Windows Phone OS 7.5 Refresh, no longer known as Tango, is perhaps the most misunderstood software update ever. The amount of misinterpretation and FUD surrounding it has been enormous (and only recently Apollo update FUD is overtaking it). No wonder even Microsoft has downplayed its existence and relevance even though its been ready for some time and various builds associated with it have been appearing all over. To a large extent, Microsoft itself is to be blamed for the uncertainty surrounding its OS and updates because they never tried to explain things to the users, leaving it open to interpretation by bloggers and Microsoft watchers (including baiters). Contrast that to the lengths they go to explain future software to developers and you’ll know that they’re slipping up on this important part. This has led me to try and understand their WP7 OS and its update philosophy and in the process, explain it to whosoever cares about it.
I’ll try to explain how WP7 Update Philosophy is different from other OSes but first of all I’ll try to draw some parallels from the Windows desktop OS. Here’s the Resource Utilisation figures for recent iterations of the desktop OS running at idle on a Lenovo netbook (as claimed by Steven Sinofsky during BUILD 2011) –
Windows 7 Preview Release - 540 MB memory and 34 processes.
Windows 7 SP1 - 404 MB memory and 32 processes.
Windows 8 Developer Preview - 281 MB memory and 29 processes.
That’s a huge 48% saving in resources from Windows 7 to Windows 8. It wasn’t always the case. In the past, each new iteration of the Windows desktop OS would be bigger and more bloated and would need higher spec hardware and memory to be able to run smoothly. This changed around the time of release of Windows 7 and thereafter each update aimed at 1) Improving features/adding functionality; and 2) Improving the efficiency of the OS in terms of utilisation of resources. This was also the time when WP7 was being readied for launch and it benefitted from the same philosophy. Lets see some WP7 hardware specifications as they changed with time –
WP7 (at launch) - 1 GHz Processor, 512 MB RAM, 8 GB flash memory.
WP7.5 (Mango) - 800 MHz Processor, 512 MB RAM, 8 GB flash memory.
WP7.5 Refresh - 800 MHz Processor, 256 MB RAM, 4 GB flash memory.
Do you see some similarities between the progression of the Desktop OS and the Phone OS? It is evident that with each update of the current iteration of Windows Phone OS, the hardware required to run it is being lowered. At the same time, the speed of the OS is being maintained and the OS runs buttery smooth with nary a hint of a lag or stutter. Phones with older hardware have their performance and battery life improved even further. Several bloggers and analysts (MS bashers and MS non-believers alike) take this as a lowering of standards and call it a regressive step. But is it really regressive?
Lets understand this with the help of an analogy of an automobile. A manufacturer makes a certain car with a certain chassis, a specified engine and a fuel tank of a certain capacity. All is good but the manufacturer does not rest and he develops a new engine which is smaller and more fuel efficient but generates more horse power. They install the new engine in the older chassis with the result that the same car now runs faster while consuming lesser gas giving more miles for a tank full of fuel. Would you call it a lowering of specs or would you call it progress? It does not stop at this. While earlier the car needed a carburettor/Fuel Injection Pump of a certain capacity to ensure that is not underpowered, now the manufacturer is able to install a lower capacity pump in a car of the same size and weight and still provide enough power at the axle, thereby further improving the fuel efficiency! Would you still call it lowering of specs?
This is exactly the case with UFKAT (Update Formerly Known As Tango). It enables OEMs to equip handsets with lesser memory and still ensure a smooth UI that all earlier Windows Phones enjoy. But it does not mean that UFKAT is only meant for low RAM devices. With improved efficiency of the OS, higher spec devices will give even faster performance and better battery life. So when the 87xx updates comes, be sure to grab it ASAP.
Some of you will argue that 256 MB devices will not have the same user experience as some features like
fast app switching background agents (as pointed out by reader Matteo Pagani, fast app switching will indeed be available) are not available. But you can be rest assured that this is a conscious decision by Microsoft, sacrificing some features in favour of a smooth User Experience, and it is, at best, temporary. They could have allowed it even today, but it would have resulted in random freezes and reboots, a compromise that Microsoft is unwilling to accept. (That Google is quite nonchalant in accepting such compromises is pretty evident, isn’t it?) Even then, I’m certain that the disabled features will be enabled in future when Microsoft has figured out a way to prevent lags, stutters and rebooting. They are working on it even as you read this.
Extending the analogy of automotive world to smartphones as a whole gives some very interesting results. Android can be very much likened to the American Muscle Cars of mid 20th century and later. OEMs were falling over each other to produce newer models featuring bigger chassis, bigger engines, more expensive trim and lots of chrome and bling all over, yet nothing seemed enough to quench the thirst of Americans. There was a mad rush even though these cars guzzled 100 Octane fuel like droids guzzle battery juice. On the other hand, Apple devices can be compared to some European manufacturers like Daimler Benz and Volkswagen, dedicated to high standards of precision, engineering and industrial design, even though they were quite expensive. The automotive world was neatly divided into these two camps when the Japanese (and later the Koreans) burst on the scene with their small cars with fuel efficient engines, nifty designs and nimble chassis. They continued to push engine technology towards better efficiency and thereafter applied the same philosophy to larger cars till they ruled all segments. Windows Phones are in the same position now, constantly pushing the lower limit of mobile phone OS with NoDo, Mango and Mango Refresh, while maintaining acceptable standards all along. And now they aim to target the more upscale variety with WP8 Apollo. The Japanese eventually won the automobile race, a result that Microsoft would sure like to emulate. Lets see if they can cause history to be repeated.