Microsoft has officially announced the first details of Windows Phone 8 (which you may know better as Apollo) and confirming many of the rumours about the new operating system at the Windows Phone Summit.
However, don’t get too excited – this is a ‘sneak peek’ rather than the full details of the new version and there’s still a lot of information that we don’t know.
Click on to view the complete rundown.
Windows Phone 8 apps
The problem for Windows Phone is less the existing users – who tend to be enthusiastic as well as demanding – and more selling the phones.
The partnership with Nokia is certainly helping, as will the announcement that the Windows Phone Marketplace is now up to 100,000 apps with more coming – from the PayPal support for Wallet to iPhone must-haves like Words with Friends and Audible, plus Zynga’s newly acquired Draw Something.
All Windows Phone 7 apps will run on Windows Phone 8 handsets; but in future developers will have to choose whether to make an app that only uses Windows Phone 7 features and works on both, or one that uses Windows Phone 8.
This means supporting features like Wallet, VOIP, native code or being able to run navigation in the background (which should mean we finally see some full-featured turn-by-turn navigation apps that go beyond what Nokia Drive offers).
There are other advantages, but with the interfaces to components like graphics, audio and sensors being far more similar to those in Windows 8, it’s a lot easier to write Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 apps that share features.
Or, of course, they can make two versions, one for 7 and one for 8; how often that happens is going to depend both on how easy Microsoft makes it to share code between versions of apps in its developer tools and on sales of Windows Phone 8 handsets.
Windows Phone 8 interface
There is one feature of Windows Phone you will be able to get on current handsets (with an update that has the strikingly appropriate name of Windows Phone 7.8) and that’s the new Start screen. This now uses the whole width of the screen, without the arrow to tell you to swipe sideways for more apps.
With the extra space you can fit in a lot more tiles, which can now be three different sizes. There’s a new small size that you can pick for any app, so if you don’t need the Office hub or the dialler to have a full size button because there’s not that much useful information on them, you can shrink them down.
And as well as the current standard tile size, any app will be able to have an extra-large tile to fit more details onto the live tile. Along with some new colour schemes, that makes the Start screen look much more personal.
But the overall look of the platform hasn’t changed dramatically – you’re still offered a list of apps adjacent to the Start screen, and the panorama method of seeing more information by moving horizontally remains – after all, why change one of the best things about the old OS?
Windows Phone 8 – under the hood
Windows Phone 8 is a major new version, running the kernel from Windows rather than from Windows CE.
It isn’t the same as Windows 8, or even Windows RT – even though that also runs on ARM processors – and it doesn’t have the same look to the Start screen and Metro-style WinRT apps won’t run on Windows Phone 8.
But under the hood it’s a lot more similar to develop for and Windows Phone gets several key components from ‘big’ Windows as well as some significant new features and new hardware, which is good news for what developers can make apps do with the increased access they get to the phone system.
Don’t expect the same do-anything, break-anything ethos of Android though; battery life and user experience are still priorities for Windows Phone and even native applications run in a sandbox.
Windows Phone 8 browser and security
Key features that Windows Phone 8 gets from Windows include Internet Explorer 10, complete with the phishing filter and SmartScreen application reputation service to make it harder for malicious websites to trick you into giving away personal information like credit card details or downloading malware.
Malware hasn’t been a problem for Windows Phone so far, but any platform that becomes successful is going to get attacked.
Windows Phone gets other Windows security features like disk encryption and secure boot, so businesses will be happier to use it (especially as they can now manage devices and sideload their own business applications).
Windows Phone 8 media and gaming
Audio, graphics and media playback all work more like their Windows equivalents, which should make for more powerful games and entertainment apps.
However, this means that current games will need to be re-tooled to take advantage of the new platform – the likes of Rovio can leave their games as Windows Phone 7 versions, but they’ll likely want to re-release a more powerful version of the game too.
But given the increased GPU support and power on offer, we’ll at least start seeing some more 3D-rich gaming environments that start taxing the Windows Phone 8 handsets compared to their previous counterparts.
There’s one place where Windows Phone is jumping ahead of Windows; VOIP calls will look just like regular phone calls with all the same features and notifications. Obviously that’s good for Skype but other VOIP apps like Tango will get the same support.
We’re still waiting to see how deep Skype integration gets into the Windows Phone 8 OS, as given it’s already available as an app on the Windows Phone Marketplace it should be shoved pretty deeply into the platform.
Will it lead to a surge in video calling? Probably not, but as there are strong rumours the Xbox platform will be getting a taste of video calling too it seems only fair that Windows Phone 8 devices, complete with their improved front-facing cameras, should be given priority.
Windows Phone 8 CPU
To make all this work well Windows Phone 8 will run on new hardware; still ARM processors, still the Snapdragon platform from Qualcomm but now with multicore processors, with a new generation of GPUs, and with NFC support.
Battery life is still priority for the platform, so we doubt Microsoft is going to allow any CPUs that get too amorous with the power pack – but more power is a big selling point in today’s smartphone market, so this makes enormous sense.
The new Microsoft Wallet app will allow you to make payments by tapping your phone on a credit card reader the way Google Wallet does, and store credit card and membership details securely and tap your phone to send them the way iOS 6 will.
And you’re not tied to using a Microsoft payment service; applications will be able to tap into the Wallet system to set up new payment services – which will include Paypal.
The app is a hub for digital coupons and debit or credit cards – plus you can add in loyalty cards and third party apps that will notify you when they become relevant.
NFC is there for Microsoft’s Wallet payment system, but has other options as well. The OS supports secure SIM, which means users’ can swap from handset to handset and take their payment method with them physically.
There are other applications that Nokia is keen to utilise as well, such as being able to pair with its Bluetooth accessories with a simple tap of the phone – it’s a trick we’ve seen on the old Symbian phones and one we expect to feature heavily here too.
Microsoft has teamed up with Audible to bring speech recognition to Windows Phone 8, allowing users to shout a variety of commands at their handsets.
During the keynote presentation, we saw a demo of the speech platform – which allowed a user to play movies, browse audiobooks and perform searches.
It’s also available for Mango devices, so pop over to the Marketplace today and search Audible if you fancy a go.
Windows Phone 8 upgrades
That’s the reason that you won’t be able to upgrade any existing Windows Phone handsets to 8, because they don’t have the hardware to support the new features or deliver the multitasking performance that the Windows kernel and the improved VOIP support needs.
Only two of the rumoured new resolutions are being announced, both widescreen formats: 1280 by 768 and 1280 by 720 as well as the current 800 by 480, which should give phone makers more flexibility when it comes to choosing parts they can use in multiple devices.
And Windows Phone finally sorts out its SD card support; you’ll be able to store media files on a micro SD card or install applications onto it.
Windows Phone 8 release date
We’re still waiting to get our ears on a proper Windows Phone 8 release date – we’re currently being given the boring notion of ‘autumn’, which could be any time from October to Christmas for all we know. However, we expect it to be sooner rather than later as Microsoft won’t want to miss the traditional holiday season gadget-buying rush.
If you like the sound of all this, then the good news is you won’t have to wait until your mobile network gets around to testing and pushing out updates in the future either.
Microsoft is still agreeing details with the operators and handset makers for Windows Phone 7.8, but there’s going to be a way to get updates directly from Microsoft (perhaps labelled as beta releases) as long as you assume responsibility for anything that goes wrong.
In summary, Microsoft is adding the features that Windows Phone needs to succeed and that need new hardware.
It’s also finally doing something to address the problem of upgrades that would work on your handset but you’re frustratingly unable to get – listen up, Google.
Where Windows Phone still needs to catch up with the other smartphone systems on features it’s doing that much faster. Now it just needs to sell more devices.