With Windows 8 connection manager, Microsoft shows it gets mobile

Mike Dano

Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) recently published a blog post on how its forthcoming Windows 8 operating system will handle wireless network connections. It's clear that Microsoft put an enormous amount of work into this seemingly minor area--and the company's activities could pave the way for the future of mobile computing.

But let's start at the beginning: Microsoft sells the world's most-used computer operating system, Windows. The company is also working to break into the mobile market with its Windows Phone platform for smartphones. Windows 8 represents a bit of a merging of these two efforts. The OS, which is expected to be released later this year, can run traditional desktop programs but also features a tablet-style, touch-friendly overlay that allows users quick access to the Internet and HTML5 web apps. Windows 8 also features the same "Metro" design as Microsoft's Windows Phone platform, replete with its "live tiles" technology.

For the connection manager in Windows 8, Microsoft announced several needed upgrades. Specifically:

  • Windows 8 will support the Mobile Broadband Interface Model specification from the USB Implementers Forum, which eliminates the need for users to install new device drivers for their dongles and plug-in wireless modems.
  • Users can manage all their wireless connections--Wi-Fi, mobile broadband, Bluetooth and the like--from one location. They can also set preferences for each type of connection.

But that's just the basics. Microsoft also said that it will allow Windows 8 users to basically shop for wireless service from their device. For users who have a "carrier-unlocked mobile broadband device that supports carrier switching," they can see all the available networks they can connect to, and they can even pay for their data service (like a day pass, or a bucket of 1 GB) from the Windows 8 connection manager. That payment could also authorize the device to access a cellular carrier's Wi-Fi network, if it has one.

"Behind the scenes, Windows identifies the mobile broadband subscriber information, looks up the mobile operator in the new Access Point Name (APN) database, and pre-provisions the system to connect to the operator's network," Microsoft's Billy Anders, a group program manager on the company's devices and networking team, wrote in the company's post.  He noted that participating carriers can offer an app through Microsoft's Windows 8 app store so users can check on their account details.

Of course, this scenario presumes carriers open to such a business model. Meaning, Windows 8 users will probably be able to shop for data service in Europe, where unlocked devices are common and GSM is the standard, but they probably won't be able to do it in the United States, where carriers so far remain committed to locked devices. Will LTE networks change that? I doubt it.

But Microsoft's Windows 8 mobile connection innovations don't stop there. Perhaps the company's most important advancement involves mobile data usage.

Specifically, Windows 8 will generally favor Wi-Fi connections if they are available on the assumption that cellular connections are more tightly metered. Users can also check how much data they have used either through the Windows 8 interface or their operator's Windows 8 app, and they can even see which apps are consuming the most data.

And Microsoft appears to be heading the call of AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) and other operators by requiring developers to build data-efficient apps.

"If you are an application developer, we encourage you to leverage these APIs and adapt the behavior of your app, such as allowing a low-definition vs. high-definition video stream, or a header-only vs. full-sync of email, depending on the network type," Microsoft's Anders wrote. "We believe that this adaptive behavior is critical, as it results in actual cost savings for end users."

Anders is exactly right. Developers should take metered mobile broadband connections into account when they design apps. Moreover, carriers, handset makers, Internet service providers and others should take note of Microsoft's approach to mobile connections in Windows 8--the company appears to have undertaken a serious effort to address the problems that mobile users face by offering simple ways for users to connect to mobile networks and then make the best use of those networks.

After watching Apple, Google and others take the lead in mobile, Microsoft appears to be finally getting its game together with Windows Phone and Windows 8. And the company's vision of mobile computing--where carriers essentially bid for users' business and developers cater to both Wi-Fi and mobile broadband scenarios--is one I hope comes to fruition. +Mike Dano