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Microsoft launched Windows Phone 8 today, just three days after it officially unveiled Windows 8, and so begins a new era for the company in the mobile space. With a rundown of the new features, plus some hands-on time, I got a pretty good first impression of the platform as it is now.
The first thing Microsoft wants you to know about Windows Phone 8 is that it’s been designed to be personal to you. You’re the centre of the experience, the focus of the design and you decide how to tailor it to your liking. This falls in line with the slogan of “the smartphone reinvented around you”, whereby Microsoft is looking to go on a different path than iOS, Android or BlackBerry.
Naturally, it has to go on a different path because doing the same things as the other guys would probably get them nowhere. You couldn’t tell from the launch event that was live streamed from San Francisco, but there’s a lot riding on this launch. If Windows Phone 8 fails in the long run, Microsoft risks being irrelevant in the mobile space. But this post isn’t about prognosticating, it’s about what you can expect to see.
Current Windows Phone 7 users will be familiar with People Hub, the all-in-one app that takes a contact’s information and parks it in their contact card. Phone number, email, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, you name it. That concept has been expanded to integrate it further into the OS. You can now see tweets and status updates update regularly on the lock screen, including Facebook photos and albums that have been posted. Pin a contact to your home screen, and you get a constantly revolving tile with the latest from that person.
Rooms is an extension of this in that you can create special separate groups where you can share photos, messages, a calendar, notes, to-do lists and more — and only those within that group can see the content. A “Family” one comes preset on Windows Phone 8 devices, but you can create whatever you want. It could be your hockey team, best friends, work colleagues — anything. It’s also been designed to work with other platforms, including iPhone users, albeit with limited functions. There was a demo of a calendar being shared between the devices, but only real testing will show what’s possible. We’ll be reviewing the Windows Phone 8 handsets coming to Future Shop, so stay tuned.
Live Apps and Live Tiles are essentially overarching functions of the OS that keep information flowing from apps to the tiles. This is why you’ll see some tiles constantly flipping over to show updates or info that you want to keep tabs on. What’s actually displayed depends on how you size the tile (there are three preset sizes), and you can apply it to any tile you want.
Skype is now “always on”, meaning that you can receive a call even when the app is off. It works in the background but apparently barely takes up any processing power, so it’s not a drain on the battery. The look and feel is much like the new-look Skype that was introduced in Windows 8 for PCs and tablets last week.
Data Sense is a built-in app that helps you not only keep track of your data usage, but also what apps use the data, how much they use and how you can manage it. There are third-party apps that already do this, but it looks to be very simple to set up and understand on Windows Phone 8. The focus on data also includes compression on the built-in Internet Explorer web browser, allowing you to browse 45% more using the same amount of data. This looks to be an Explorer-only feature, and likely doesn’t apply to other browsers that you can download in Windows Marketplace.
Kid’s Corner is one feature parents will love because it creates a separate space for kids to use when they want to play on mommy or daddy’s Windows Phone 8 handset. The setup looks super easy, and all content is curated by the parent. When Kid’s Corner is set, kids slide sideways to unlock the lock screen, showing them a different home screen with only the apps and games their parents have allowed access to. It was so nifty that even actress Jessica Alba showed up on stage in San Francisco to offer her two cents.
SkyDrive is essentially Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s iCloud. You can move content to and from SkyDrive, and once it’s up there, you can also get to it from a Windows 8 PC or tablet. The cloud-based platform has been around for years now, but was recently streamlined, and now allows 7GB of free data. One key difference with iCloud that Microsoft reps pointed out was that there is no time lapse on content stored in SkyDrive. With iCloud, photo streams last 40 days, but not so here.
And speaking of Apple, iTunes playlists can easily be ported over to Windows Phone 8 phones as well, complete with metadata and everything. The music can then be made available across Windows 8 thereafter.
The camera abilities, at least in terms of hardware, depend on the phone, but “lenses” can now be used to snap photos in particular styles. The lenses are basically art filters that add something different to photos. Without really getting a chance to try them, it’s hard to say how well they perform.
There are probably a lot more nuances here that I couldn’t see because of the limited time I had with the devices, but the upcoming reviews we have coming up will get to those. As is, Windows Phone 8 is definitely different from iOS, Android and BlackBerry (maybe even including BB10). With Windows 8 coming only days before, it’s going to take time to see how the ecosystem works.
As a Windows Phone 7 user, you won’t be able to upgrade to Windows Phone 8 because the hardware requirements are totally different. Still, if you like the experience you get there, you will feel right at home with 8. The general user interface looks and feels the same, and there is enough familiarity to maintain consistency, but also enough of a difference to make you feel like you’re using something new.
Stay tuned for more information on when the phones will be available.