Phone Wars Part 4: Contender or Pretender?

Promising to level the playing field with Android and iOS, Windows Phone 8.1 Developer Preview is now available for anyone with a Windows Phone and the official carrier releases will be rolling out this summer. Does it deliver and more importantly, will it matter?

Pros: After thrashing about for a number of years, Windows Phone finally found solid footing with the release of Windows Phone 8. Unfortunately it still lacked some basic features, such as a unified notification and alerts center, the competitors have had for years. Coupled with tepid developer support and a lack of apps, Microsoft struggled to make inroads in the smartphone market. It’s too bad, because while it’s a closed operating system and feels more, ironically, like an Apple experience than an Android, it’s arguably the easiest to customize for the average user. Fast forward to last week and the release of the 8.1 Developer Preview. In most meaningful ways, Microsoft has leveled the playing field, delivering the eagerly anticipated notification center along with a number of updates which make the experience feel more like a full version upgrade than a ".1" revision. Looking to go toe-to-toe with Apple’s Siri and Google’s Google Now, 8.1 includes Cortana, a personal assistant who shows a lot of promise. Combining Siri’s personality with Google Now’s proactive and anticipatory behavior, Microsoft may really be onto something. Despite officially still in beta, Cortana feels more complete than Siri, which has always felt like a glorified voice search engine to me. Cortana includes a notebook style interface where she keeps track of your interests and favorite places. The latter allows for cool geofencing capabilities, such as a reminder to do something when you get somewhere or auto turning on Wi-Fi when you get home. Now this isn’t groundbreaking, Siri and Google Now have been doing it for a while, and Google Now still probably does it better. But Cortana isn’t far off and Microsoft has teased the long term capabilities as she "learns" about you. Plus, Windows Phone has a lot of good stuff already, starting with Live Tiles.  These allow you to not only add quick launch app shortcuts to your Start screen but to also display information which updates regularly. For example, you can have a weather app showing the next few days forecast next to a news app tile with the latest headlines below a calendar tile showing your appointments for the day. You control the size, appearance, and info the tiles display, allowing for a ton of customized information without needing to open individual apps. Think of Live Tiles as a way to slice and dice your screen into "mini" screens, based on what you want. Spend a few minutes with a Windows Phone and you’ll not only better understand Microsoft’s intent with Windows 8 in general but you’ll wonder why everyone isn’t doing the same thing. Plus, 8.1 introduces transparent tiles which allow a photo to be used as your phone’s background underneath the tiles. It also allows a cool parallax movement feature when the user scrolls, letting you "see through" the tiles.  Windows Phone screens pop and stand out. Here are a couple screenshots.  On the left is the first level of the Start screen and on the right, how it looks as you scroll down.

But Windows Phone is more than a pretty face. For business users, and those who support them, it offers the tightest integration with many enterprise applications such as Office, Exchange, and OneNote. For home users, there’s the same tight integration with the Xbox platform so if you’re heavily invested in that ecosystem, a Windows Phone makes a lot of sense.


Cons: There’s no arguing the facts. Microsoft is a long shot to even be competitive with Apple and Google. Their late-to-the-game strategy coupled with negative PR ranging from the Vista debacle to the botched Windows 8 launch to their ever changing and confusing licensing models, Microsoft put themselves in a tough position. App developers were slow to embrace the platform because the user base is a fraction of that of iOS or Android. Many consumers were slow to embrace it because many go-to apps weren’t available for it. So a classic chicken and egg dilemma emerged. Those looking for a large user community are scared off and will often opt for the safer choices, betting iOS and Android will be around for a long time.

Conclusion:  I won't give much away from the final installment of our Phone War series but if you want a good alternative to the standard Android and iPhone options, give Windows Phone a look.  You won't be disappointed.  Next time, we'll wrap up with the results of the VADAR office survey including who's using what and why, plus final thoughts to help you choose a new smartphone.


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