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Microsoft Pri0

Welcome to Microsoft Pri0: That's Microspeak for top priority, and that's the news and observations you'll find here from Seattle Times technology reporter Matt Day.

June 21, 2012 at 6:00 AM

Windows Phone 8 built to mesh

[This story is running in the print edition of The Seattle Times June 21, 2012. – Janet I. Tu]

SAN FRANCISCO — Build it once, use it twice.

That’s the lure Microsoft is offering to developers to get them to create more apps for its two upcoming operating systems: Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8.

Hard on the heels of the announcement Monday that Microsoft is building its own Surface line of tablets featuring Windows 8, the company Wednesday divulged details of Windows Phone 8 at the Microsoft Windows Phone Summit in San Francisco.

And, lo and behold, the two systems will share the same core kernel, meaning “developers working on Windows 8 will have incredibly easy transition to Windows Phone 8,” said Joe Belfiore, Microsoft corporate vice president of Windows Phone Program Management.

That moves Microsoft another step closer to its vision of having an integrated ecosystem that will make it easier for developers to build for, and consumers to access, multiple Microsoft platforms across different devices.

“The fundamental Microsoft play is one of streamlining the multiple access points into the same ecosystem of apps, content and services from many devices,” said Al Hilwa, an analyst with research firm IDC. “The long-term plan is that phone, tablet, PC and set-top can tap into the same ecosystem.”

That is expected to be a boon as Microsoft aims to woo its wide network of developers to create apps for its Windows Phone, which lags far behind Android and Apple phones in smartphone market share. Part of the huge gap in users can be explained by the gap in the number of Windows Phone apps compared with the other two platforms.

Computing tasks traditionally done on desktop and laptop PCs are increasingly moving to mobile devices, and Microsoft must carve a space for itself in that market.

The company’s Windows operating system has dominated the PC market, but its mobile offerings — in smartphones and tablets — hardly make a dent.

That’s why so much is riding on Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8, which is designed to run on tablets as well as traditional desktops and laptops.

Microsoft didn’t give a specific launch date for Windows Phone 8, though it’s expected to be released this fall. Phone manufacturers on board include Nokia, Huawei, Samsung and HTC.

There was some bad news for current Windows Phone owners: Those using Windows Phone 7 and 7.5 won’t be able to update to Windows Phone 8.

Microsoft did say, though, it will release a software update, Windows Phone 7.8, for those users. That update will include some of the features of Windows Phone 8, including a new Start screen.

The screen will allow users to add more “live tiles” — a distinctive feature of Microsoft’s Metro interface design — and to resize them, allowing for more personalization.

Other pieces of phone news (and confirmed rumors) announced Wednesday include:

* Windows Phone 8 will support near field communication (NFC) technology, allowing the phone to serve as your electronic wallet.

The phone’s Wallet hub (essentially a tile that includes related apps and information) will integrate third-party apps, such as those from banks and credit-card companies, and also have a section for deals from stores and other outlets.

* Business-friendly features have been added, including security capabilities such as encryption. Business IT departments will be able to deploy their own apps in their own way.

* It will support dual-core processors, screen resolutions including high-definition 720p and WXGA, and microSD memory.

Microsoft executives also said the phone could support multicore processors even, in theory, up to 64 cores.

* Apps that now run on Windows Phone 7 and 7.5 will work on Windows Phone 8.

* Software updates will be released wirelessly, rather than relying on carriers to issue them.

* VoIP and video chat will be deeply integrated into the phone, and Microsoft is working with audio-entertainment company Audible to improve the phone’s speech recognition.

* It will have Nokia mapping technology, with turn-by-turn directions, built into the platform.

“This is a huge release for us,” Microsoft’s Belfiore said.

Overall, Windows Phone 8 is “a nice upgrade for Microsoft and certainly keeps them competitive in the mobile space,” said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with research firm Gartner.

“Clearly they aren’t ceding this market to anyone. The rate and pace of the market means this is a critical update, as no one’s platform from last year will be good enough for next year.”

The biggest challenge, though, for Windows Phone — and one not addressed at this summit — is how to get more people to buy the devices.

Currently, Microsoft’s smartphone platform, which includes both Windows Phone and the outdated Windows Mobile operating systems, holds less than 2 percent of the worldwide smartphone market and 4 percent of the U.S. market.

It’s been making leaps in the number of apps available. Terry Myerson, corporate vice president of the Windows Phone division, said Wednesday there are now some 100,000 apps in the Windows Phone Marketplace.

An app from Audible is now available and Zynga’s popular games “Words With Friends” and “Draw Something” would be available soon, Myerson said.

What Windows Phone executives emphasized, though, was how easy it would be for developers to port their games and apps from Windows 8 to Windows Phone.

Game developers can essentially write the same game for Windows 8 and Windows Phone, Belfiore said. And there’s the same rendering on Internet Explorer 10 for both the phone and desktop PCs.

“Windows Phone 8 could be the upgrade that turns Windows Phone from an also-ran into a strong competitor in the smartphone market that Apple and Google will have to take seriously,” said Rob Sanfilippo, an analyst with independent research firm Directions on Microsoft.

Improvements such as being able to run on multicore devices and having NFC capabilities mean Windows Phone users will no longer have to accept compromises on those fronts, he said, while the “continuity of a development platform across all types of devices is unmatched by any competitor.”

“If the upcoming Windows 8 and RT [the variant of Windows 8 that will run on ARM-based tablets] can find even moderate success in the PC, notebook, and tablet markets with their new Metro-style user interface,” Sanfilippo said, “they will pull Windows Phone 8 through for similar success in the smartphone market.”

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