Windows Phone senior product manager Greg Sullivan finds it deliciously ironic that Apple railed against the sameness of PCs during its famed "1984" commercial, and now hordes of people are carrying devices that to him look practically identical. "The user interaction model, and the look and feel, while nice, is Apple's and not yours," Sullivan said. "It's what Steve Jobs thinks your Start screen should look like."
As you may have guessed, the sledgehammer for Sullivan in this scenario isn't a Macintosh, but a Windows Phone — one with a highly personalized Start screen. This hallmark feature of Microsoft's mobile OS will soon get enhanced with Windows Phone 7.8 and Windows 8, adding the ability to resize Live Tiles for cramming in more at-a-glance info.
More important, Windows Phone and Windows 8 will operate on the same core, which could finally shake the underdog status for Microsoft's platform. We sat down with Sullivan to talk about the new software and its potential impact on the competitive landscape.
LAPTOP: With Windows 8 just around the corner, why would someone buy a Lumia 900 right now?
Sullivan: We think that the Lumia is a fantastic phone that competes favorably with anything in the market today. That being said, we're making an investment in our core architecture that we think is going to take us beyond the horizon, for years and years out there. The existing hardware doesn't have the capability to exploit that — the Lumia doesn't have dual-core, it doesn't have NFC — so what we are going to bring is the look and feel of Windows Phone 8 to phones with Windows Phone 7.8.
LAPTOP: So what are you offering with Windows Phone 7.8?
Sullivan: On the existing Start screen, the Live Tiles didn't go all the way to the edge of the screen. There were two sizes, and these sizes weren't user configurable. Now we're using the whole screen, we added a small size Live Tile, and every single tile can be resized by the user. To get to your apps, you still just swipe over.
LAPTOP: Why is the Start screen such a big deal to Microsoft?
Sullivan: If you take 50 people with iPhones and then throw their phones on the table and say "find your phone," it becomes obvious that a lot of the phones look the same. I remember that "1984" commercial, with the gray people and the woman in the jogging shorts throwing the hammer. To me, it's ironic that, you could argue, the user interaction model, and the look and feel, while nice, is Apple's and not yours. It's what Steve Jobs thinks your Start screen should like. You can install the apps that you care about and arrange the icons according to your preference, but you can't get rid of the ones that Steve Jobs doesn't think you should.
LAPTOP: Will all existing Windows Phones get the 7.8 update at the same time?
Sullivan: We appreciate the desire to put the latest software on the hardware that I own. To the degree that that's feasible, we're going to enable that. I'll compare that approach to the Android approach, which is that the No.-1-selling platform right now, but Google doesn't seem to care if you get an upgrade to your OS.
LAPTOP: A lot of Windows 8's features seem like Microsoft is just playing catch-up — dual-core and NFC, for example. What new features are more forward-looking or ahead of the competition?
Sullivan: Someone else said to me, "Well, if you're just getting dual-core, you're behind because they've already had dual-core." If you're going to say that this new core only gets us to catch-up, if that's how you're going to measure it, it's probably true. The thing is, the scale of the ecosystem that is connected to that core is measured in billions —- 1.3 billion.
That scale will have a meaningful impact on the ability of end-users, hardware manufacturers and developers to achieve acceleration in lower cost, faster availability, and better hardware with more choices. So it's not just about "they had dual-core, now you have dual-core, and now you're caught up." We caught up in a way that sets us up for an accelerated delivery of innovation at a scale that we don't think anybody else has.
LAPTOP: Do you think you can catch up to Android and iOS in apps more quickly then?
Sullivan: Another advantage of the scale is that if you have people out there who are excited about writing applications for Windows 8. It's going to be very easy for them to also target our platform. This was not true before, before the shared core and native code.
LAPTOP: So when you guys are going after developers now, is it more of a coordinated approach between the Windows 8 team and the Windows Phone team?
Sullivan: It's starting. People started asking questions, "What about the marketplace? When I buy this now, can I access it on every device?" Apple drew the line between the phone and the tablet in one bucket, and the PC in another bucket. We drew the line between the phone on one hand, and the PC and tablet together on the other. So, just like you can't buy an iOS app and run it on your Mac today, we just drew that line in a different place.
We did this for very good reasons— we could have stretched Windows Phone and said, "Windows Surface runs Windows Phone, and it has 100,000 apps available for it." But we would argue that iPhone apps aren't really iPad apps — that's why developers now target that environment uniquely. From our perspective, bringing the benefits of the scale that we have in the PC ecosystem down to a tablet is significant.
LAPTOP: Still, when you look at Metro apps, the look and feel of them are very similar to Windows Phone. So from a developer's perspective, is it write once and run anywhere? Or is it close to that?
Sullivan: It's close — it will not be write once and run anywhere, but there will be a significant amount of reuse, regardless of how you developed your app. There will still be differences because of the unique characteristics of each platform beyond aspect ratio and screen size, but there will be a high degree of reuse.
LAPTOP: What are the other benefits of Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 being on the same core?
Sullivan: Windows is a big thing that runs on lots and lots of devices. We now share a core and a similar user experience, and meaningful consistency at the app platform level. Windows 8 and Windows Phone are not identical, but having that core, having that shared user experience is going to solve an awareness problem for us. There's a bunch of stuff that that synergy solves for us, not just on architecture and developer efficiency, but awareness and scale of device driver writing. So we get all of these benefits from being on this core and explicitly associating and aligning with Windows 8.
LAPTOP: How will this sort of synergy extend to the Xbox?
Sullivan: We've talked about how you can have Xbox Live on your phone, play a game on your phone that earns you things that show up in the console version of the game — you can get achievements while playing on the bus. I think it's reasonable to expect that we'll extend that.
We're not saying that in order for all of your stuff to work together, you have to buy all of our stuff; we're saying, "OK, if you have an iPhone or you have an Android, you can still participate in the SmartGlass scenario, for example." One of the things we hope to show more of as we get closer to launch is why it will be that much better if you do happen to have a Windows Phone and Windows slate and an Xbox.
LAPTOP: Are you trying to target Siri with some of the new voice command features in Windows Phone 8?
Sullivan: No — the key thrust there is that today we have speech command and voice detection for messaging and so forth. Those are essentially first-party capabilities — you can't today write an app that plugs in somehow to our speech engine. We're platformizing that in Windows Phone 8. Within the application, because we exposed voice and speech through a set of APIs that developers can write to, now any application can use voice.
LAPTOP: What about dictation?
Sullivan: We have that today for text, and having it available as a core platform API in Windows 8 means that any application — like email — is going to be able to easily take advantage of voice.
LAPTOP: How confident are you that Windows Phone 8 will be able to turn things around?
Sullivan: Now that we've got the Windows 8 core, Windows 8 slates, the Surface, Xbox and Windows Live, we've got a way to integrate that all and make it work together in ways that no one else can, and we'll continue to expand and deliver that piece.