As I watched the video of Joe Belfiore (Microsoft Corporate Vice President, Windows Phone Program Management) on stage at the MIX11 keynote go over all the new features that Windows Phone vNext (code-named Mango) will have, two thoughts came to the forefront of my mind. The first was, "Man, these guys have really put a lot of thoughtful work into this, and I can't wait to try it out." The second thought was, "I don't think my mother would use any of these features."
I shouldn't be so harsh. Mango is going to have a lot of "behind the scenes" performance enhancements such as native HTML5 and better GPU utilization that will make the overall Windows Phone experience better than it already is. However, as cool as some of the other features are—for instance, pinning deep links in apps as Live Tiles, I just don't think most non-technical people will use it. Not because it's hard to use, but because most people just won't think about it. A partial analogy would be how I can use my PC for 20 minutes at a time without touching my mouse, but my wife uses the mouse for everything. Keyboard shortcuts save time, but they require you to think about how and when to use them. I did like how some Mango applications use deep links by default when navigating to another app, though.
Likewise, I was really surprised that Microsoft chose to keep the apps launcher as a single (potentially large) list. There are ways to jump to a letter as well as a search box to filter the list down, but they should have taken a cue from Apple's customers who demanded application groups, despite Apple's nice implementation of Spotlight to search for apps. Sound familiar? There aren't many advantages of being last to a party, but not falling into the same traps that your competitors did is one of them.
True to form, Microsoft didn't disappoint at MIX when it came to incredible new features for Silverlight 5 (for which the beta is now available for download) as well as new features for the next version of Visual Studio Express for Windows Phone (which will be available for download very soon). The Windows Phone emulator is now much more complete, with ways to test accelerometer and GPS-dependent apps, and the debugging and profiling features are (as always) second to none.
I really get the feeling that Microsoft is banking too heavily on a windfall of new Windows Phone users from their new deal with Nokia to bring them the critical mass of users to make building Windows Phone apps more attractive. There is a steep growth curve of new apps now, but that won't remain if developers aren't selling a lot of apps. Most smartphones are relatively cheap now, so Nokia won't be able to win in emerging markets on price alone as they did with their Symbian-powered feature phones in the last round of the mobile phone battle for dominance. Furthermore, I don't think that brand loyalty plays as big a part in mobile phone purchases as it does for other computing devices.
It appears (sadly) that Microsoft has opted to abdicate any possible credible presence in the tablet space by not powering such a device on the Windows Phone OS. Honestly, I'm shocked as Xbox Live, Zune, and deep Office integration on a tablet would be incredibly attractive to both business users and consumers alike. By the time the Windows 8 generation hits, the game will be over and Microsoft will have the best tablet OS, but be sitting on the sidelines.
All is not lost, though. As I conjectured (and hoped) a few months back in this column, Microsoft announced at MIX that it is releasing the Kinect SDK soon, which will put Microsoft in the driver's seat for the next generation of computing devices that will be controlled without touching them at all. This is exactly what they needed to do, and the possibilities are simply endless for what can be done with this exciting technology. Any and all doubt that motion-controlled computing was interesting to consumers was put to rest when the Kinect sensor became the fastest selling electronic device in history this past year (selling over 10 million units), so Microsoft may yet have the last laugh in the digital living room (and beyond).
Microsoft has, over the years, built up an impressive portfolio of properties that have significant consumer penetration. Right now, Microsoft is attempting to use Windows Phone as a lightning rod to bring them all together. In my opinion, a tablet would have been the ideal companion, and (as I've said numerous times before) Microsoft erred by not getting into this space sooner. My hope is that Microsoft will not squander the lead that they have in motion computing with Kinect (a position they have not found themselves in very often in recent memory) and will instead recapture their former glory. Their developer tools have always been the key to my heart, so I'm in Microsoft's corner all the way!
Jonathan Goodyear is president of ASPSOFT, Microsoft regional director for Florida, an ASP.NET MVP, and a contributing editor for DevProConnections.