New Phone To Beat: HTC Windows Phone 8X

HTC Windows Phone 8X

HTC previewed the Windows Phone 8X and Windows Phone 8S at a press conference last week, with Steve Ballmer beaming onstage like a proud father. The phones will be available sometime in early November, along with the Nokia Lumia 920 and 820, the Samsung Ativ S, and likely others. The HTC Windows Phone 8X looks like the new high-end Windows phone to beat, with stylish lines, a high-quality camera, and very light weight. It’s also the first Windows Phone 8 device confirmed for Verizon, which is crucially important to those of us in the wilderness of Sonoma County where AT&T and Sprint fear to tread.

HTC and Nokia are both underdogs in the rapidly changing phone industry, chasing Apple and Samsung and their apparently unshakable lock on the phone market. Both companies have stepped up with innovative engineering and designs to go along with the fresh Windows Phone 8 operating system. Their flagship phones, the HTC Phone 8X and the Nokia Lumia 920, each look like they can hold their own against the Apple iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S III.

The HTC Windows Phone 8X comes in several bold colors, with the Windows Phone 8 Live Tiles color-coded to match. All the specs are competitive with the best phones on the market, from the 4.3 inch screen and unibody case to the upgraded camera (which might give the Nokia Lumia 920 a run for its money).

Behind the scenes, Microsoft is walking a tightrope with Windows Phone 8 as we approach the rollout at the end of October. The operating system is now finalized but the Software Development Kit for Windows Phone 8 has not been widely distributed. The SDK has the information that programmers need to write apps for the new phone; high profile developers have been given a copy, but the vast community of small and independent app developers are still in the dark about how to write apps that can take advantage of new Windows Phone 8 features.

This is odd. There are three possibilities:

  — Possibility number 1: Microsoft is taking extraordinary steps to keep some Windows Phone 8 features secret. The stated reason for withholding the SDK is that Microsoft wants to keep those new features from leaking before the official presentation of Windows Phone 8 at the end of October. This goes along with the precautions at the press events, where journalists have literally not been allowed to touch the screen of any new Windows Phone 8 device.

  –  Possibility number 2: At the launch, there will be relatively few apps for the new phones but Microsoft is going to be sure that the ones that are available will be high quality. Presumably Microsoft will be able to display the ones that absolutely must be ready – Netflix, Kindle, Yelp, Angry Birds (sigh), and the rest of them. They might believe it will make a better impression if there’s a delay before the onslaught of junk apps begins.

  –  Possibility number 3: The Windows Phone 8 team is in complete disarray. The operating system isn’t ready. Distributing the SDK and emulators would expose the raw unfinished state of the OS all too openly.

It’s a gamble. Microsoft might have some truly exciting new things to show off that improve the smartphone experience in fun and exciting ways. If so, the secrecy might pay off in a burst of favorable publicity, just as it did when Microsoft sprang the Surface tablet by surprise on a roomful of journalists a few months ago.

But if Microsoft has artificially limited the supply of apps for the new phone and the only payoff is an announcement of, say, a streaming music service, then the lack of apps might be the focus of the initial press coverage of Windows Phone 8, leading to a rocky launch.

We’re halfway through Sixty Days Of Technology, changing the technology landscape more deeply than any time I can remember. We’ve seen the iPhone 5, the Galaxy S III and other new Android phones, and previews of the first Windows Phone 8 devices. Amazon has shown off its next generation of Kindle Fire tablets and some Windows 8 tablets have been unwrapped. You’ve seen some of the next generation of hybrid notebook/tablets.

The next thirty days will be focused on Windows 8 (plus possibly a 7” iPad Mini). You have the broad outlines of the market that will exist at the end of October but the pace of announcements is going to be picking up – there are dozens and dozens of new products to be presented in the next thirty days. Don’t unbuckle those seat belts yet!