eligibility. No external criteria for the selection process was offered, however MS did offer that ”The objective is to let developers of our most-downloaded apps start optimizing them for Windows Phone 8“. This is an intriguing line, in what it suggests for Developers. More on that in a moment.
As far as we have heard in Australia from our network/community – only 1 Developer has confirmed to us privately that they were accepted. A number of notable Developers – some of them with high relative download numbers for their app(s) in Australia in-fact missed out on initial rounds of acceptances. One of the elements of the sign-up process was to include your local Microsoft “Champ” – or MS DPE. Earlier this year the app was released, however despite initial feedback from WPDownUnder to the team behind it, it still has no Aussie or Kiwi DPE listed that we could see. The closest to Australia looks to be Eric ShangKuan in Taipei at 7,446km from our office! With the “unofficial” launch date expected by the end of October, this leaves a 6 week window of coding opportunity for approved Dev’s to try and come up with WP8 specific apps which can utilise the new API’s/features/capabilities of the latest Windows Phone OS. That’s a pretty stiff ask! Let’s come back to that one too.
Windows Phone 8 is only rumoured to have RTM’d last week, so it is quite understandable that the SDK might have had to wait for this achievement for lock-down. Additionally, Microsoft are on the record as confirming that unlike prior SDK’s for Windows Phone, the latest version includes much more Developer accessible API’s / features of the OS brought forward into the emulator, allowing more powerful and feature rich App’s than has seen before. With the OS launch yet to take place, this has meant that the SDK is under tight NDA, trying to avoid any leaks like the earlier one this year in China where an unfinished version became publicly available.
But what else could explain the late SDK availability and the approach Microsoft appear to be taking here. Remember, they have a plan. Well there are a couple of theories that we can come up with:
Windows Phone 8 is a clean OS break, with a new Kernel (NT based). It brings new features, API’s and hardware capability. By actually NOT having a large number of Apps at launch utilising these new OS and device features (thereby excluding existing WP7 device owners as their hardware cannot make use of the new App) MS reduce the “negative” impact around the fragmentation between versions. They in effect buy more time for people to follow their natural upgrade cycle and move to new devices without a prevalence of “Oooh look at this App, that’s awesome….what? Damn - exclusive to WP8 devices!) user experiences. They can smooth out the introduction of these new WP8 only Apps and try and minimise this factor.
Further to this, since day 1, MS have alluded to another possible issue they are attempting to manage. Will all current WP7 Apps work (smoothly and without intervention) on new WP8 devices at launch as they promised at the initial WP8 announcement? How did we arrive at this you ask? Let’s look at how MS are positioning the SDK sign-up:
- INITIAL: JUN29 (+1) Week on WP Dev Blog: “Just so there isn’t any confusion: we’re committed to helping ensure that Windows Phone 7 and 7.5 apps work on Windows Phone 8. In fact, with the announcement of automatic pre-compilation of your app in the store, we expect existing apps to launch and run faster on Windows Phone 8 without changing a single line of code.”
- NOW: SEP12 WPDev Blog ’WP8 SDK is launched’: “Today we begin accepting requests for access to the Windows Phone SDK 8.0 Developer Preview program. The objective is to let developers of our most-downloaded apps start optimizing them for Windows Phone 8…”
- NOW: SEP12 WPDev Blog ‘Future Proofing your App’: “Even though almost everything is different, our app platform maintains a high degree of backward compatibility. So, from the perspective of the platform APIs, you generally don’t have to do anything – your app should just continue to work, without any changes. Where this becomes a little less cut-and-dried is if you’re doing anything unusual or unsupported in your app (more below).”
If you download or stream to ~38 minute mark of episode 84 of the Windows Developer Show podcast – with Ryan and Travis Lowdermilk, you can listen to Cliff Simpkins, Microsoft Product Manager for Windows Phone in an interview on the new SDK process expand on this latest position and advise listeners that the SDK application is for:
“Fill out a self-nomination survey, which basically says Hey I’m interested in evaluating my App on WP8“
“….in addition we have had an Engineering Team test out the top 1000 Apps globally and making sure that we’re counting for how WP7 apps work on 8 too. WP8 was designed to run all WP7 Apps…and where we saw that Apps that were designed for 7 could use some tweaking, whether there was performance [issues] or you know [starts to say compatibility then moves to] App and binary code compatibility might go a little bit wonky in some cases – but you get that with any release.”
Add this conversation with the additional questions on the SDK nomination form, ie ‘Do you agree to download the WP SDK 8.0 Preview and to promptly test your WP7 application’ and ‘Do you agree to promptly report any issues you find while running your WP7 application on WP8?’ The NDA questions follow immediately after this.
What now appears to be emerging is a situation which very much looks like Microsoft selectively pre-releasing the SDK to chosen developers in order to have WP8 emulator WP7 App beta testing and then subsequent code updates and App re-submissions to the marketplace of key popular Apps from Developers where issues are found. This would suggest that the automatic re-compiling process at the back-end of the marketplace which Microsoft were working on to support seamless compatibility of WP7 Apps on WP8 devices may not be performing to the % success/pass rate the Microsoft required. Of course Developers can always write clunky or buggy code, and perhaps the changes under the hood for WP8 either expose this or are less forgiving on “strange” or different techniques where more standard coding solutions can achieve the same outcome.
Regardless of how or why code may need to be “fixed” or “optimised” one thing appears certain – and that is that it the reality of the situation right now, 6 weeks from an unofficial WP8 launch, is that Developers may not be where Microsoft had hoped back in June of 2012, with “…..existing apps [to] launch and run faster on Windows Phone 8 without changing a single line of code.”
So in conclusion;
In an ideal world, I cannot imagine that MS and their perfect plan would have a SDK released selectively to a small sample of their Developers only at < 6 weeks out from official (rumoured) OS launch Date. Neither can I imagine that they would want OEM partner launches 6 weeks before their new OS release to the world, hamstringing the device launches so that the world’s media had no chance at a hands-on with the new phones to help buzz and wow factor - let alone be able to confirm pricing and availability in major global markets, like Apple manages to do (in a simpler/flatter ecosystem with JUST themselves + carriers mind you).
Sure, they have a plan – Microsoft always do (even if we external to Redmond can’t discern it). However it’s quite conceivable that they are managing some hiccups along the way, and flexing that plan. Developers and OEM partners might just have to take a deep breath, calm themselves and look past the bumps in the road now. We have seen the new Windows Phone hardware and it’s got most of us wanting it yesterday! We have also seen glimpses of the new Windows Phone 8 OS – certainly enough to have us wanting more. WPDownUnder are confident that whatever the issues MS are working through – and if indeed they are similar to what we have speculated upon above – that when the official launch does take place, we will find an ‘Apple-esque’ full reveal of carriers, models, regions etc - with devices on sale even as soon as the next day after launch!
We will get there.
That’s more certain than directions you might get provided by iOS6! But for now we have to wait a little longer to see the details of what MS are doing and those all important device release dates. A Lumia 920 might bring some details into view, brightening the darkness and letting us all see Microsoft’s plan. If you know where to find one, be sure to let us know here at Windows Phone Down Under
The above editorial is a piece of speculative analysis. We have not spoken to anyone under NDA, all opinions are our own.