This month marks a special time for Microsoft with regards to Windows Phone. There are two events slated for June that will provide an excellent stage for Microsoft to answer some frequently-asked questions around the next release of Windows Phone (for now, we will stick with “Windows Phone 8″ here, but even the branding is still not 100% certain). Next week is Microsoft TechEd North America, and later in the month is the Windows Phone Summit event (which I previously posted about here). These events may be key to retaining and increasing Windows Phone traction. While the nature of these questions being left open up to this point is a major issue, where things stand in relation to time is also a significant factor.
All indicators are that Microsoft will be bringing Windows Phone 8 to market in the Autumn timeframe. Even if we are generous here (let’s say November and in time for the holiday shopping season), we are currently in the month of June. If questions are left unanswered for much longer, Microsoft runs the risk of losing the interest and adoption of the platform before it is even released. There are several audiences waiting for answers here, with valid concerns.
While there may be more specific questions on peoples’ minds, let’s take a moment to review what I personally believe are some of the critical questions that, left unanswered in this month, could be extremely detrimental to the future of Windows Phone.
QUESTION: What is the hardware/upgrade story for Windows Phone 8?
This question impacts everyone – consumers, enterprises and developers alike. Microsoft has to this point been confusing at best with regards to whether or not existing Windows Phone devices will be able to upgrade to Windows Phone 8. While some people may consider this a “consumer-only” issue, believe me when I say that this impacts EVERYONE. Answering this question will affect other questions and decisions made by enterprises and developers. It is essential that Microsoft finally provide a clear message regarding Windows Phone 8 and device compatibility now in order to allow for everyone involved to plan for the future. Not making a statement until the proverbial “eleventh hour” will only result in customer dissatisfaction.
QUESTION: What exactly IS “The Enterprise Story” For Windows Phone 8?
Microsoft has long stated that Windows Phone 8 will have functionality oriented around enterprise users, administrators and developers. The statements date back to when Microsoft referred to the platform by its old codename “Apollo”. While we have heard there will be a enterprise story, there have really been no details. Microsoft chose a consumer-focused emphasis with Windows Phone 7, leaving many enterprises with no upgrade path for Microsoft’s mobile platform (note that Windows Embedded Handheld has essentially remained stagnant since Windows Phone 6.5 was released) and a “holding pattern” for organizations deciding which direction they will go for mobile device deployments. Microsoft has already lost significant ground to Apple in the enterprise, and now some organizations are starting to consider Android despite its weaknesses in enterprise-specific features. Leaving these questions left unanswered will only result in the current trends continuing and potentially making a company once highly regarded for its focus on enterprise mobility an afterthought.
QUESTION: Where are the developer tools?
While Microsoft has spent an immense amount of time promoting the porting of applications from Windows Phone 7.5 to Windows 8 (and vice-versa), there are thus far no tools for Windows Phone 8 development. Microsoft shipped the Release Candidate for Visual Studio 2012 along with the Release Preview of Windows 8 at the beginning of this month. With only a few months until launch, Microsoft has yet to provide developers with the tools to build and test for the new release. Sadly, this is not the first time this has happened for Windows Phone (and Pocket PC and Windows Mobile) developers. In each case, the result has been applications taking advantage of new capabilities were delayed in arrival. In a highly competitive space where application availability is often a “make-or-break” decision, delays in application availability could end up being a major factor in success or failure for the platform.
QUESTION: What about legacy platform support?
Once Windows Phone 8 launches, like it or not, Windows Phone 7.x will be considered “legacy”. Even with Windows Phone 7.5, this had resulted in issues for both developers and consumers. Initially, Microsoft announced to developers that once they migrated applications to Windows Phone 7.5, the Windows Phone Marketplace would not support upgrading the prior version of the application in the Marketplace. Fortunately, Microsoft quickly responded to the backlash that resulted from this decision and allowed for upgrade support for both versions. However, the recent decision by Microsoft to not support Marketplace access for devices that have not upgraded to Windows Phone 7.5 has resulted in more concerns. Once Windows Phone 8 rolls out, will device manufacturers and carriers continue to support the older platform?
Developers are additionally strapped with potential issues from a tools perspective. Will developers need to have both Visual Studio 2010 and Visual Studio 2012 accessible in order to support both platforms? While this is possible, there is a history of issues with co-existence around this. Additionally, will those developers (primarily those developing enterprise line-of-business applications) still supporting the .NET Compact Framework and Windows Mobile/Windows Embedded Handheld be forced to have THREE sets of Visual Studio installed (Visual Studio 2008 is required for .NET Compact Framework development).
Microsoft definitely needs to have a clear message regarding Windows Phone 7.5 in a Windows Phone 8 world. Long after the platform switch from Windows Phone 6.5 to Windows Phone 7, users and developers are still smarting from the pains this switch caused. There is a fundamental issue of trust with Microsoft at stake here, and avoiding the answers to platform support will do nothing to establish (or re-establish) this trust.
It goes without saying that these are but a few of the questions many have for Microsoft and Windows Phone. In a month where Microsoft will be competing with both Apple (Worldwide Developer Conference) and Google (Google I/O) for attention on the mobile front, silence on these important issues could be deafening. As someone who works extensively with all the target audiences mentioned above and has done so for the better part of the last decade, I can say based on both the past a present that this is a critical time for Microsoft. There is a lot at stake here, a lot of unanswered questions and only a short amount of time. What happens in in the month of June 2012 will likely be looked back upon as significant for Windows Phone and the mobile device market in general. I’m hoping for Microsoft’s (and my) sake that I will eventually look back on the events of this month in a positive light.