Microsoft downplays Windows Phone 7 at TechEd conference

At its annual TechEd conference this year, Microsoft gave its new mobile operating system, Windows Phone 7, only a supporting role to play. The company offered only a few more details about its new online Marketplace site for Windows Phone applications, and about OS features aimed at enterprise users.

The real focus of TechEd, which this year drew some 6,000 IT professionals and software developers to New Orleans, was extending the security, reliability and functionality of its Microsoft Azure platform, to enable enterprise data centers to accelerate the shift of behind-the-firewall enterprise systems to the cloud. Windows Phone 7 was notably missing from the celebration of the cloud. Microsoft executives used the event to talk about two areas: Windows Phone Marketplace, a redesigned online site for finding, buying, and downloading Windows Phone applications; and how the initial release of Windows Phone devices will fit into enterprise requirements.

There was no word on when real handsets will be available to developers for testing applications, nor on when beta versions of the OS and some key development tools will be released. The release timeframe for when companies like HTC, LG, and others will unveil and release handsets running Windows Phone 7 remains frustratingly vague: "the holiday season" and "fourth quarter." Microsoft hasn't been willing to talk about a road map for future Windows Phone development priorities, or even for enterprise-specific features. Windows Mobile was designed from the outset to create a unique, intuitive "mobile experience" for users, with the focus being on consumers. The assumption is that many of these same people will want to use such a mobile platform for business as well. At this point, for business users, Microsoft executives are emphasizing the platform's tight integration with Exchange and SharePoint, an integration designed specifically to be easy and simple for mobile users, and its built-in security.

Windows Phone Marketplace is intended to bring in many more software developers than the older Windows Phone platform. It will be open for business "later this summer," says Todd Biggs, Marketplace's director of product management. At TechEd, Microsoft released a set of documents on various Marketplace policies and guidelines, covering application and content policies, the application certification process, and how Microsoft will handle refunds. The new mobile OS runs only what are called managed code applications, which require the runtime environment of either the Microsoft Silverlight framework, for most applications, or Microsoft XNA Studio, for games. Both frameworks and their attendant toolsets have been widely adopted, and Microsoft is betting that developers with expertise in either will jump at the opportunity to develop for Windows Phone. Applications can also be built using Microsoft's full-featured integrated development environment, Microsoft Visual Studio 2010, and the just-released Expression Blend 4, which is an application design toolset.

Windows Phone 7 includes a Marketplace "hub" – a dedicated area that's tightly integrated with the online site. Users flick through the handset's touchscreen to reach the hub, and can see the newest apps, a featured app, search based on various criteria, and pay for and download apps directly with their phone. No additional software is needed. Applications submitted to Marketplace will go through a testing and certification process. According to Biggs, Microsoft will load the app on an actual Windows Phone handset and then run a series of technical tests to ensure the app is well-behaved, such as using memory effectively, not interfering with the phone's functions, and has no malicious code.

Microsoft execs offer a few more details on Windows smartphone technology; but key questions remain

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