Microsoft touted heavily that Windows Phone 6 Series had one key advantage over iPhone: native code without any gatekeepers. Groundbreaking apps like GPS, SlingPlayer, Rhapsody, and so on, and so on, could exist on Windows Mobile… while they took years for Apple to turn around and support.
Innovation was a key ally to Windows Mobile, and now, that ability to innovate without gatekeepers is gone. Read more to see why you can now dismiss Windows Phone 7 Series as a viable platform.
Indeed, the allies of native code sans any restrictions are not thriving today. Apple has yet to be contested on unconscionable terms in their developer agreements. And, this past week, AT&T seemingly got off scott-free by launching the first Android phone that doesn’t permit unsigned code to run. That’s potentially deceptive marketing, as Android is a platform touted as being open to unsigned code.
Was this change expected? Sorta. Microsoft’s Zune HD has a similarly closed app store, in fact, prior to the posting of the WP7S SDK, outside developers had to be invited to make software for Zune HD. Microsoft says that Zune HD will live on and be upgraded (presumably with “Zune HD 2”) to be in-parity with WP7S as a platform, similar to how iPod touch runs iPhone OS. And, Microsoft’s Xbox division has always acted as a gatekeeper for the platform. With Sony blocking nearly any useful form of Linux software on the PlayStation 3, Microsoft had no competition needed to make any movements to openness. iPhone was a similar change agent on Microsoft’s logic.
So, where do we stand on the freedom of apps? Today, a lot worse than yesterday. Windows Mobile 6.5 and earlier combined the full access to APIs that no other platform offered. When older devices tried to require code signing, handset makers and carriers alike were slapped on the wrist by users, forced to offer software patches that removed the onerous restriction.
Microsoft has said that WP7S will allow corporate users to deploy apps… but that’s not good enough. It requires developers to commit to a brutal pact that stifles innovation. End users won’t be able to benefit from that loophole.
Windows Mobile 6.5 is now a de facto abandoned platform… do you really think Microsoft was going to keep backporting features to it? Offerings like their recent List Manager enjoy one-star ratings on the Windows Mobile Marketplace, and worse, Microsoft won’t even sell some of their own software like Voice Command on it.
So, where do we stand on your alternatives? We’re down to four; Android, webOS, Symbian, and MeeGo. Considering Symbian and MeeGo have nearly no foothold in the United States, that leaves Google’s Android, and Palm’s webOS as the only two platforms pushing for open, native code.
Both platforms are far from perfect too, which makes this change by Microsoft all the worse. Android’s NDK has gotten easier, but most Android developers report that leveraging it successfully is still far more complicated than Apple’s iPhone SDK. And, as noted above, AT&T appears resound in neutering their Android phones to block unsigned code, unless a court tells them that they can’t anymore.
Palm’s PDK suffers from similar issues. Applications essentially have to be coded as web browser plugins, a complicated affair that requires a lot of research before diving head first into. Engines such as Unreal 3 have already been ported however, and Palm’s outlook on native code is similarly improving along with Android’s.
Still, this is actually good news for Google and Palm. They now have one less platform to worry about with truly tech-savvy users. Those that have already rejected iPhone for its stifling of innovation, will now reject Windows Phone 7 Series for the same reason. The only glimmer of hope is that Microsoft has such platform control, that they can reverse this decision down the road with a software update. If sales are slow, handset manufacturers will certainly be pushing Microsoft to make that change.
And, we already know what Microsoft’s response to this editorial will probably be. Silverlight, built-in to Internet Explorer on WP7S, will enable developers to run native-like applications outside the Windows Phone Marketplace. However, this is no different from Flash on other mobile platforms, and only serves to give Microsoft a limited edge over iPhone. It isn’t native code, and won’t allow the same amazing applications that you see from the iPhone SDK, Android NDK, or Palm PDK.