It's no big secret that Windows Phone 7 was something of a stepping stone in the development of the forthcoming Windows 8 operating system. Several Windows 8 features, such as the Metro interface, first debuted in Windows Phone 7. As great as Windows Phone 7 was, however, Windows Phone 8 promises to be even better. In this article, I want to try to cut through some of the rumors and talk about what we can realistically expect from Windows Phone 8.
The Operating System
Throughout its history, Windows Phone and Windows Mobile devices have somewhat mimicked desktop Windows operating systems (Windows Phone 7 being the big exception), but these devices have never run a true desktop OS. This will change somewhat with the release of Windows Phone 8.
To put it simply, Windows Phone 8 will use the same kernel, file system, network stack, .NET engine, and web browser as Windows 8. Even so, don't expect to be able to run legacy Windows applications on your phone. Cell phones use ARM processors, so we can expect Windows Phone 8 devices to be more like Windows RT tablets than Windows 8 PCs. According to some sources, however, Windows Phone 8 doesn't run a true Windows RT OS.
Both Windows 8 and Windows RT will be able to run Metro apps. Windows 8 will also be able to run legacy Windows apps. Legacy apps will not be supported by Windows RT (aside from an integrated copy of Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer) because legacy apps are not designed to run on ARM processors. I think that this same limitation will also apply to Windows 8 phones.
So what about Windows Phone 7 apps? Well, Microsoft has stated that apps that currently work on Windows Phone 7.5 devices will run on Windows Phone 8 devices as well.
Windows Phone 8 devices will use higher-end hardware than their Windows Phone 7 counterparts. Microsoft has also decided to give phone manufacturers more flexibility with regard to the hardware specifications than what they had with Windows Phone 7. The best example of this newfound flexibility is the device's display.
Windows Phone 7 devices had a display resolution of 800 x 480. Windows Phone 8 devices will continue to offer this same resolution, but phone manufacturers also have the option of using a 1280 x 720 or a 1280 x 768 display resolution.
Another hardware change will be support for multicore CPUs (allegedly ARM-based Snapdragon processors).
The hardware change that I am most excited about is support for SD cards. One of the big limitations in Windows Phone 7 was that you couldn't copy files directly to the device. Multimedia files for example, had to be added to the device through the Zune software or by sending the file through e-mail. With Windows Phone 8, it will finally be possible to import files into the device directly from an SD card. There are also plausible—but unconfirmed—rumors that Windows Phone 8 devices can be connected to a PC via a USB cable and treated as an external storage device. This was another capability that was sorely missing from Windows Phone 7.
There hasn't been a lot of information released about the features that we can expect to see in Windows Phone 8, but so far there are at least a few noteworthy additions. For starters, Microsoft is improving the phone's mapping and navigational capabilities. For me, this was huge news. I spend more days traveling than I spend at home, and I use Windows Phone's Mapping and Local Scout features religiously, so any mapping improvements will be very welcome indeed.
So far, Microsoft hasn't released a lot of specifics about its mapping improvements, but I can tell you that it will be possible to download your maps to the phone so that you can use them even when Internet connectivity is not available.
Microsoft is also making some improvements to the phone's speech recognition engine. Windows Phone 7 supported the use of voice commands and verbally composing text messages, but the speech recognition engine wasn't always accurate. Windows Phone 8 is said to include a next-generation speech recognition engine that will result in greater accuracy. The command set used for voice interaction has also been expanded, so it will be possible to verbally interact with your phone to a much greater degree than is currently possible.
Microsoft has also confirmed that Skype will be integrated directly into Windows Phone 8 devices, making it possible to place VoIP calls without the need to download an application. There is no word yet on whether the devices will support video calls, but some Windows Phone 8 devices are rumored to have a front-facing camera.
What About Device Upgrades?
I'm sure many Windows Phone 7 users are wondering whether they will be able to upgrade their existing Windows Phone 7 devices to run Windows 8. Sadly the answer is no. Windows 8 devices will use higher-end hardware than what is presently available on Windows Phone 7 devices, so Microsoft chose not to allow existing devices to be upgraded. This, however, does not mean that Windows Phone 7 users will be completely left in the cold.
Microsoft realizes that most mobile phone users are locked into multiyear contracts and are entitled to upgrades only every few years. That being the case, Microsoft does plan to offer one more major update to Windows Phone 7.
The Windows Phone 7.8 update will bring the Windows 8 Start screen to Windows Phone 7 devices. This means that Windows Phone 7 users will be able to take advantage of features such as the ability to resize live tiles. Although not officially confirmed, there are also rumors that the Windows Phone 7.8 update will feature a new feature called visual voicemail, which will transcribe voice mail messages. This feature is not expected to be released for all languages, however.
We should find out a lot more about what to expect from Windows Phone 8 once the SDK is released to developers in a few weeks. Previous Windows Phone SDKs have included an emulator that allowed developers to test their wares on a mockup of the phone. The emulator, which will presumably exist in the new SDK, should provide the first opportunity for the general public to try out the new Windows Phone 8 interface.