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Wired | Gadget Lab
Software and Operating Systems
February 3, 2012
Microsoft’s Windows Phone OS is often criticized for lagging far behind iOS and Android, the other major operating systems in the mobile space. But on Thursday, a leaked description of Microsoft’s next big mobile OS, Windows Phone 8, came to light, revealing how the operating system will improve.
The leak, reported by blog Pocketnow and validated by Windows insider Paul Thurrott, shows that Apollo (the codename for Windows Phone 8) will be a major improvement over the current iteration, Windows Phone 7.5, otherwise known as Mango.
“Currently, we have to work around some limitations with Mango, and many of those limitations would be removed with the upcoming Apollo version,” Eric Setton, CTO of mobile VoIP app Tango, told Wired.
Mango is the current version of Windows Phone. It launched in October, bringing with it a slew of new features, including built-in social media and chatting tools, groups for organizing contacts, multitasking, and improved Live Tiles. A small update called Tango (not to be confused with the VoIP app) is slated next, and then the world will see Apollo, which is rumored to launch in mid-2012.
Microsoft wouldn’t tell us whether Thursday’s leak report is accurate, but offered insight on its OS plans in general.
“We think your smartphone should be smarter,” a Microsoft spokesperson told Wired. “When I take a picture, a ‘smart’ phone should anticipate that I may want to share it with a friend or on Facebook and help me easily do that. With Windows Phone these kinds of things are just built in, and we think there’s always room for a better way.”
A number of Windows Phone developers (several whom also write iOS and Android apps) were eager to share their thoughts on this rumored “better way.”
“I am very excited to hear that Microsoft is making a strong push to catch up to the iOS and Android platforms,” Sina Mobasser, co-founder of iOS and Windows Phone app BarMax said. “But while the specs that were leaked are certainly appetizing, they will not be enough.” Mobasser thinks Microsoft is still “holding a lot of cards close to its chest,” and we have to agree. But Thursday’s leak is still a tantalizing look at what Windows Phone could offer in the near future.
All of which begs the question: Is Windows Phone Apollo enough? If it were released right now, how would it measure up against its biggest competitors, iOS 5 and Android 4, aka Ice Cream Sandwich? Here’s our take on how it may fare in six key areas.
Right now, Windows Phones are limited to single-core processors. They also lack support for removable storage. But Windows Phone Apollo will support multi-core processors, as well as microSD storage.
Because iOS devices do not include removable storage, Apollo would trump iOS there. But both the iPhone 4S, which was released in October 2011, and the iPad 2, released in March 2011, are dual-core devices that run Apple’s A5 processor. Apple’s next iPad is rumored to be built on a quad-core A6 processor, so it’s imperative for Microsoft that Windows Phone run multi-core processors, if only to remain modern and relevant.
Of course, Android began supporting multi-core devices as far back as Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) in February 2011. And pretty much every Android smartphone allows for SD or microSD storage. The Android OS has supported this feature for quite a long time.
“Hardware-wise, I’m not a big fan of what I call the ‘arms race’ because I think there is still a lot of room to optimize software to use hardware like GPUs more effectively,” Windows developer Kelly Sommer said via e-mail. Indeed, current Windows Phones don’t exhibit any major performance shortcomings, despite their specs handicap. But it never hurts performance — or public perception — to match industry-standard specs.
Apollo will also allow for more screen resolutions and device form factors than Mango currently does. “As a user, different screen resolutions and more powerful phones will help to sell more compelling hardware to better compete with iOS and Android,” Setton said.
Verdict: Apollo essentially reaches parity with iOS and Android in terms of hardware support, but doesn’t offer earth-shaking innovation.
Windows Phone Apollo will use NFC technology to facilitate mobile payments. With a swipe of your phone on a point-of-purchase RFID tag, you’ll be able to buy coffee, cigarettes, and sundry other consumables. Sound familiar? That’s what Google is doing — or is attempting to do — with its Google Wallet mobile payment platform.
Google Wallet is currently available on the Nexus S smartphone. Photo: Jon Snyder/Wired.com
Unlike Wallet, however, it looks like Microsoft’s version of NFC payments will play by carrier rules. According to the PocketNow report, “The ‘Wallet experience‘ “will have the capability to be carrier-branded and controlled.” This is a point of contention for Android’s Wallet feature. Google has been battling carriers like Verizon over whether Wallet will appear on upcoming Android 4 devices. Wallet, in fact, did not make an appearance on the latest flagship Android device, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus.
Carriers such as AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon want a piece of the mobile-payment pie through their own version of Wallet, dubbed Isis. This leaves Sprint as the only U.S. carrier that currently offers Google Wallet. And it also opens up a huge window of opportunity for Windows Phone to take charge in the mobile payments arena.
Developers could also take advantage of the technology, if the API is exposed. “Developers can leverage that to create some brand-new experiences for smartphone users,” Sommers said.
Although many people expected — hoped? hypothesized? — that Apple’s 2011 iPhone, the 4S, would include NFC, Apple hasn’t yet adopted the burgeoning technology.
Verdict: When it comes to mobile payments and NFC, Apollo is ahead of Apple’s current curve, though this could change if the iPhone 5 supports NFC in a big way. As for Android, Apollo’s NFC support might actually trump Android’s, if only because it would receive carrier blessings.
Windows Phone 8 Apollo will offer “companion” experiences with its desktop counterpart, Windows 8, which is also set to launch mid-year. Right now, Apple’s Mac OS and iOS are completely separate code bases and platforms. The upshot? Apollo could offer an unprecedented level of what we’ll call “pan-OS unification.”
One of the most interesting elements of OS unification is how it will be implemented: Windows Phone 8 will use the core system from Windows 8. Specifically, the updated OS will be based on the NT kernel rather than the Windows CE kernel, which is currently employed in Windows Phone (the kernel is the core layer of any OS — the interface between hardware components and applications that run on the device). In short, Windows Phone 8 will be very closely related to Windows 8, even to the level where desktop apps could be more easily ported to simplified phone versions.
Geeky kernel discussions aside, Microsoft plans to make user-experience models very similar across its desktop, mobile and Xbox platforms. Syncing information and content sharing across these three platforms will be made easier, as well.
In the world of Google, a deliberate focus on product compatibility helps keeps user data synced across Android phones and tablets, desktop web browsers, and Chromebooks. That said, Google doesn’t have a desktop OS the way Microsoft does (and, no, we won’t count Chrome). What’s more, the Google user experience is very different between mobile and web, from smartphone to tablet, and even from smartphone to smartphone, due to fragmented OS versions and rampant OEM and carrier UI skinning.
In iOS land, the interface is essentially consistent across iPhones and iPads. But the Mac OS desktop interface, of course, despite a bit of window dressing, is a completely separate experience, both in terms of UI and cross-platform app compatibility. As for cloud support, the iOS iCloud ensures your data and apps are synced across devices. In Windows Phone Apollo, SkyDrive will do the same.
Verdict: Awesome sauce! Apollo looks to offer a heretofore unseen level of integration between Microsoft’s desktop and smartphone products.
Microsoft plans to have at least 100,000 apps in its app market by the time Windows Phone 8 debuts later this year.
That’s all? By Apple’s latest counts, there are more than 550,000 apps in the iOS App Store. And according to the unofficial count from AndroLib, the Android Market has more than 750,000 apps at the moment.
Microsoft is working hard to offer incentives such as funding, guidance, and marketing opportunities to attract developers to its mobile platform. Windows Phone is currently the fastest-growing mobile app platform and just crossed the 50,000 app mark in late 2011. But it’s still got a long, long way to go before its offerings are on the same level as iOS and Android.
And let’s not forget that Windows Phone 8 will allow for native code support, which means devs can easily port apps they’ve already written for another platform to Windows Phone. This is definitely something developers are excited about.
“The vast majority of mobile app developers have built apps for iOS or Android,” Mobasser said. “We hope the porting of code is well thought-out and allows us to smoothly transition our app to Windows Phone without having to deal with a number of compatibility issues and bugs.”
Windows Phone 8 will also allow for app-to-app communications, something both iOS and Android already offer. “App-to-app communication can create some really interesting user experiences between applications,” Sommers said.
Windows Phone Mango’s Yelp-like Scout feature, which helps find local restaurants, businesses, and activities based on their proximity and rating, will get personal recommendations added to its list of functions. This is something the Foodspotting app just added to its repertoire as well.
Apollo should also feature its own Skype app, or have Skype baked right into the OS — the exact implementation isn’t quite clear from the leaks. Skype is already available on iOS and Android, if you’re keeping score.
Finally, for its camera app, Apollo will include new “lens apps” for more powerful smartphone image-capture abilities. Now, there are plenty of third-party photography apps already available on iOS and Android. And many Android phones currently have robust filters and scene options built in to their native camera apps. So while the Apollo camera update looks promising, it may not offer much of anything new to the smartphone scene.
Verdict: Windows Phone is still playing a serious game of catch-up in the apps arena. But sharing a code base with Windows desktop, along with native code support, will certainly help Microsoft’s app-related fortunes.
Apollo will use a tool called “DataSmart” to make sure you’re able to easily track your monthly data usage. Available as a Live Tile that you can pin to your home screen, it will break down your data usage (helping you make smarter decisions about what you download) and give Wi-Fi networks — even carrier-operated Wi-Fi hotspots — precedence over cellular data connections whenever possible.
In iOS 5, you can track your cellular usage, but it’s buried inside the General settings menu. Yes, there are indeed a number of third-party iOS apps you can download that do the trick, but these features should really be exposed directly in the OS — like they are in Android.
Data management is better than ever with the advent of Android 4, aka Ice Cream Sandwich. The built-in Data Usage app provides numerous charts and graphs that reveal your data-gobbling habits, and you can even set governors and alerts to help you control data usage. Android sets the new standard for data management, so while Windows Phone’s solution sounds helpful, it will have a long way to go in matching Android’s approach.
Verdict: We’ll see. We’ll see. But if nothing else, Microsoft is moving in the right direction.
Apple CEO Tim Cook pointed out that iPhones and iPads are rapidly being adopted in the enterprise environment.
To grab a piece of that market (many members of which are in search of new handsets now that BlackBerry fever is fading), Windows Phone 8 will offer the same native BitLocker encryption as Windows 8. That’s 128-bit, full-disk encryption. This could be good news for potential switchers, as built-in encryption in iOS devices reportedly has some security flaws. For Windows Phone 8, companies will also be able to create personalized, proprietary software for their employees, which Windows 8 will allow as well.
Now, does anyone besides developers use Android for enterprise applications? I kid — sort of. Google also offers storage encryption, as well as third-party encryption solutions.
Verdict: It looks like Microsoft will be ahead of the curve. And it should be. This is a Windows product, after all. If Microsoft can’t appeal to the mobile enterprise crowd, it’s got problems.
So What’s It All Mean?
Windows Phone Apollo looks like it will address a number of the issues currently holding back the OS from equal footing with its peers. But there are still a few areas that need improvement. “I think the biggest gaps are still software and design,” Sommers said. “Microsoft needs to be obsessed with paying attention to detail in its user experiences.”
This is an area that Android addressed in its Ice Cream Sandwich update in late 2011, and an area where Apple absolutely excels.
Based on the information that was leaked, Windows Phone 8 should achieve essential feature parity with its competitors — assuming no significant improvements are made to iOS or Android by the time Apollo arrives. And if the leaked info is merely a tease of what Apollo has in store — a mere subset of greater feature riches — then Windows Phone 8 will be quite compelling indeed. ###
- Eric -