Foley on Microsoft

Windows 8 Phones: Can Microsoft Catch Up?

Whether you're a Windows Phone fan or foe, most know Microsoft is behind the eight ball in this market.

The 'Softies have tried to bolster their smartphone standing in a number of ways -- everything from giving Nokia more than a billion dollars to push Windows Phone over Android, to shelling out bucks so big-name developers will port their apps. So far nothing has moved the needle in Microsoft's favor.

Microsoft has another trick up its sleeve: accelerating plans to unify the Windows and Windows Phone platforms. Originally, according to rumors, Microsoft wasn't expected to be able to create a common Windows and Windows Phone platform until Windows Phone 9. But it looks as though that grand unification plan is arriving sooner -- this year, in fact.

Microsoft isn't simply going for a shared look and feel between Windows and Windows Phone. The two platforms will also include common kernel elements (the core MinWin components), a common browser (Internet Explorer 10), the same CLR core, and possibly even the same programming framework (Windows Runtime, or WinRT). At this point, the WinRT piece of the story is still uncertain, but the other items are basically confirmed.

Beyond sharing key pieces, Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 are going to be more tightly integrated on the synchronization front. The process of saving, sharing and retrieving files, data and documents across the platforms via SkyDrive and other mechanisms will be tighter and more seamless. There will be new Companion apps to make Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 work better together by deeply integrating core services and experiences across the two platforms.

It's still not clear to me at this point in Windows 8 development whether the next version of Windows is going to be a big hit or not. The idea of running two environments side-by-side -- one with Metro tiles and the other with a more legacy-like desktop -- is unproven. We still don't know the final battery life, form-factor options and pricing for the coming Windows 8 family of machines. And at this relatively late date, assuming a fall Windows 8 launch, the developer story is still a murky work in progress.

But even if the riskiest Microsoft product bet ever -- as CEO Steve Ballmer acknowledged back in 2010 that Windows 8 would be -- isn't a home run, Microsoft will still likely sell millions of copies. And with just 1.5 percent or so of the global smartphone market share, Windows Phone needs all the help it can get -- especially from its sister OS.

After the debut of the Windows 8 tiled interface last year, more than a few Microsoft watchers, customers and partners thought Windows Phone might help sell Windows 8, given the similarity of the interfaces. As it turns out, we had it backward. Microsoft is instead hoping Windows 8 will bootstrap Windows Phone 8.

There are still a couple of big what-ifs in this bootstrapping scenario that might be solved by the time this column is published (though I kind of doubt it). First: Will there be a single Windows 8/Windows Phone 8 marketplace, similar to the way Apple offers a common iPhone/iPad place to buy? This seems like a no-brainer, plus a great way for Microsoft to instantly populate the Windows Store by the time Windows 8 launches. But no one at Microsoft has said officially and publicly whether this is the plan. On a related note, how much work will be required to get existing Windows Phone 7.x apps to run on Windows Phone 8, given its new kernel and possible new developer framework?

If the 'Softies can get these synergistic 8 platforms out in time for the holidays in 2012, maybe those of us who wished for Microsoft to put the Windows Phone OS on its tablets will be more on board with Microsoft's strategy of integration. Big risks can lead to big rewards.

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.


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