At the Mobile World Congress, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Windows Phone director Joe Belfiore showed what to expect from Windows Phone 7. There is finally a timeframe and the headline features of this big update are multitasking support for third-party applications and a new Web browser based on Internet Explorer 9.
What to Expect
In addition to copy-and-paste support, the new update includes substantial performance improvements, a better designed Marketplace application—and, it has now been confirmed, CDMA support. It was previously uncertain if CDMA support would be part of this update or if it would come later, which in turn made it unclear when Windows Phone 7 handsets would become available on Sprint and Verizon in the US. Both of those phone companies are due to ship Windows Phone 7 handsets in the first half of the year, and with the update they will be able to do so from March.
A handful of features that will be included in later updates were also shown off, marking the first time Microsoft has talked about what will happen after the copy-and-paste update. The changes are going to be substantial. The features shown included multitasking with a webOS-style card-based task switcher, the ability for third-party programs to run in the background, Internet Explorer 9 (including GPU acceleration), and Twitter integration into the People hub. Also included is SkyDrive syncing of Office documents.
An update this substantial will do a lot to give Microsoft's platform feature parity with its competitors. The company says that the features shown off today are not all the new version will have to offer. More information, along with details on future SDK improvements, will be revealed at the MIX11 conference in April. The update will be released some time in the second half of the year, with representatives suggesting that it will arrive in the middle of that period—if so, putting it at about a year after the original launch. Microsoft did not rule out the possibility of further updates in the interim.
A hint of what might also come in the future was shown in a game demonstration of a Windows Phone game interacting with an Xbox 360 with Kinect game. Though it was made clear that this was a technology demo rather than a specific commitment to deliver similar software, it shows the kind of scenarios the company is thinking about as a way of leveraging the strength of its Xbox ecosystem on the phone.
The copy-and-paste update has been anticipated since the launch of the platform. In October last year, Microsoft confirmed that the first update would include copy-and-paste support, and that it would be available "early" in 2011. A promotional page on Microsoft's website fueled rumors that the update would arrive in January, as the URL of the page referred to it as the "January update." January came and went without an update, however. Then February 7th was claimed to be the date that the update would ship; it did not.
Why the delay?
That we finally have a date for the update is good news; that it's still a month away is not—especially as it seems the software is ready and has been ready for some time. Microsoft officials tell me that the "January update" appellation was somewhat accurate, insofar as January is when the update shipped to OEMs and carriers so that they could test it.
Firmware for the HTC 7 Pro, a forthcoming CDMA handset, has leaked, and their operating system is identical to the emulator operating system in the SDK update that shipped earlier this month. This is a strong indication that the final code has been available for some time, and the hold-up is being caused either by OEMs or carriers—meaning that the disappointing answer to the question of whether carriers can block Windows Phone 7 updates may very well be "yes."