Microsoft unveils Windows Phone 8

Microsoft Windows Phone 8

Microsoft’s big week continues. The Redmond-based software — and hardware — giant on Monday unveiled its first foray into the tablet hardware market, the Microsoft Surface. Based on Windows RT and Windows 8 Pro, the Surface sets the bar high for Microsoft’s vendor partners as they prepare their own Windows 8 laptops and tablets, which will launch later this year. Moving on from tablets and pushing deeper into the mobile space, Microsoft on Wednesday took the wraps off the latest version of its smartphone operating system, Windows Phone 8.

Microsoft’s Windows Phone Summit kicked off on Wednesday and while the press and tech blogs are still buzzing about the company’s first tablet, focus will now shift to Microsoft’s mobile efforts. Nokia’s first run of Lumia smartphones helped bump global Windows Phone shipments up to 3.3 million units in the first quarter this year, but the exploding smartphone market outgrew the emerging platform and Microsoft’s smartphone market share slid to 2.2% from 2.6% in the same quarter a year earlier.

Microsoft’s answer to reversing this negative trend is Windows Phone 8.

The company called today’s event its Windows Phone 8 platform preview, offering developers and the general public a first look at the next major Windows Phone release, which will launch this fall.

“The future of Windows Phone is about a shared Windows core,” Joe Belfiore said. Windows Phone 8 will ship this fall with the very same kernel that is found in its upcoming desktop and tablet operating system, Windows 8. The Windows kernel is currently in use by more than 1.3 billion people globally.

Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 core will enable new hardware types according to the company, and it will also allow developers to easily build apps for both Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 and port apps from one to the other.

Because of this major retooling of the operating system, current Windows Phone handsets will not be upgradable to Windows Phone 8.

Windows Phone 8 will support multi-core chipsets — testing has been done with devices up to 64 cores — and Windows Phone 8 will be optimized for dual-core processors at launch and it will support 720p and WXGA display resolutions as well. Windows Phone 8 will also finally introduce microSD card support to Microsoft-powered smartphones, and Internet Explorer 10 will be carried over from Windows 8 to Windows Phone 8 as well, which offers four times faster javascript performance and full HTML5 support.

“We’re going to see some freaking killer games this year,” Belfiore said while on stage during the Windows Phone Summit keynote. Windows games can be ported to Windows Phone 8 very easily since the two platforms will now share the same core.

NFC support is coming with Windows Phone 8, and Microsoft will introduce a new mobile wallet feature as well. The offering appears to be very similar to the Google Wallet product for Android, but it adds elements similar to Apple’s upcoming Passbook app, too. The wallet will support banking cards and credit cards, but it will also support tickets and passes like Passbook. Every Windows Phone 8 device will support Microsoft’s wallet features, but Orange will be the first carrier to support the payment feature. Microsoft is hoping wallet support will come to the U.S. some time next year.

Windows Phone 8 will also replace Bing maps with Nokia Maps and navigation. Nokia Maps offers offline maps and free turn-by-turn navigation, and it will be available on all Windows Phone 8 devices for free. Microsoft is also preparing a bigger push into the enterprise market with new device management features, Bitlocker encryption and secure boot capability.

Microsoft’s next major Windows Phone build will also alter the Windows Phone start screen. The home screen supports resizing of tiles, new live tile features and much more. Tiles in earlier versions of Windows Phone were confined to two sizes — a square or a rectangle — but Windows Phone 8 will support smaller tiles, larger tiles and wider tiles to make full use of the coming wave of higher-resolution displays on Windows Phone.

Microsoft confirmed that all Windows Phone 7.5 “Mango” apps will run on Windows Phone 8, as will older live tiles.

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