At first I was amused by articles suggesting that most of what is coming in the Windows Phone 7 “Mango” update had already been revealed at Mobile World Congress (MWC). Now I’m amused by some of the leaks of much more that may be revealed at Microsoft’s MIX ’11 conference starting tomorrow morning. I’m going to give a quick overview of what I expect, and then sit back to watch (well read, via other blogs, since I’m not there to actually watch) the fun.
The reason I was so amused by people who thought we’d already heard the bulk of what to expect from Mango is that what has already been announced was only enough to keep maybe 5% of the Windows Phone development team busy. An observer needs to keep three things in mind. One, quite obviously, is what are the competitive and customer pressures. Second, what unique innovations could Microsoft want to bring to the table. And third, how big is the development team. The Windows Phone development team is quite large, and while I don’t know its exact size (and wouldn’t reveal it if I did), it is fair to assume that there are several hundred developer, test, and program management people working on Mango. You also can’t have several hundred people dancing on the head of a pin, so it is fair to assume that those people are spread across all aspects of Windows Phone and thus we should see advances in every area of the platform.
MIX is a designer/developer conference, so what we hear about this week are going to be those aspects of “Mango” that it is important developers start working with. Microsoft will likely retain a few key surprises for nearer Mango’s RTM or GA, but those would have little or no developer impact. There also could be a few developer-oriented things that surface after MIX, but I’d expect those to be modest. This would happen if, for example, Microsoft wasn’t quite sure that it could complete the work and thus wanted to wait for more certainty before making them public.
I think we’ll see the following general themes for Mango:
– WP7 Completion – WP7 was a schedule driven release and Microsoft made many tradeoffs to ensure it would ship last fall. Now they have to go back and pickup a lot of the higher priority items that were dropped to make the schedule. For example, we all know that Landscape orientation support is incomplete. I think they will fix that. There will be dozens of things they polish up, from major items to little annoyances, to make the WP7 experience complete. Only a few of these will be revealed at MIX, because most don’t have developer impact.
– Fully Expose the Platform – There is a great deal that already exists in WP7 but there are no (or incomplete) APIs for accessing it. This was mostly a time to market decision, but also a philosophical decision to focus on doing a great job exposing the most important aspects of the platform over doing a mediocre job of exposing everything. Over the year since MIX ’10 Microsoft has received a huge amount of feedback from developers on what they really want to be able to do with the platform that they currently can’t, and will undoubtedly expose far more of it as a result.
– Track Key Microsoft Technologies – We’ve already seen that Mango will be picking up IE9 and there have been plenty of rumors about Silverlight 5. Mango almost certainly will have Silverlight 5 (or some variation of it, perhaps something that is a 4/5 hybrid). It is a pain in the neck for Microsoft’s Developer Division to have separate forks of the Silverlight tree going on simultaneously. Not only because the Silverlight team wants to keep the versions in sync on all platforms, but because teams like Expression Blend and Visual Studio don’t want to have too many targets to deal with. Another example, the Visual Studio Lightswitch team probably would love to target Silverlight 5 (and later) as the only version of Silverlight they support in their final product. They would then want Windows Phone to include Silverlight 5 so there is one less thing they need to deal with when they support it. Also no surprise is HTML5 taking a bigger role via having IE9 on the device. But will Microsoft start to expose HTML5 in a broader way with Mango? I think it depends on how much Microsoft is going to just be talking about HTML5 vs how much they’ll be handing out HTML5-related tool developer previews. This goes way beyond Windows Phone, though we could be in for some Windows Phone surprises.
– Enterprise Focus – For Windows Phone 7 there was an explicit decision to put enterprise-related features on the back burner and really drive to create a good consumer product. This leaves the Blackberry as the Gold standard for enterprise-oriented smartphones. It used to be that Windows Mobile took the Silver, but that position is now held by the iPhone. And Google is working to make sure Android can medal as well. Windows Phone 7 isn’t even on the podium. That means Microsoft isn’t fully exploiting some of its key strengths, such as its large enterprise sales force and all of the other products that could be doing innovative things with Windows Phones. For example, where is a Lync (unified communications) client for Windows Phone? It requires features not in WP7 that I predict will be in Mango. What about a database on the phone and the ability to sync with SQL Server? I suspect we will see some variation of SQL Server CE provided in Mango. There may be dozens of enterprise-oriented projects at Microsoft backed up waiting for Windows Phone features that hopefully Mango will bring to the table. And then there is VPN support. I think it would be a stretch for Microsoft to add DirectAccess support in Mango, but hopefully there will be a VPN client. Of course, the alternative would be to add enough platform support so third-parties (e.g., Cisco or Juniper) could build their own VPN client. In any case, I think Mango will redefine where Windows Phone 7 sits in the enterprise smartphone category, garnering Microsoft a position on the medal stand.
– Next-Generation Chassis – Ok, I don’t think we will get all the details of a next generation chassis because not all of it is important to developers. But if there are going to be new screen resolutions, new mandatory sensors, etc. then we are likely to see them revealed at MIX ’11 and supported in a version of the tools (including emulator) that Microsoft will likely hand out at MIX.
– More Lead, Less Follow – One of the problems with Windows Phone 7 was that the crisis in getting into the consumer smartphone arena left Microsoft as a follower rather than a leader. There were places that Microsoft certainly showed leadership, such as in Gaming with XBox Live. And Microsoft certainly has more catch-up left to do with IOS and Android. But at the same time Microsoft Research, Bing and others at Microsoft have been doing a lot of innovative work and Mango is the first opportunity for these to start making their way into Windows Phone. Hopefully we’ll see a few “hey, we’re past playing catch-up” things revealed this week.
There are many other things that might come out at this MIX. I saw one rumor of a merged Silverlight and XNA. This is something of interest, but not simple due to the incompatible (events in Silverlight vs polling in XNA) programming models they present. It would be great if Microsoft really has resolved this.
Another long-shot is allowing native code applications on Windows Phone. The downside of native code apps is that they are more likely to reduce phone reliability, battery life, etc. than are managed code apps. Also, they may rely on some quirks of Windows CE that Microsoft would want to change in the future. Microsoft doesn’t want to create a lot of legacy that would keep them from aggressively moving Windows Phone forward. To put another spin on it, because the managed code Windows Phone apps are written completely in technology (Silverlight, .NET) that runs on mainstream Windows those apps probably will be able to run on “Windows 8” slates (assuming Microsoft ports over some Windows Phone unique libraries). The same likely wouldn’t be true for native code apps. A compromise position would be for Microsoft to allow special classes of developers to use native code while not enabling it for the broad developer community. Top-tier Game companies are an example. Another example might be the case I previously mentioned of allowing Cisco and Juniper to create VPN clients. Of course even if Microsoft does this they might not reveal it at MIX since they could approach this small set of developers directly.
So that’s my take at what we might see starting tomorrow at MIX ’11. I know I focused mostly on broad categories rather than specifics, but that is because I’m going on strategic thinking rather than trying to play back specific leaks or rumors I’ve heard. By the end of this week we should have a pretty good idea of just how much Microsoft has been able to accomplish in the short time since Windows Phone 7 RTM. If they’ve done enough it certainly will re-ignite the excitement around Windows Phone 7.
Here is an example I wouldn’t expect Microsoft to reveal at MIX ’11, but one that would be a great change for Windows Phone 7. Today many of the built-in utilities ship as part of the OS distribution, and thus updates to them are tied to the OS update cycle. Microsoft could easily pull these out and ship them through Marketplace, which makes it very easy to update them at a different pace. One of the most obvious places this would help is with Bing. Because Microsoft ships Bing for iPhone through the AppStore it is way ahead of Bing for Windows Phone 7, which apparently won’t be enhanced until at least Mango. Allowing the Bing team to update their app more frequently would mean more rapid improvement for Windows Phone 7 without all the carrier delays associated with an OS update.