Tag Archives: windows phone

Review: Nokia Lumia 630 – a lot of smartphone for the money

Microsoft/Nokia has released the Lumia 630 Windows Phone in the UK. It is notable for two reasons:

  • The first phone on sale with Windows Phone 8.1 installed
  • A budget contender with a full range of features at around £100. For example, o2.co.uk offer it for £99.99 with a “Pay & Go” tariff from £10.00 monthly. Amazon.co.uk is currently offering it sim-free for £128.29.

The quick summary:

  • 4.5″ 854×480 LCD screen
  • 5MP rear camera
  • 512MB RAM
  • 8GB storage
  • MicroSD slot supporting up to 128GB
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 quad-core 1.2 GHz processor
  • Bluetooth 4.0, wi-fi, WCDMA,GSM,A-GPS etc
  • 1830 mAh removable battery

What is missing? Among the compromises here, there is no front-facing camera, the only sensor is an accelerometer, the screen resolution is poor compared to a high-end smartphone, and there is no dedicated camera button.

The older Lumia 625 has some features missing on the 630, including a camera button, LED Flash, ambient light sensor and proximity sensor, Nokia’s “super sensitive touch” screen, and LTE. The 625 is a similar price, so if those features matter to you it might be a better buy, though you have to put up with the older and slower S4 processor.

The Lumia 630 does support Nokia’s SensorCore feature, which lets apps like Health & Fitness (pre-installed) track movement through an API without consuming much power.

The lack of a camera button or Flash is disappointing, considering Nokia’s reputation as a brand good for photography.

Out of the box


The Lumia 630 is a basic package. No headset is included, presumably on the grounds that you likely have one already, though buying one separately is inexpensive. There is a mains charger; you probably have one of these already too, but it might not be optimal for this particular device, which may be why Nokia chose to prioritise this over the headset.

In order to fit the SIM, you pop the phone out of its shell; it feels if anything a bit too easy, though the phone shows no sign of falling apart accidentally so far.


The software of course is Windows Phone 8.1, with several nice improvements including a notification screen accessed by swiping down from the top. This works even from the lock screen, and gives immediate access to the camera, which may explain why the button is missing. I still miss the button though.


Cortana, the virtual personal assistant currently in beta, is not yet present in the UK. You can enable Cortana with a bit of effort by changing your language and region, but it is not recommended other than for temporary experimentation.

I hit one problem in setup. The automatic date and time setting does not work, at least not with my carrier (Three). This in turn broke some other features including SkyDrive and Exchange/Office 365 email, until I set it manually. The manual setting is not brilliant though, since when I turned the set off and on again, it came up with a setting from several days ago. This looks like a software bug so I hope it will be fixed soon.

Here is the home screen pretty much out of the box, though I have connected it to Exchange:


This is NOT how I prefer to set up my home screen on a Windows phone. Normally I reduce all the tiles to the smallest size other than the phone icon, which I have large so I can hit it as easily as possible. This fits more icons on the screen and gets rid of the annoying People live tile animations. This is, of course, a matter of personal preference.

The apps prominent above the fold include PhotoBeamer, which lets you show pictures on a friend’s Windows Phone (a cool app), LINE which is a messaging app, and the excellent HERE maps and Nokia Camera.

Scroll down and you get Facebook, Skype, HERE Drive, Nokia Mix Radio, OneDrive, calendar and several more.

A word about apps

I do not intend this to be another reviews of a Windows Phone which say, “great phone but the apps are lacking.” It is true to the extent that Windows Phone lacks the great support with iOS and Android get in terms of apps. Windows Phone owners have to put up with seeing “available for iOS and Android” for apps which they might  otherwise like to install, and with apps that are less well maintained or up to date than those for the two more popular platforms.

Clearly, the way to fix this is for lots more people to buy Windows Phones. Therefore, not to buy a Windows Phone because of the app shortage merely perpetuates the problem.

But how bad is it? The answer will be different depending which apps matter to you; but there are a couple of reasons why it is not, in my opinion, all that bad.

One is that Microsoft has its own platform, putting it in a stronger position than say, Blackberry or even Apple (if iOS were not already popular). The Microsoft platform includes maps and driving (Nokia), search (Bing), messaging (Skype), email and cloud documents (Office 365) and online storage (OneDrive).

Second, the Windows app store is not as moribund as the Windows 8 app store. There are decent apps in most categories and support from third parties like Spotify, WhatsApp, Instagram or the BBC is improving.

If you love Google, this is unlikely to be the phone for you, since it seems almost to go out of its way not to support Windows Phone.

On the other hand, there are Windows Phone apps which I miss on other platforms, including Nokia Camera, HERE Drive, and the built-in email and calendar apps.

It is a factor, but not a showstopper.

Lumia 630 in use

My experience of using the 630 is mainly positive. Performance is great; the phone is fast and responsive. Battery life is good too:


Note that the Battery Saver is off by default, but I prefer having it come on automatically as needed.

Battery life is nothing special if you use the phone intensively, such as to watch a video or play a game, but when it on standby it is better than previous Windows phones I have tried.

The camera is better than I had expected, given the annoyances mentioned above. For casual snaps it is up to the mark you would expect from a budget smartphone.

This is not PureView though; do not expect the same quality as on Nokia’s high-end phones. See here for some comparative snaps.

Audio on the Lumia 630 sounds fine when played with a high quality headset. I played the same track on the 630, the Lumia 1020, and from a PC via a dedicated headphone amplifer. Possibly the 630 sounds slightly thin compared to the more expensive setups, but the earbuds or headphones you use will likely make the most difference.


Health and Fitness tracking, using the Bing app, is fun and saves having to manage a separate device like a Fitbit.


I have yet to catch out the 630 on performance. Youtube videos and BBC iPlayer played smoothly.

The display is on the dull side but no enough to spoil the experience. However I did notice grey marks (presumably shadows of the glue that holds the screen on) at the top of the screen, visible on light backgrounds, which is a slight annoyance.


The Lumia 630 is a budget smartphone with a lot to offer. There are just a few annoyances: features missing that were present on the 625, slightly dull screen, and some signs of cost-cutting. These are small blemishes though when you consider what you do get for a modest outlay.


Having it both ways: can Microsoft equally back Windows Phone and “Any device”?

I attended an event in London which was a kind-of UK launch for Windows Phone 8.1. The first Lumia device running 8.1, the Lumia 630, is now on sale, though this was not the main focus. It was more about asking businesses to take another look at Windows Phone (and Windows tablets), following improvements Microsoft has made. The company is particularly pleased with a new white paper from MobileIron, a well-known company in mobile device management, praising the new security and manageability features:

Windows Phone 8 did not meet the stringent policies some enterprises required for protecting corporate data and resources. The release of Windows Phone 8.1 changes the game. Microsoft is delivering a rich new feature-set for business users, and providing IT departments with the compliance and security they require. These new security and management features, called the Enterprise Feature Pack, are included as a core component of Windows Phone 8.1. When combined with an enterprise mobility management (EMM) platform, these capabilities make it much easier for enterprises to adopt the Windows Phone platform.

Fair enough, though from what I can tell Windows Phone is still struggling to get the momentum it needs. Too many companies perceive that if they support iOS and Android then that is it, job done, as evidenced by this advertisement I saw recently. This in turn dampens sales. It is an unfortunate position to be in, particularly given the good work Microsoft (and Nokia) has done on the phone OS itself. I prefer the Windows Phone user interface to that in Android, but still need an Android device in order to try out new apps.

This could change if Microsoft can continue gradually bumping up its market share, but it is tough. The wider company is now side-stepping the problem by focusing on its strengths in Office, Active Directory and Office 365, and offering first-class support for these on iOS and Android, as evidenced by the excellent Office for iPad launched earlier this year.

There is a dilemma here though. Some Windows Phone users choose the phone because they feel it will work best with Microsoft’s business platform. Could the “any device” policy end up undermining Microsoft’s efforts to promote Windows Phone?

I put this to Chris Weber, Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President of Mobile Device Sales, who has come to the company from Nokia (before which he was at Microsoft, so a true Windows veteran).


From a business perspective, providing cloud services, management, security, it is a multi-platform world. It is a great business decision for Microsoft to be multi-platform. Customers demand it as well.  That doesn’t mean we don’t want to create the most compelling platform and set of devices that bring Windows to life. I think the cross-platform thing is a great story … but the benefit of us [Nokia and Microsoft] coming together is now we have hardware, software and services that can be integrated in a totally different way, and we’re one of the few players that have all those components. The level of integration is much greater on the Windows platform. For example, Office is built in, you don’t have to go to a store and download it. The Linq client is built into the calendar. The email client, being able to have rights protection. The mail client itself is the best of any of them. The ability to access a SharePoint site across the firewall without a VPN connection, unique to Windows Phone.

Then we also have to win the end user. We have to win IT and those requirements, but you also have to get end users excited. Things that you see in 8.1, like Cortana, there’s a huge benefit there. And we’re bringing that across every price point.

Fair points; yet currently the iPad has a better touch-friendly Office than Windows tablets or Windows Phone; and Windows phone users have frustrations where the integration falls short. One remarkable thing, for example, is that there is no way to use a shared Exchange or SharePoint calendar on Windows Phone other than in the browser, so no integration with the built-in calendar or offline support.

What Weber describes, near-perfect integration between Windows mobile devices and Microsoft’s server applications, should be the case though; making this even better should be a high priority for CEO Satya Nadella’s new Microsoft.

Weber makes the bold claim that he can convert any user to Windows Phone, but says the challenge is to make this happen at retail level, when the customer wanders in looking for a smartphone:

If you give me fifteen minutes, I think I can convince any iPhone or Android user to move to Windows Phone. We have to do this not in fifteen minutes but in probably a minute and a half, at retail, with people who are selling multiple devices and are used to selling the competitor platform more than us.

Focusing on enterprise integration is in my view long overdue, and a few large enterprise adoptions would give Windows Phone a significant boost. At retail though, my guess is that Microsoft’s main hope is what Nokia did so well: delivering a good smartphone experience in budget devices – the “every price point” to which Weber refers.

Hands on with Cordova in Visual Studio

At TechEd this week, Microsoft announced Apache Cordova support in Visual Studio 2013. A Cordova app is HTML and JavaScript wrapped as a native app, with support for multiple platforms including iOS and Android. It is the open source part of Adobe’s PhoneGap product. I downloaded the preview from here and took a quick look.

There is a long list of dependencies which the preview offers to install on your behalf:




The list includes the Java SDK, Google Chrome and Apple iTunes. The documentation explains that Java is required for the Android build process, Chrome is required to run the Ripple emulator (so you could choose not to install if you do not require Ripple), and iTunes is required for deploying an app to an iOS device, though a Mac is also required.

The license terms for both Chrome and iTunes are long and onerous, plus iTunes is on my list of applications not to install on Windows if you want it to run fast. Chrome is already installed on my PC, and I unchecked iTunes.

Next, I ran Visual Studio and selected a Multi-Device Hybrid App project (I guess “Cordova app” was rejected as being too short and simple).


An annoyance is that if you use the default project location, it is incompatible because of spaces in the path:


The project opened, and being impatient I immediately hit Run.

When you build, and debug using the default Ripple emulator (which runs in Chrome, hence the dependency), Visual Studio grabs a ton of dependencies.


and eventually the app runs:


or you can debug in the Android emulator:


A good start.

Microsoft has some sample projects for AngularJS, BackboneJS and WinJS. This last is intriguing since you could emulate the Windows Phone look and feel (or something like it) on Android on iOS, though it would look far from native.

The preview is not feature-complete. The only supported device targets are Android 4.x, IOS 6 and 7, Windows 8.x Store apps, and Windows Phone 8.x. Windows Phone debugging does not work in this preview.

Microsoft completes Nokia acquisition: what now for Windows Phone?

Microsoft has completed its acquisition of Nokia today, a milestone in the turbulent story both of Nokia and of Windows Phone, which Nokia adopted in the hope of establishing a “third ecosystem” to challenge Apple iOS and Google Android.

Rumour has it that the Nokia acquisition was controversial within Microsoft and a large factor in the departure of Steve Ballmer as CEO. However, even if Microsoft took the view that an independent Nokia was better for Windows Phone, it faced the risk that market pressure would drive Nokia to Android and weaken the platform. The beginnings of that process may have been under way, with the launch of the Nokia X Android-but-not-Google range of phones, but we will never know, since Microsoft decided on acquisition.


How important has Nokia been for Windows Phone? In my view, life-saving. Before Nokia, there was no manufacturer nor operator which really cared about the platform, and it showed in lacklustre hardware and half-hearted marketing efforts. Nokia came up with the distinctive Lumia brand and style, added a decent mapping service, and with its focus on the PureView camera technology, gave enthusiasts a reason to take a close look at its devices. It also saw an opportunity at the low end, and created some great value devices that opened up a new market for the operating system.

There were some blunders (the original Lumia 800 suffered many faults and terrible battery life on launch) and Lumia did not grow fast enough to restore Nokia to health, but to my mind it was a good effort.

Today, the general opinion of Windows Phone is that it is a strong smartphone operating system but suffers from a lack of high-quality apps. Users have to put up with the fact that most app vendors feel they are done if they support iOS and Android; and if there is a Windows Phone version of their app, it is often poor. That is not a great position for Microsoft/Nokia to be in, but it could be worse. Blackberry 10, which is also a decent mobile operating system, has been all-but written off as a viable contender.

Microsoft is fortunate in that, unlike Blackberry, it can to some extent create its own ecosystem. Office 365, Bing, OneDrive, Nokia’s maps, Azure for developers needing a cloud back-end: taken together they form a viable alternative. In this respect, Microsoft actually has an advantage over Apple, which lacks this breadth of services.

I have been reading the latest Developer Economics report from Vision Mobile. It is a good example of the neutral perspective on Windows Phone, though you will find it somewhat inconsistent:

Windows Phone sales picked up significantly in Q3 2013, showing a 140% increase year-on-year, fuelled primarily by low-end device sales. According to Kantar, Windows Phone sales in the three months running to Oct 2013, reached double-digit figures in some Western European markets. While this is certainly a positive sign for Microsoft they will continue facing an uphill struggle, in an increasingly unfavourable race against the two runaway leaders, iOS and Android.

The report emphasises that iOS and Android have won the mobile OS wars, but says that there are signs of hope for Microsoft:

Windows Phone Developer Mindshare has finally moved upwards, following positive market signals in the last two quarters. As we have frequently highlighted in past reports, the developer intent has always been there, with Windows Phone figuring at the top of our Developer Intentshare chart, but needed positive market signs in order to convert this interest into Mindshare. While the 26% Developer Mindshare is still less than half of that for iOS, Microsoft can now claim that over a quarter of developers that target mobile platforms are now actively developing for Windows Phone. […]

As a latecomer to a mobile market dominated by strong network effects, establishing a credible footprint in mobile remains a formidable challenge
for Microsoft. We believe that Microsoft may be better served in the long-run by leveraging the Android ecosystem as the deployment platform for Office
and Server businesses which are still growing.

Microsoft is in fact supporting iOS and Android as clients for its cloud services, as noted again at yesterday’s financial webcast, where CEO Satya Nadella talked about a strategy that goes across “devices some ours, some not ours.” It is a bit of both though, and the company is not showing any signs of weakening its own mobile efforts.

In my view reports like that from Vision Mobile miss a couple of factors. One is that Windows and Windows Phone are converging. They already use the same OS kernel, and at the Build conference earlier this month Microsoft announced Universal Apps that will run on both, and the ability for developers to sell an app once and have users install on both phone and full Windows.

This means that the future of Windows Phone and that of Windows itself are closely bound together. Longer term, they will either both fade away, or both succeed.

Windows remains a huge business for Microsoft, despite the decline of the PC, especially in business. Microsoft’s problem though is that adoption of Windows 8 has been relatively weak, and that those who do use it, largely live in the desktop environment rather than running Store apps (of which Universal Apps are a variant).

Despite the dismal progress so far for the Store apps platform and ecosystem, I believe it should be taken seriously. On paper it has many advantages, not only for touch control, but also in deployment, security, roaming data driven by the cloud, and discoverability through the store. Isolation from the core operating system protects users against the things that destroy desktop Windows, like unwanted extras foisted on users who simply need to update Java or Flash.

At Build we saw not only Universal Apps, but also a preview of Office in the Windows Runtime (Store app) environment. We also saw a preview of Store apps running within a window in the desktop environment, solving the jarring transition between desktop and Store app environments that unsettles users. If Microsoft gets this right, both Windows Phone and Windows tablets will be substantially more attractive.

Microsoft also has the ability to bind Windows Phone into its enterprise device management environment, System Center and InTune. In Windows Phone 8.1 the device management and security features businesses need are much improved. More is still needed; but the company should be able to build integration points that make it attractive to business customers already using products such as Active Directory, Microsoft Office, Office 365, System Center or InTune.

Another factor is the strength of Visual Studio for developers, especially as Microsoft improves its integration with cloud services like Azure and Office 365. You can use C# everywhere from cloud or server to mobile client.


Cortana is sure that Windows Phone is the best; but check out the Bing ad.

What then is the future of Windows Phone? Uncertain, as ever; but if Microsoft pulls off a smooth Nokia acquisition – leaving in place the things that enabled the company to build the Lumia brand – and if it delivers on the promise we saw at Build, of a strong unified platform, then I expect market share to continue to grow. If it can climb to 10% or 15%, it will be on the map for vendors and the app problems will ease.

On the other hand, if Microsoft/Nokia means a return to the ineffective marketing and strategy we saw before Nokia adopted Windows Phone, then I expect Windows Phone to follow Blackberry into oblivion.

I am positive, but Microsoft needs to execute carefully and quickly to win market share for its mobile platform.

Microsoft Build 2014: what happened

It’s curious. Microsoft’s new CEO Satya Nadella has been in place for only a month which means that almost everything announced at Build, Microsoft’s developer conference which took place last week in San Francisco, must have been set before he was appointed; yet there was a sense of “all things new” at the event, as if he had overseen a wave of changes.

The wave began the previous week, with the simultaneous announcement and delivery of Office for iPad. The significance of this is threefold:

  • It demonstrated Microsoft’s decision to give first-class support to mobile platforms other than Windows
  • It demonstrated that Office can be redesigned to work nicely on a tablet
  • The quality of the product exceeded expectations, showing that in the right circumstances Microsoft can do excellent non-Windows software


Next came Build itself. It was a tale of two keynotes. The first was all about Windows client – both Phone and PC. The core news is the arrival of the Windows Runtime  (WinRT, the engine behind Metro/Store Apps) on Windows Phone 8.1. This means that WinRT is now the runtime that developers should target for apps that run across phone and desktop – and even, we were shown, Xbox One, which will support WinRT apps written in HTML and WinJS (Microsoft’s JavaScript library for Windows apps).

In support of this, Microsoft announced a new Universal App project for Visual Studio, which lets you share both visual and non-visual code across multiple targets. How much is shared is a developer choice.

There is more. A Universal App is now (kind-of) a desktop app as well as a Store app, since in a future free update to Windows 8, it will run on the desktop within a window, as well as appearing in the Start menu on the desktop. We were even shown this; apparently it is a mock-up. This was the biggest surprise at Build.


What did Executive VP Terry Myerson say about this? Here is the exact quote:

We are going all in with this desktop experience, to make sure your applications can be accessed and loved by people that love the Windows desktop. We’re going to enable your Universal Windows applications to run in a window. We’re going to enable your users to find, discover and run your Windows applications with the new Start menu. We have Live Tiles coming together with the familiar experience customers are looking for to start and run their applications and we’ll be making this available to all Windows 8.1 users as an update. I think there will be a lot of happy people out there.

This is significant. When Myerson says, “we are going all in with this desktop experience”, he does not mean backtracking on Windows Store apps, to return to desktop windows apps (Win32 or WPF) as the future of Windows development. Rather, he means Windows Store apps integrated into the desktop.

There is a further twist to this. Windows Store apps are sandboxed and cannot communicate with each other or with the operating system other than via carefully designed and secured paths. This is in general a good thing, but restrictive for businesses designing line of business apps. It also means that legacy code cannot be carried over into a Store app, other than by full porting.

In the just-released Windows 8.1 Update this has changed. Side-loaded apps (in other words, not deployed from the Windows Store) can now escape the sandbox thanks to Brokered Windows Runtime Components. There are some limitations (32-bit only on the desktop side, for example) but this will make it possible to implement business applications as Store apps even if they need to interact with existing desktop applications or services.

There is still a huge blocker to Store apps from a business perspective, which is that you need Windows 8. Still, my guess is that once the update with the restored Start menu appears, most of the objections to Windows 8 will melt away.

We also saw Office for the Windows Runtime, which will run on both Phone and PC. It is written, I discovered later, in XAML, DirectX and C++ (“Blazingly fast”, we were told). Corporate VP Kirk Koenigsbauer introduced a preview of this, or at least PowerPoint.


No detail yet, and several references to “early code” suggest to me that this is a year or more away from full release (giving Office on iPad a big head start); but it will come. Koenigsbauer did not call it cut-down; in fact, it was instanced as proof that WinRT is suitable for large-scale apps, so I would expect something more complete than Office on iPad; yet it is hard to imagine things like the VBA macro language appearing here in its current form (VBA is based on the ancient Visual Basic 6.0 runtime), so there will be some major differences.

We also saw Windows Phone 8.1, including the Cortana virtual personal assistant who responds to voice input. For me other things in Windows Phone 8.1 are more significant, including new swipe-style keyboard for fast text input, VPN, S/MIME secure email, and a new notification centre. Unlike touch Office, Windows Phone 8.1 is coming soon; Nokia’s Stephen Elop (soon to be in charge of Windows Phone at Microsoft) said that the first 8.1 Lumia devices could be out from May, depending on territory, and that all Lumia Windows Phone 8 devices will get the update in the summer.

On to day two, which was Cloud day, though we also got significant .NET developer news.

Executive VP Scott Guthrie introduced a new portal for Microsoft Azure, the cloud platform. This is not just a new look, but integrates with Visual Studio online so you can easily view and edit the code and track team projects. There are also new monitoring and analytics features so you can check page views, page load time, browser usage and more. Guthrie also announced integration with Puppet and Chef for deployment automation.


Language designer Anders Hejsberg also came on stage. He announced the release version of TypeScript, a “typed superset of JavaScript” which is suitable for large applications. He also announced a new preview release of the compiler project code-named Roslyn, and on stage pushed the button that published it as open source. What is Roslyn? It is the next generation compiler for C# and VB, and is itself written in C#. This enables compiler and workspace APIs, which in turn enable rich editor features:

The transition to compilers as platforms dramatically lowers the barrier to entry for creating code focused tools and applications. It creates many opportunities for innovation in areas such as meta-programming, code generation and transformation, interactive use of the C# and VB languages, and embedding of C# and VB in domain specific languages.

Roslyn will be fully released in the next version of Visual Studio, for which we do not yet have a date. Roslyn will be delivered alongside C# 6.0.

There is also a new .NET Foundation which will oversee open source projects for .NET, with backing from folk including Xamarin’s Miguel de Icaza and Umbraco’s Niels Hartvig. It is all a bit vague at the moment:

In the upcoming months, the .NET Foundation will be inviting many companies and community leaders to join the foundation, including its Board of Directors and will then finalize its operational details, including governance models for its open source initiatives, membership structure and industry and community engagement.

Another significant event in the .NET story is the arrival of true native code compilation for .NET, although currently only for 64-bit Store apps. More on this soon.

A couple of events during Build caught my eye. One was de Icaza’s session on using C# to build for iOS and Android, not so much for the content itself (though there was nothing wrong with it), but rather for the huge attendance it drew.


The session was moved to the Build keynote room, and while there were spare seats, the room felt well filled. This speaks loudly about the importance of those platforms even to Microsoft platform developers, as well as of Microsoft’s support of Xamarin’s work.

Another was the appearance of John Gruber, author of the Daring Fireball blog and an Apple enthusiast. He appeared in a video during the keynote, explaining how a project in which he is involved uses Azure for back-end services, and then in person at another session, interviewing journalist Ed Bott about what is changing at Microsoft.


Gruber seems to me representative of a group of smart observers who have not in general been impressed with Microsoft’s endeavours over the past few years; but he for one is now more positive on the subject. Windows Phone is much better than its market share suggests, he said. This alongside Azure and a new openness to supporting third-party clients has made him look more favourably on the company.

My summary is this. On the Windows client side, Microsoft is taking its unpopular Windows release and its minority Phone platform and making them better and more compatible with each other, making sense of the client platform in a way that should result in growth of the app ecosystem both on Phone and PC/Tablet. On the cloud side, the company is building Azure and Office 365 (two platforms united by Azure Active Directory) into a one-stop platform that is increasingly compelling. The result was a conference and a direction that was largely welcomed by those in attendance, as far as I could tell.

That does not mean that the PC will stop declining, or that iOS and Android will become less dominant in mobile. There is progress though, and more clarity about the direction of Microsoft’s platform than we have seen for some years.

For the official news from Build, see the Build Newsroom.

What is a Universal Windows App?

At its Build developer conference in San Francisco, Microsoft has announced a new kind of Windows app: a Universal App. In fact, you can download the latest Visual Studio 2013 update (Update 2 RC) and


A Universal App runs on both Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows 8.1. But what is it really?

The place to start is with the runtime. In Windows Phone 8, Microsoft migrated the kernel in Windows Phone from the cut-down CE version of Windows, to the same kernel used by desktop Windows. However the app runtime in Windows Phone 8 remained Silverlight, Microsoft’s Flash competitor which was originally designed as a browser plug-in.

In Windows Phone 8.1 Microsoft has taken the next logical step, and ported the Windows Runtime (WinRT) to the phone. WinRT is the runtime behind the Metro/Modern/Store App environment introduced in Windows 8.

A Universal App runs on WinRT. This means that Windows Phone 8.1 supports the same variety of development options as Windows 8: XAML and C#, XAML and C++, HTML and the WinJS Javascript library (now open source), and DirectX for games.

The port is not 100%; there are some platform-specific APIs. Apparently compatibility is about 90% in terms of APIs available.

That said, a Universal App is not a universal binary. Apparently you can have a universal binary, but it is not the approach Microsoft is taking. A Universal App is a project type in Visual Studio.


When you create a Universal App you get a project with multiple targets.


By default you get two targets, but we have also seen Xbox One as a target, and conceptually we could see more: maybe Xamarin might extend it to support iOS and Android, for example.

The way this works is that at compile-time any code (which can include XAML and project assets such as images as well as C# code) that is in the Shared project gets merged into the target-specific project.

This means that a Universal App could contain very little shared code, or be almost entirely shared code. This is a developer choice.

Separately, Microsoft has now enabled an app identity to run across multiple Windows platforms in the Store. This means a user can purchase an app once for multiple platforms. However, this is more a business than a technical feature. It would be possible for the developer to offer a multi-platform app in the Store, but keep the development for each platform entirely separate.

That said, the shared WinRT aspect means that code sharing in a Universal App is very feasible. Most if not all non-visual code should work fine, and XAML experts will be able to share most of the UI code as well, thanks to the flexibility built into the XAML UI language.

That is the good bit. There is a problem though. Neither the Windows Phone app platform, nor the Windows 8 app platform have been hugely successful to date, but of the two, Windows Phone has fared better. There are now 500 new apps per day for Windows Phone, we were told here at Build.

Unfortunately, porting those Windows Phone apps to become Universal apps is not easy. Developers have to port their app from Silverlight to WinRT, before they can add a target for Windows 8. They will also need to maintain the old Silverlight app for users with versions of Windows Phone earlier than 8.1. Nokia has promised to offer upgrades for all Windows Phone 8 Lumia models, but that will not the base for all Windows 8 phones out there, and as ever operators have a role here.

Life is easier for Windows 8 app developers who now want to support Windows Phone 8.1; but there are not so many great Windows 8 apps for which Windows Phone users are anxiously awaiting.

Still, the Universal App approach makes perfect sense for the future, once Windows Phone 8.1 is established in the market. It also makes sense for enterprises with internal apps to deploy for mobile and tablet users.  

Microsoft Build Sessions published: Windows Phone XAML and HTML/JS apps, new Azure APIs and more

Developing for Windows Phone is now closer to developing for the Windows 8 runtime, according to information from Microsoft’s Build sessions, just published.

Build is Microsoft’s developer conference which opens tomorrow in San Francisco.


Building a Converged Phone and PC App using HTML and JavaScript states that “An exciting part of Windows Phone 8.1 is that you can now start building applications natively in HTML and JavaScript.”

Other sessions refer to the Common XAML UI Framework, which seems to refer to a shared UI framework for Windows Phone and WIndows 8, but using XAML rather than HTML and JavaScript.

This is in addition to Silverlight, not instead, judging by this session:

We’ve been doing a lot of work with new converged XAML app support on Windows Phone 8.1, but what about legacy Windows Phone Silverlight XAML based apps?  Come learn about all the new features we’ve enabled with Silverlight 8.1.

Microsoft has also come up with new APIs for applications that integrate with its Azure cloud platform and with Office 365. The Authentication library for Azure Active Directory lets you build both Windows and mobile applications that authenticate against Azure Active Directory, used by every Office 365 deployment. There is also talk of using Azure for Connected Devices, meaning “Internet of Things” devices using Azure services.

Some other sessions which caught my eye:

Connected Productivity Apps: building apps for the SharePoint and Office 365 platform.

What’s new in WinJS: the road ahead. XAML vs HTML/JS is a big decision for Windows developers.

Anders Hejlsberg on TypeScript

Automating Azure: “The Azure Management Libraries and Azure PowerShell Cmdlets allow this type of automation by providing convenient client wrappers around the Azure management REST API”

Authentication library for Azure Active Directory: The Active Directory Authentication Library (ADAL)

Panel discussion on desktop development: is there a future for WPF? Maybe some clues here.

Miguel de Icaza gets a session on going mobile with C# and Xamarin. I recall when de Icaza ran sessions on Mono, the open source implementation of the .NET Framework which he initiated shortly after Microsoft announced .NET itself, in nearby hotels at Microsoft events; now he is inside.

Learning from the mistakes of Azure: Mark Russinovich on what can go wrong in the cloud.

Looks like both cloud and apps for Windows Phone/Windows 8 are big themes at Build this year.

Microsoft improves its web app builder for Windows Phone, but where is it going with this?

Microsoft has improved its browser-based Windows Phone App Studio beta and added the ability to generate Windows Store apps. The changes are described here.

First, a quick tour. App Studio is carefully described as a tool for building “content-based apps”. The personal use case is an app to show off your recent holiday, favourite band, movie or team, and for businesses, a showcase for your company or a menu for your restaurant.

I find this curious. What is the point of this kind of app? If I want to create a fan project, wouldn’t a mobile-friendly web site or blog be better? And for businesses, what is the value of an app that lacks intelligence? For example, a restaurant might want an app linked to a loyalty scheme where you collect points towards a free meal or qualify for offers, but how many will want an app just to check a menu, which they could easily do online?

Still, I like the idea of an app that will make it easier to read this blog on Windows Phone, so I went in and built an app.

Microsoft is continuing its peculiar and infuriating aversion to proper documentation, but there is a a how to that is somewhat informative. “You can also create a custom action”, it says, but does not tell you what such an action can do or how to use it.

That said, the development environment is reasonably intuitive. There is no interface builder at the level of buttons and listboxes; rather, you drag high-level elements into sections and the user interface is built for you. For example, I added an RSS feed, entered the URL for this blog, and it built a UI to browse and read blog entries.


Everything is data bound, and the data can be stored either locally or else hosted by Microsoft, in which case you can amend it dynamically:

App Studio Data Services means the data is stored in App Studio and depends on an internet connection. If you update your data in App Studio, your app will automatically update. This allows you to create live apps that don’t need to be updated when you want to change data.

Large or sophisticated data sets are not the target here though. You could store a short list of addresses, for example.

You can also add elements including HTML text, RSS feeds, YouTube videos, Flickr photos, and Bing searches. You can add actions including initiating a phone call or email, searching Nokia music, or getting directions from Nokia HERE maps.

As you work, a live preview of the app appears alongside your work, a nice feature.

Once done, you can generate the app.


New in this version is the ability to generate a Windows Store App for Windows 8.1, as well as a phone app. Once in Visual Studio, you can do what you like, though there is no way back to the visual builder. Apps generated use XAML and C#.


App Studio also compiles a Windows Phone binary package (not yet for Windows Store apps) which you can install immediately, provided you have added the necessary certificate. You can install the app by scanning a QR code.


There is good work here, and if by any chance you do want to build a “content app” of the type envisaged, it is great.

I have a couple of reservations though.

First, it is too limited to be useful for real-world apps, unless you just use it as a starting point for a Visual Studio project. It needs the ability to write snippets of code, and the ability to link to business data sources like Azure Mobile Services and SQL Server. It also needs a login facility supporting at least Office 365 and Microsoft IDs.

Second, it seems to me that Microsoft is working simultaneously on several projects with overlapping purpose, which is to simplify app building.

Project Siena is a visual app builder implemented as a Windows 8 app; I looked at it here.

Visual Studio Lightswitch is a visual app builder in Visual Studio, which builds apps for Silverlight and HTML.

Access 2013 Web Apps let you build custom databases that hook into Office 365. I looked at these here. This is one easy app builder that really makes sense to me, allowing reasonably sophisticated data models and using Office 365 identities for log-in and permissions.

Windows Phone App Studio as described above.

Now, I appreciate that there are slightly different target markets in each of these. Lightswitch cannot build store apps, Access Web Apps require SharePoint or Office 365, Project Siena cannot build phone apps, and so on.

However, Microsoft needs to unify its development platform, and a proliferation of tools all going for the supposed non-technical app developer is not helping its cause. I also suspect that the demand for consumer “content-based apps” is vanishingly small.

Personally I think Microsoft should both improve and shout from the rooftops about the under appreciated Access 2013 web apps, scrap at least two of the other three, and integrate their functionality so that we have one easy to use app builder that can target Windows Store apps and Windows Phone apps.

Results for Nokia’s last quarter with Windows Phone: slightly worse than flat? Over to you Microsoft

Nokia has released its fourth quarter results for 2013. They make odd reading because of the division into “Continuing operations” and “Discontinued operations”, the latter including the mobile phone business which has been acquired by Microsoft. This tends to cloud the key point of interest for some of us, which is how Windows Phone is faring in the market.

The answer seems to be that sales slightly declined, though it is not clear. Here is what we know.

Mobile phone revenue overall declined by 29% year on year and by 5% quarter on quarter, for the quarter ending December 2013.

Nokia states in its report:

The year-on-year decline in discontinued operations net sales in the fourth quarter 2013 was primarily due to lower Mobile Phones net sales and, to a lesser extent, lower Smart Devices net sales. Our Mobile Phones net sales were affected by competitive industry dynamics, including intense smartphone competition at increasingly lower price points and intense competition at the low end of our product portfolio. Our Smart Devices net sales were affected by competitive industry dynamics including the strong momentum of competing smartphone platforms, as well as our portfolio transition from Symbian products to Lumia products.

Disappointing; though in mitigation Lumia (ie Windows Phone) sales volume in 2013 overall is said to be double that in 2012.

We do know that much of Lumia’s success is thanks to the introduction of low-end devices such as the Lumia 520. That has been good for building market share, but not so good for app sales or mind share – on the assumption that that purchasers of high-end devices are more likely to spend on apps, and that aspirational devices have a greater influence on mind share than cheap ones.

That does mean though that units might have gone up even though revenue has fallen.

Still, the results do put a dampener on the theory that Windows Phone is taking off at last.

This is a moment of transition following the Microsoft acquisition. Microsoft has not got a good track record with acquisitions, and the Danger/Kin disaster is hard to forget, but Nokia comes with an influential executive (Stephen Elop) and common sense would suggest that the team which created excellent devices like the Lumia 1020, and which was able to engineer strong budget offerings like the 520, should be kept together as far as possible. Or will it be dragged into the mire of Microsoft’s notorious internal politics? Over to you Microsoft.

Update: it is now reported that Lumia sold 8.2m devices in Q4, down from 8.8m in Q3 but up from 4.4m in the same quarter 2012.