Microsoft is breaking from its native Windows Mobile stack and introducing a managed API platform for .NET developers. .NET developers can use this platform to start building third-party mobile apps that run on Microsoft Windows Phone 7.0 devices, which are expected at retail in September. But can a brand-new mobile platform fueled by killer apps help Microsoft restore its footing against the Apple iPhone and the Google open source Android platform in the fast-paced global smartphone market?
"It's not so much that Microsoft has finally begun to fill the gaps in its offering compared with its key rivals such as Apple and Google," said research firm Ovum's Tony Cripps in an analyst note when Windows Phone 7 (WP7) was introduced in February at the Mobile World Congress. "It's more that the company is making its core competence - namely software development and expertise - work for it in the form of a leverageable and scalable basis for multichannel content and services."
The company's new line of attack rests on driving .NET developers and designers to use familiar tools and skill sets to build WP7 apps for a consumer marketplace. The WP7 application development platform is based on the Microsoft rich Internet application framework Silverlight, its gaming framework XNA and the .NET Compact Framework for micro devices. In February, Microsoft announced the XNA Framework - which is used to build Xbox 360, Windows PC and Zune apps - now supports Windows Phone and Silverlight.
Windows Phone 7 applications will be distributed through the Windows Phone Marketplace - accessible via an integrated "hub" on all WP7 devices - and through desktop PCs. In a model that's similar to the Apple App Store, developers can monetize their apps and earn up to 70 percent of revenues from applications that pass the Microsoft certification requirements.
In a move that surprised Windows Mobile developers, the Windows Phone 7 platform is a clean break from the company's longstanding platform, which Microsoft says it will still support. The change in strategy leaves Windows Mobile developers, many of whom had focused on business apps, with some tough decisions to make, and no upgrade path. "We've always been very strong supporters of Windows Mobile platforms," says Ellen Craw, president of Ilium Software Inc. "And we believe that Microsoft made the right decision about backward compatibility - but we also have to be realistic about what we can do and what we believe will pay off."
Microsoft's strategy centers on a new market that it identifies as "life maximizers." "We're building this phone with a focus on the end user," says Charlie Kindel, manager of the Microsoft Windows Phone Application Platform and Developer Experience program. "They use their phone at home, but they also use their phone in work situations and the phone needs to be great at both, so there absolutely is an enterprise story as part of Windows Phone 7 Series," he explains.
Microsoft is trying to ensure a consistent user experience for end users on both the hardware and software platforms. The WP7 devices, despite having different manufacturers, will all use an ARMv7 architecture with Cortex/Scorpion processor (or better) from Qualcomm Inc., a unified graphics subsystem (DirectX9), only two screen sizes and support capacitive touchscreens with four contact points. Other hardware specifications include 256MB RAM, 8GB Flash and a 5MP camera. First-generation WP7 devices will ship with a 800x480 WVGA touchscreen, with 480x320 HVGA expected sometime after the launch. When the second resolution is shipped, application and game developers will be expected to support both, according to Kindel.
The hardware specifications, Windows Phone System Design and application platform should make app development easier for mobile developers who can count on consistent experiences for end users, says Microsoft. In the past, Windows Mobile developers had to deal with limited or non-existent support of various functionality based on the OEM or even different products from the same manufacturer. All Windows Phone 7 development tools are free and will remain free for Windows Phone developers. Developers can register for the free tools with their Windows Live ID.