Microsoft is the secret owner of a powerful ecosystem. "Secret," because until now the company has done very little to get its various products to talk to one another.
Today Microsoft is taking a promising step forward, announcing that Windows Phone 8 will be designed from the ground up to natively interact with Windows 8 when both launch later this year.
Alongside this deep integration, with Windows Phone 8, Microsoft is pushing a redesigned Metro homescreen that allows for more user control, a SIM-based mobile wallet and a built-in mapping solution that isn't Google Maps.
Let's Talk Ecosystems
While ecosystems are going to become more and more important in the near future, they're already at play. Apple is the most aggressive when it comes to building its ecosystem: if you buy only Apple products, your iPhone, Mac, iPad and Apple TV will all talk to one another and enhance the functionality of your system overall. Apple's product-to-product communication is also more robust than its competitors: you can FaceTime between an iPhone and a Mac, for instance, which is the kind of feature that adds subtle incentive for you to encourage your friends to buy Apple, too.
Instead of focusing on hardware, Google, Amazon and others look to wrap you up in online services instead. Google has a dizzying suite with Gmail, Google Play, Google Docs (soon to be Google Drive), Calendar, Reader and more, and you can attach pretty much any info imaginable to Google, and then access it on any computer or even tie it more deeply into an Android device. Similarly, Amazon ties your purchases to your Amazon account, allowing you to access the content across a variety of devices, and has one other big advantage: its Kindle e-book store. Think about it: if you buy all your e-books through the Kindle app, you probably won't ever buy a Nook. The reverse is also true if you buy e-books through Barnes & Noble. The ecosystem is determining your hardware purchases.
With Windows, Windows Phone, Xbox Live and even some services most of today's users probably don't even know about — anyone out there still using Hotmail? — Microsoft has an ecosystem waiting to congeal, and Windows Phone 8 looks like it's going to lead that charge.
Windows 8, Say Hello To Windows Phone 8
Microsoft's "Metro" tile-centric interface was already a part of Windows Phone 7 and, to a lesser extent, informed the Xbox 360's last major interface redesign. With Windows Phone 8, Microsoft is looking to unify its tile architecture, meaning that you'll get more out of owning both a Windows 8 machine and a Windows Phone 8 device (more on that in a minute).
New to Windows Phone 8 is the hugely welcome ability to access updates over the air without plugging your phone into a PC, voice controls similar to Siri but that work in apps as well, true multitasking that allows app developers to tie deeply into a Windows Phone 8 device's system — something enjoyed by Android users, but not yet fully embraced by Apple — and a focus on sharing through tapping. Apps already make that last feature a possibility (tapping two phones with the same app to exchange business cards, for instance), but with the native ability to tap two Windows Phone 8 handsets together and pass information back and forth (or any Windows 8 machine), it may be something people start using a lot more.
While that's all pretty cool, here are the three features we're most excited for from today's announcements:
1. Redesigned Metro live tiles: With its live tile design, Microsoft's interface definitely looks different. Instead of your usual grid of apps, your email, phone calls, texts and more all exist on little constantly updating tiles, which can dynamically display different bits of information. With Windows Phone 7, it was pretty but a little cumbersome. Windows Phone 8 will give you more control over these tiles, letting you pin whatever you want wherever, and designate which tiles should be small or medium or large. What's more, with a Windows 8 machine, you can organize your live tiles across a computer, tablet or phone. Much in the same way that owning a Mac and an iPhone together will give you greater functionality, your Windows 8 family of devices will all be an extension of one another. You can see it in action in the graphic above: a Windows 8 slate and Windows Phone 8 device share tile information.
2. A mobile wallet tied to your SIM: Cell carriers and handset makers want you to stop reaching for your wallet, and to use your phone instead. It's going to be a big, big push in upcoming smartphones. Right now, that usually means baking NFC technology right into every handset, and, as it is with Google Wallet, funneling your transactions through a certain company (again, think ecosystem). Microsoft's solution is a little different. Your wallet details will reside on a secure SIM card instead, meaning that you can take your digital wallet with you from phone to phone just as you would a list of contacts. Or, at least, that's the plan. As carriers and phonemakers decide on how to incorporate NFC and mobile wallets, the idea of a secure SIM could get lost in the shuffle.
3. Nokia Maps: Ever use Nokia Maps? We're betting you haven't, not unless you had to. The company's Web incarnation of its mapping tools are functional, but pale in comparison to the kind of control Google Maps offers. There is one big benefit Nokia Maps has on Windows Phone 8, though: the ability to access your maps offline. This means you can still find out where you are when your cell's signal leaves you, and could also see you using less data, according to Microsoft. With mapping software becoming quite the sticking point lately, we're interested to see how Microsoft and Nokia's offering will hold up to Google and Apple.
Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 reveal has definitely left us curious. We've always thought the live tiles were an interesting way to build an interface, but one that was ultimately more pretty than functional. With more control over the live tiles, deep integration with Windows 8 and plenty of smart features, we're excited to get our hands on the hardware later this year and see how it holds up.