Windows Mobile and Visual Studio Sync Up

Microsoft VP Ya-Qin Zhang discusses improvements in Windows Mobile 5.0 that will interest Visual Studio developers, as well as broader issues in the mobile market.

Back in 2003 we quoted Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates as saying, "We'll invest, and invest, and invest in mobility." Two years later, Microsoft is indeed continuing to invest, posting a net loss of $32 million on sales of $240 million for the nine months ended March 31. While those results show growth in revenues and a reduction in losses, it means that Microsoft's mobile group is roughly the size of PalmSource and dwarfed by $37 billion Nokia.

Microsoft hopes its newest mobile operating system, Windows Mobile 2005 (with versions for PDA and smartphones), will change that. The 2005 release was launched by Gates in a joint keynote for attendees of the Microsoft Mobile & Embedded DevCon 2005 and VSLive! in Las Vegas on May 10. Although the OS is not shipping yet, it shows substantial improvements and, for our audience, far better development facilities including more managed code and tight integration with Visual Studio 2005.

We met with Ya-Qin Zhang (pronounced yah-CHEEN jong), Corporate Vice President of the Mobile and Embedded Devices Division, to discuss the release and the mobile market in general. Zhang is an experienced computer systems researcher with 70 patents who entered college in China at 12 and graduated first in his class before coming to the United States to get his doctorate. Zhang helped start Microsoft's Beijing research laboratory in 1999 along with Kai-Fu Lee, now head of Microsoft Speech Server, before moving to the mobile division. According to The New York Times, "Microsoft's chief executive, Steven A. Ballmer, first discussed the job with Dr. Zhang while he was on a trip to China in 2003 and the two men were in the anteroom of the state guesthouse, waiting for a meeting with the Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao. 'This is really important to the company,' Mr. Ballmer said, as Dr. Zhang recalls it."

China and Smartphone market
Q: Before we get into the details of Magneto and its relationship to Visual Studio 2005, can we discuss some broader issues? China is both the largest market for cellular phones and increasingly a source of technology for them. Since you're in a unique position to comment on both, what impact do you see China having on mobile phones? You helped found the Microsoft Research Laboratory there. Oracle has facilities there, as does Nokia, Intel, and in fact, most large high-tech firms.

Zhang: It is really amazing. China has become the leading market with more than 350 million cell phones sold last year. When I first went back to China in 1999, it was 50 million. That's enormous growth. It also has some of the most advanced applications. Last year, more than 200 billion SMS messages were sent in China.

Phones are used in China for many applications, including making micropayments, taking video, and exchanging photographs. So, it is not only a large market, but also an advanced market. China is also a source of engineering technology. When I first went back to China, when Kai-Fu Lee hired me, there were only two research labs. Now there are at least 100 research labs in Beijing alone.

Q: Did the Microsoft research lab contribute to the Magneto release?

Zhang: Obviously, it takes time for research to be transferred to products. But some of the work in camera applications came from the technology-transfer part of the laboratory. Research has two parts. Basic research has about 180 top scientists. Plus, there is a new center focused on applied technology, which I started just before [taking the VP position in Mobile]. We worked closely with that group, which has more than 200 people. They are involved in 3G, camera applications, sync architecture, and some tools. We created a set of tools that emulates networking conditions, such as UMTS and GPRS. These look at interference patterns.

But 90 percent of the work in Magneto is done right here, and started long before I arrived.

Q: I remember years ago Bill Gates saying, "We will invest, and invest, and invest."

Zhang: That's right. And the pace of our investment has increased over the past couple of years. We are the fastest-growing business group in the company, of seven P&Ls. Also, the market share speaks volumes. Gartner says we are the leading PDA platform with 43 percent. We are number two in smartphone OSs, according to Canalys.

Q: To what extent will China, with its sheer market size, drive market standards? We saw one controversial dispute as some in China pushed for a proprietary 3G standard called TD-SCDMA. What kind of force will the Chinese market exert to shape the mobile platform?

Zhang: It is a fact of life that we are moving from a single radio to multiple radios. That includes WiFi, WiMax, and 2.5G as well as different modes of 3G—UMTS, CDMA2000, and China's standard TD-SCDMA. We want to make sure our platform works with all kinds of carriers. We have a layer of software that abstracts the OS from the complexity of the radio. We want to provide a seamless experience as you roam from one type of radio to another. Support for roaming is built into the physical layer as well as the session and data application layers.

This will take a while. Even simply roaming from AP to AP is not perfect today. But I'm confident this will work well soon.

This is one of our key strengths.

Q: Can you describe the effort that went into Magneto, now known as Windows Mobile 2005?

Zhang: Magneto is the accumulation of the efforts and creativity of 1,000 engineers over two years. More than a million cans of soda, thousands of pizzas, and lots of Kung Pao chicken.

Q: Flexibility seems to be an underlying theme for this release.

Zhang: It's important for software to be the glue—Bill Gates calls this "the magic software"—to provide the connectivity. At the user level it is smooth; it is intuitive. But it is also about partnerships. We work with our device makers and carriers to optimize and customize the software for different markets.

For example, broadcast video is becoming important. We aren't going to provide native broadcast video, but our platform is extensible, so you can add a device driver and couple it with a codec and antenna from a device manufacturer to provide a solution. We realize it is impossible for us to cover all those opportunities. So it is important for us to work with partners, and provide the basic platform and tools, so the device manufacturers can provide many types of form factors and many different services.

That is our business model, which is quite different from our competitors'.

Q: Bill's keynote mentioned that 75 million smartphones shipped in the last year. That shows tremendous growth, but out of a total of 704 million cell phones, the projected sales for this year, it is still a small percentage. What has to happen to make smartphones more widely used?

Zhang: Two things: Price, and applications. If we look at the trajectory of the phone market, the converged-device category (or smartphones) is the fastest growing. Even if we fast-forward 20 years, there will still be phones that are extremely cheap and intended solely to make voice calls. But the vast majority of the market is moving toward phones that are more intelligent and that can service multiple purposes, yet at a reasonable price.

I see the convergence of the Internet, the PC, and mobile computing impacting the cell phone. Mobile phones will be devices for computing, and for control, as well as (voice) communications.

I am especially passionate about the control elements. Mobile phones can be extremely useful to provide a user's ID. The phone is about you. It is a fashion statement. It has personal information. It tracks your location. It has a camera. It understands you, knows whom you stay in contact with, what transactions you have made. From this ID will come extremely important applications in the next five years, controlling your computer, making micropayments, serving as a remote control for your home appliances.

Mobile phones will become your agents, tools for interacting with the rest of the world. I'm very passionate about this. Near field communications, which Bill mentioned, is one part of the phone as ID.

On Linux and Symbian
Q Turning to competitive issues, we see Linux making inroads on mobile devices. Your competitor PalmSource purchased a Chinese company, which gives it entry into the mobile Linux market. How do you differentiate from and compete with Linux on mobile phones?

Zhang: [First], in terms of technology, Windows Mobile is much richer than Linux in terms of formats, device drivers, processors, and screen formats it supports. It has DSP drivers, a basic operating system, a file system, networking, media support, and an application platform—Office Mobile, which now includes PowerPoint. Also, you have Visual Studio and the .NET Compact Framework to develop with. This is all much richer than what Linux provides.

Second, [you have] shorter development time and time to market. Again, we have more than 1,000 engineers working on our OS. We work with operators and device manufacturers to make sure our devices work optimally with the networks. Also, the footprint and power management are optimized.

Third [is] platform compatibility and integrity. According to VDC, Windows Mobile is the most predictable platform in terms of development time and compliance. We provide a single, coherent development platform, and set of APIs from desktop to mobile devices, which Linux cannot match.

But it is a competitive environment and we must keep innovating.

Q: At the other end of your competitive environment, Symbian/Nokia is the dominant smartphone, primarily through Nokia's Series 60 phones. How do you compare with that competitor?

Zhang: That is a good point. The vast majority of Symbian shipments come from one company, Nokia with its Series 60. Microsoft has a different business model. We work with many device makers and operators. Our device partners find it difficult to work with a competitor that owns the system. Symbian has not gained a lot of traction outside Nokia.

In terms of technology, Symbian does not have a consistent development platform. A Symbian application that works on one device won't work on another Symbian device.

Q: Symbian has separate SDKs for Samsung, for Sony Ericsson, for Nokia, and so on.

Zhang: Right. We have a single SDK. As long as the device runs Windows Mobile, your application will run. It doesn't matter which manufacturer the device comes from; they will all be compliant.

Q: The Symbian argument would be that this allows the device manufacturers to differentiate their products, so they don't become commoditized as the PC vendors have.

Zhang: Actually, if you look at Magneto, we make our platform flexible, scalable and customizable, and extensible. So device makers, carriers, and developers can differentiate and innovate.

If you architect [the OS] properly, you can maintain the user navigation experience, while giving great flexibility. If you look at the location API, the camera API, the notification broker or state API—those standard, new APIs are common across the platforms and all devices. But you can use them to innovate on top of the platform.

This is a market industry that is extremely fast-paced, so there is no danger whatsoever to become commoditized. There are so many different areas to innovate. {Holding up devices varying from a new clam-shell 3G device with a full keyboard, to the i-mate JAM, a touch-screen device centered on playing video and sound} Look at these devices. There is so much room to innovate around form factor, media, and user interface.

I get so, so excited about the plethora of devices.

Enterprise and New APIs
Q: Years ago when I handicapped the competitive mobile OSs, my take was that Microsoft's strength was its tight integration with Exchange and other enterprise applications, and knowledge of corporate development tools. So far, when you look at what is added onto mobile devices, the dominant items are games and ring tones. Enterprise use beyond simply accessing mail has been slow to emerge. For five years, surveys have been stuck, saying this will happen next year, and then next year. What will it take to get enterprise use of mobile devices to break loose? Do you see larger enterprises embracing mobile devices as more than phones, and what evidence do you see of that?

Zhang: That is one of the next killer application scenarios, use in [the] enterprise—including CRM, inventory management, location-based dispatching, what we call line-of-business applications (LOBs).

Last year, the number of LOBs for Windows Mobile doubled, and I foresee the same kind of growth in the next year. Many of the concerns with security and deployment are addressed in Windows Mobile 2005. These uses will accelerate in the next few years.

Q: The cost and time involved with provisioning mobile devices is one of the key objections IT departments have to widespread use of smartphones for more than voice. What are you doing to improve the deployment and provisioning issues?

Zhang: We've made it much easier. I wouldn't say it is perfect, but it is substantially improved. We use both SMS and OMA [device management] to do device setup provisioning and updates. We also have a new technology called image update, which we haven't talked about a lot. But it is a key enabling technology. Image update actually sends an entire OS kernel over the air to be automatically installed on the ROM. This is a great infrastructure technology that enables automatic security updates, patch updates, virus updates, and device updates.

Those technologies are in 5.0. They greatly simplify enterprise deployment.

Q: One of the obstacles to getting your large installed base of general Visual Studio developers to work on mobile devices is that too much of the code they had to write was unmanaged—that is, they had to go outside the Compact Framework to make device-specific calls and the like. To what extent is this solved with the new .NET Compact Framework and the Whidbey release?

Zhang: In the new release, in August, the operating system itself is written in native code because of the real-time requirements. But in 5.0, we have greatly increased the percentage of calls that are handled by managed wrappers. We have managed wrappers for API, modules, and controls. We also made a lot of investment in the .NET Compact Framework, version 2, for items such as COM interoperability, the ability to call native application APIs from the managed code. We also greatly enhanced the API itself, especially for communications purposes.

We just established a new group to enhance the developer experience two weeks ago, in addition to the Compact Framework and the Visual Studio device group. We put a lot of emphasis on the managed wrapper, and on tools that can do things such as detect battery life and signal network strength. These are things that can help developers manage power and be more efficient.

Of course, Visual Studio 2005 is a big step for us. It is the first time that device development is an integral part of Visual Studio.

Q: Which of the many new APIs are your favorites? Are there one or two that a VS developer in an enterprise who isn't yet working with mobile devices might get excited about?

Zhang: The location API is exciting. [And] the new set of 3D APIs for creating games. I also like the state-notification-broker API; you can create a lot of possibly cool applications with it. [For example], if I have flip phone with a second screen (on the outside of the cover), I can display all types of information there. You might show a picture of the caller, the call progress, live-screen stock quotes, or enterprise data. Whatever application I run on my phone, the state can be surfaced on the second screen, which is very compelling. Developers will be thrilled by ability to create that type of application.

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