Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 Event: A Partial Monty

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Noah Berger / Reuters

Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president of Microsoft, introduces the Windows Phone 8 mobile operating system in San Francisco, California, June 20, 2012.

At a press event in San Francisco this morning, Microsoft talked about the next version of Windows Phone–now officially named Windows Phone 8–for the first time. The biggest single piece of news is something we knew was coming: The mobile operating system is leaving its Windows CE plumbing behind and will share the same core as full-blown Windows 8.

That should be a boon to developers; Microsoft says it’ll make it much, much easier for them to write one program and release versions for Windows PCs, tablets and phones, with only minor modifications.

Microsoft Corporate VP Joe Belfiore and other executives unveiled and demoed a bunch of other new features and improvements. They include:

  • Optimizations for dual-core processors.
  • Support for higher-resolutions screens (existing apps will be automatically scaled up).
  • Full support for microSD cards, so you can move a memory card between phone and PC.
  • A new start screen that lets you resize the sizes of the Live Tiles to emphasize the ones you care most about.
  • Internet Explorer 10, with Smart Screen phishing filter, faster JavaScript performance and better HTML5 support.
  • An all-new mapping app based on Nokia’s technology, with offline access and turn-by-turn directions.
  • Native code and DirectX support which makes it easier to develop high-powered games.
  • A Wallet app that supports credit/debit cards, loyalty cards, Groupon-style deals and NFC for secure transactions.
  • Phone-to-phone, phone-to-tablet and phone-to-PC sharing, using NFC and peer-to-peer Wi-Fi.
  • Voice support that lets third-party developers incorporate at least vaguely Siri-like spoken input.
  • More features for business uses, such as Bitlocker security.
  • Upgrades done entirely over-the-air and an option that lets “enthusiasts” get early access to them.

If most of these sound like plumbing rather than items that consumers will get excited about, well…that’s right. Belfiore explained that today’s event was primarily dedicated to technologies that will help developers build cooler apps, and that more news about on-the-surface features for consumers will come along later.

Whatever those features are, you may need a new phone to get them: Windows Phone is so “modern,” Microsoft says, that it won’t be available as an upgrade for handsets that are currently on the market. So it will also release another upgrade–Windows Phone 7.8–which will work on existing models and include some improvements, including the new smart screen.

Everyone knows that Windows Phone is already inventive and impressive. Everyone knows that those virtues haven’t translated into market success yet. So it’s tempting to crave some sort of announcement from Microsoft that could instantly change the game–something so unique and compelling that it would let Windows Phone advance immediately to big-time competition with iOS and Android.

Such a magical game changer didn’t come today, and probably doesn’t exist. All Microsoft can do is continue to improve the platform, encourage leading publishers to bring popular apps to it and try to make it possible for developers to write programs that are not only as good as ones on iOS and Android, but better. It’s doing all that.

The company also needs to be patient, and it needs to cross its fingers. My guess is that if Windows Phone ever breaks through, it’ll be due to Google fumbling Android as much as Microsoft getting things right.

Microsoft said that Samsung, HTC, Huawei and (of course) Nokia will be the first companies to sell Windows Phone 8 handsets; all will be based on Qualcomm chips. It’ll ship this fall.