Microsoft's Aaron Woodman on reduced specs, China entry and more

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At Mobile World Congress a few weeks ago, Rafe sat down with Aaron Woodman, Director for Windows Phone at Microsoft, to talk about Windows Phone 7.5's new reduced hardware requirements, the entry into new countries (most notably China), the partnership with Nokia and future directions for the platform, and a potential direction for Microsoft's Windows Phone marketing. 

This interview took place just after the announcement of the new reduced hardware requirements for Windows Phone 7.5 and the related announcements of the Nokia Lumia 610 and ZTE Orbit.

What should we be calling Windows Phone 7.5 with the new lower specifications?

You can think of it as an optimisation or a refresh. I've called it a refresh, but that's not an official title. The end result is Windows Phone 7.5.

What's the focus?

The two things we're really focused on are really around processor and memory footprint. And then there's been some incredibly good choices, that Nokia has made, to reduce the total BOM [bill of materials]. Essentially, what we did was to take 7.5 and made it work more efficiently on the 7x27 processor and 256MB of RAM.

Looking at the Nokia Lumia 610, it's hard to see any difference in the way it runs the basic Windows Phone experience.

Right. I have an enormous amount of pride over that. We do have some incredibly good developers and it is to their credit. I push on our three leaders of Henry, Darren and Joe. Essentially they sat down and looked really hard around where the resources were.

The browser [is a good example], today our browser is built by the IE team, but we do optimisations to make it work well in a restricted, limited resource environment. On a desktop you just load the page, and with broadband speeds you can't care less about that. But in the phone, you don't have that choice and we've hired developers that have that passion for being efficient and asked them to do more.

There are some limitations as result. The biggest one that I think people will notice is background agents, which is a function of memory. It's actually something that the OS is still capable of, but it is a function of having a good experience and leaving memory room for applications. We still support over the air service driven agents - Live Tiles still work.

And Background Audio?

Absolutely works. I have to tell you though, that one was at risk. It's a difficult one to implement because when you are running a codec that is significant. 

The limitations mean some third party applications (using background agents or a big memory footprint) will not work on lower specification devices. What's the plan to help mitigate this?

The first thing is we're going to make it really seamless for consumers, so they don't run into frustrations.

We are proactively reaching out to developers, communicating why we're doing this, giving them tools to help them, and providing tutorials to help them think about how they could manage memory differently. In a few isolated cases, we've worked actively with the ISV to get them over the hump. And so we really feel like it is edge cases at the moment. And then it is up to the developer. 

Are you looking at Marketplace stats to identify the popular apps to work with?

Yes. You're right, that's where we got the list to work out who to communicate with.

And was the priority on paid apps?

We did not use 'paid app' as a criteria. We used downloaded apps and iconic brand apps as the criteria. When it comes to this type of things we have an internal mantra that the end user is king and there is nothing that should get in the way of this. At the end of the day, our long term success will be a direct derivative of end users. So when it comes to tough decisions like this we try to get to criteria that we think is meaningful for customers and accept some of the wash that comes out in terms of business impact.

Do the efficiencies introduced by supporting the new lower specifications have a benefit for existing devices?

It actually doesn't. The way we manage these efficiencies, more than anything else, is through really aggressive memory management and those type of things.

So it's tuning the settings in terms of what is being kept open in the background, tombstoning etc.

That's right. And so there's no noticeable difference. It is the same as not seeing the difference on the lower specification processor. I think it would be almost impossible for an end user to hold these up, side by side, and know a difference. And the amount of pride we feel in that.. is quite high.

With these new devices, Windows Phone will be going into new markets. What does that involve?

Going into a market requires a number of things. There are government requirements and that requires work. The other thing is getting a set of competitive services. So one of the things we have announced is Marketplace expansion - adding 28 countries, 5 already, and 23 over the coming months.

And then we can talk about relationships. In some countries, it is super important to work with the mobile operator. If you look at India, there's so little operator influence it's almost ridiculous. Almost all of the markets break down into an operator controlled distribution or an OEM distribution. The one exception is China where it is monumentally important to get the endorsement of the mobile operator, yet almost all of the devices go through an unlocked, sometimes black market, distribution vehicle. And each of the operators is very different it terms of its network support requirements and the government has strict enforcement policies. So China is this unique beast. It is not an easy beast to get right?

And is Nokia important in getting you into this market?

Yes. I would argue that we would not be in China for another year or two, if it were not for Nokia stepping up and taking the leadership within that country. And so it is a wonderful illustration of the assets that they bring to us. Both applying pressure for us to do the work to get into China in low cost devices and make distribution a success there. They also have an incredibly strong brand in China and so that's a value for us.

At MWC, we've seen Nokia demonstrate their imaging leadership with the Nokia 808 PureView. They've said PureView is a technology that will be used in future devices [without specifically mentioning names or platforms]. You must see Nokia doing that and think it is going to be great for us when it happens.

I will tell you that I think Nokia is willing and is capable of delivering hardware innovation on Windows Phone and that is critical to their and our sucess. 

And is that baked into the strategy in terms of how things move forward?

The end result is that Nokia sits in on, and participates in, the definition of our products. It is not just engineering requests post product definition. That partnership is true at almost every level. I literally have a partner, Illari [Nurmi] at Nokia, and we have debates over positioning, target audience, market strategy... and we have those conversations on a regular basis. And that's true even when we start thinking about, dreaming what the next version is. 

And I believe it is in our best interest.. and Joe [Belfiore], Henry [Sanders], John, Terry [Myerson] would say the same... that there is a strong vested interest in tying hardware and software innovation together because it's more defendable in the marketplace. So we are prioritising those aspects and I think there is a strong correlation between how well Nokia does and how well Windows Phone does and the partnership is motivated by the fact they have those strengths.

So the answer is yes. We are working on bringing hardware innovation to Windows Phone.

And it's hard to do because you do have to think ahead of time?

It's been educational for Microsoft. The schedules are different. Hardware innovations can sometimes take three to five years to not only invent, but also bring to mass manufacture. 

We have a joke internally that when someone says, 'can you do this', we'll say 'it's only software'. There is this mentality. But there is real physics behind the hardware...

... and that's where Nokia expertise comes in? The complimentary partnership...

Yes, that's absolutely true. The engineering effort around the 7.5 refresh is based around direct input from Nokia... that's just true.

Is this a change from the [development] of the first version of Windows Phone?

There are two changes. First there is no hedge with Nokia. There is this recognition that when they give us advice or put tension in the system it is not based on any nefarious plan. The fact they put tension into the system at all is based on need. We just haven't experienced the same level of commitment, so that's a change. We have a good relationship with Samsung and HTC, but it is just not the same.

The second thing that has changed is the maturity of the platform itself. It is easy to look at the restraints we did initially, but the more restraints you draw around in certain areas, the more you can engineer in others. And we're getting to the point where we have greater maturity in the product itself and greater maturity in having a competitive product compared to our peers. So it frees up more time and greater flexibility to re-evaluate certain things. We didn't have that luxury when we first brought the product to market.

We continue to confine hardware changes to make sure that developers have a consistent platform, but we also have greater flexibility now. We had to build the foundation and it took time.

What are the themes going forward for Marketing?

I'll be really direct. We haven't figured it out yet. We've tried working with operators, we've tried aggressively working with OEMs and now we're resolved to the idea that we are going to have to do it ourselves. It is not a function of whether we are capable of doing the marketing, but it is a difference of what they market and when they choose to market.

OEMs choose to market, and I'll put Nokia aside here for a second, but generally device manufacturers tend to be very descriptive and specific on the device itself. And that doesn't drive broad category understanding or demand for the platform or category. Familiarity with the operating system features or differentiators just don't come through.

So, to me, it's a statement that says we haven't cracked it yet. And I think, in order to crack it, we are going to have to spend aggressively from Microsoft directly. My bet, that is where we go, but we have not made the final decisions yet.

The second thing is we have to get aggressive. We have been very 'soft love' and very kind in our descriptions, and brand orientated. We do not have to be mean, but we need to start picking a fight, and that's what we're going to do. But which fight? We have had a lot of debate over this... 'our product is more beautiful, our product is easier...', but the challenge with those is they're subjective in nature... so by landing on speed as a key differentiator, it becomes demonstrable. So we have this intent to redefine making speed practical... not chipsets, bus speeds and memory speeds, not about specs... but what a human tries to do on a phone, how long it takes. And it really is something that is expressed in bringing this user interface and design metaphor to Windows Phone.

The question then becomes how do we find ways to communicate that? And that's still being worked through. Though #smokedbywindowphone is an example of it.

Actually we had a huge controversy internally about whether we should do 'smokedby' at MWC. There's a couple of reasons why it's a challenge - you're in front of people who are fundamentally experts at mobile, they're entrenched in the competitor's piece and they know it inside out and a lot of times they are going to bring hardware and software solutions that aren't even available yet to consumers. And we let the customer pick the challenge.

But we win almost every time, so it is this wonderful organic process that says we believe in the product... and the ones we lose are so freaking close.

Smoked by Windows Phone

Windows Phone stand at MWC