MIX: The Windows Phone 7 Series Apps Story

Microsoft’s presentations earlier today at the MIX developer conference answered a lot of questions about third-party applications on the company’s upcoming Windows Phone 7 Series operating system.  We’ve summarized most of the take-away points below.

App Development

Silverlight + XNA – all Windows Phone 7 apps will be built using Silverlight (Microsoft’s competitor to Adobe Flash, mainly meant for browser-based rich Internet apps) and XNA (the 3D gaming framework used for PC, Zune, and Xbox 360 games)

Free Development Tools – Microsoft will offer free tools to develop for Windows Phone 7.  Developers can already download a CTP (preview) version of the tools at developer.windowsphone.com, including Visual Studio 2010 Express for Windows Phone, Windows Phone Emulator, Silverlight for Windows Phone,  and XNA 4.0 Game Studio.  Expression Blend for Windows Phone, an interface design tool, will be made available (also free) as a separate download.

• Location Service – Microsoft will be offering developers a location service– essentially a central API that feeds apps data about the phone’s whereabouts.  This likely combines GPS with data from Navizon (which Microsoft just signed a deal with), which triangulates the user’s position based on cell towers and known Wifi networks in the area.

• Notification Service – Microsoft talked about a “notification service” that lets applications notify a user even when the app is not running.  The system, which sounds identical to Apple’s push notification system for the iPhone, works through a Microsoft-hosted service and was demoed through the Major League Baseball app.  Windows Phone 7 does seem to have a nice Palm-like pop-down notifications panel though, unlike the iPhone, whose modal notification boxes can become quite annoying.

• Multitasking – One of the main questions people have been asking is whether WP7 will have real, WinMo 6.x/Android-style multitasking.  The answer is basically no.  Some apps will be able to use the notification service (described above) to replace multitasking, and Microsoft will allow certain types of applications to run inside a hub in the background.  The only example mentioned was streaming music through Pandora, but we’d hope things like IM clients would also fall into this category.

Screen Resolution – Microsoft will allow only two screen resolutions for Windows Phone 7 Series — WVGA (800×480), as seen in the first WP7 handsets, and later HVGA (480×320).  This should keep application development simple and solves one of the key problems of Windows Mobile, which supported everything from 176×220 (for non-touch devices) to 320×240, 320×320, 400×240, 480×320, 640×480, and 800×480 and was thus a nightmare for developers, who had to tailor apps to many different resolutions.

WinMo 6.x Compatibility – The key take-away here is that Windows Mobile 6.x applications will not work on Windows Phone 7.  WinMo apps using the .NET framework could be easier for developers to port over than others, but at the very least, all prior applications will need a full UI rewrite targeting WP7’s new Silverlight/XNA-based UI.

Windows Phone Marketplace

Microsoft spoke about the new Windows Phone Marketplace (note the new name– the app store for Windows Mobile 6.x is called “Windows Marketplace for Mobile).  Developers will still get 70% of their app earnings, but Microsoft says it’s cut down on a number of smaller charges that made life miserable for developers in the current store (such as separate fees for insertion into each country’s store).

Other changes include:

• New Payment Options – There’ll be ad-supported apps, and for paid apps, you can either use a credit card or have the charge added to your cell phone bill (if your carrier supports the feature).

• Application Trials – This is basically the shareware model– if developers choose, apps will work for a developer-defined time period before expiring or limiting the app’s functionality, then the user can buy it and instantly activate the rest of the features (no additional download needed).

• Marketplace App – Of course, the biggest thing here is the new interface for the marketplace (pictured above), which matches the Windows Phone 7 design philosophy of swiping across a big panorama with oversized cut-off text and such.

Desktop Client

The Zune desktop software will be the only way to connect a WP7 phone to a PC

Windows Mobile 6.x supported several ways of connecting to a desktop PC.  Once connected by USB, you could browse most phones like a USB drive to copy over songs, videos, and other files.  Then you could sync contacts, calendar, ec. using ActiveSync (on Windows XP) or Windows Mobile Device Center (on Windows Vista/7), and there were even third-party apps to manage desktop syncing (for non-Windows OSes, for example).

Windows Phone 7 does away with all of that, instead adopting Apple’s iTunes-based approach for the iPhone to the nail.  The Zune desktop client is now the only method of connecting a Windows Phone to your PC.  The upside is that you get all the kinds of capabilities you do in iTunes, like being able to browse and purchase mobile apps directly on your computer, rather than only on the device.  This is something Android and Palm devices can’t do.  But of course, the Zune desktop client only runs on Windows, so Mac users are out of luck (Linux users are accustomed to being screwed over, so we won’t mention them).

As a result, you’ll no longer be able to sync anything at all with a desktop or laptop — songs, videos, photos, documents, etc. — unless it has the Zune client installed.  It’s a clean break from Windows Mobile’s much more open system in favor of Apple’s convenient but closed model (which is a general theme all around Windows Phone 7 Series, for that matter).

Applications

Here’s the list of current app partners for Windows Phone 7 Series– not bad:

AWS Convergence Technologies, WeatherBug, Citrix Systems Inc., Clarity Consulting Inc., Cypress Consulting, EA Mobile, Fandango Inc., Foursquare Labs Inc., frog design inc., Glu Mobile Inc., Graphic.ly, Hudson Entertainment Inc., IdentityMine Inc., IMDb.com Inc., Larva Labs, Match.com LLC, Matchbox Mobile Ltd., Microsoft Game Studios, Namco Networks America Inc., Oberon Media Inc., Pageonce Inc., Pandora Media Inc., Photobucket Inc., PopCap Games Inc., Seesmic, Shazam Entertainment Ltd., Sling Media, SPB Software Inc., stimulant, TeleCommunications Systems Inc., Touchality LLC and Vertigo Software Inc

The first Windows Phone 7 apps paint an interesting picture of Microsoft’s new mobile platform.  It’s certainly garnered a lot of developer attention, although who in their right mind would blow off a competitive new OS from Microsoft, even despite the company’s prior market failings with WinMo 6.x?  Many of the apps we saw today are already out on other platforms, which is a good sign in that Windows Phone, unlike WinMo 6.x, will probably get all of the big-title apps from Android/iPhone/etc.  However we have to keep in mind that Microsoft has broken compatibility with all prior Windows Mobile apps, so we’re starting from scratch here.

Most of the apps demoed today make good use of Windows Phone 7’s pretty interface and 3D capabilities– we do see a wide spectrum in terms of interface design, though, with some apps, like the Associated Press’ app, sticking to something that looks just like Microsoft’s built-in apps in WP7:

Associated Press Mobile for Windows Phone 7 Series

…while others like Hush Hush provide an interface that looks nothing like the rest of the OS:

Silverlight

Windows Phone 7 applications will mostly be made using Silverlight, so it’s natural that any sites or web apps already using Silverlight will probably be pretty easy to port over.  This includes things like Netflix’s Instant Streaming feature, which uses Silverlight and is built into the company’s Windows Phone 7 app:

Games

Microsoft really has the potential to score a home run on the gaming front with Windows Phone 7 Series, for a couple of reasons.  First, the minimum chassis specs mean that all phones running the OS will be fast, leaving the iPhone 3GS and most other smartphones today in the dust.  More importantly, though, Microsoft will be leveraging its Xbox Live service, so WP7 games will tie in neatly with the service.

So far we’ve seen Xbox Live achievement points integrated into the WP7 game demos, and we’ve heard about turn-by-turn cross-platform multiplayer support, but what we’re really waiting to see is live multiplayer (think first-person-shooters).  Unfortunately that’s probably not something we’ll be seeing at the moment.

Conclusion

Overall, we believe Microsoft has made a solid showing today– it’s paired Windows Phone 7 Series with the best mobile development tools around.  Visual Studio 2010, Silverlight, XNA, the Windows Phone emulator, and the other bits are all quite intuitive to use, and we’ll definitely be experimenting with them over the coming weeks and months.  As long as the company figures out the implementation details for the Windows Phone Marketplace better than its current Marketplace, that element should be fine too.

So what remains?  The rest of the OS and the devices themselves.  Will Microsoft be successful in regaining its mobile market share?  We’ll have to wait and see, but the major factor here that many seem to be forgetting is that the first Windows Phone 7 Series devices won’t be launching until over half a year from now.  That’s a long time, and Apple, Google, and Palm are not going to just wait around for Microsoft.

***ARTICLE TEXT COPYRIGHT (C) 2010 TechAutos***

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