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One small step for Microsoft

Guest Tom Hopkins

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Guest Tom Hopkins

Just the other day, Steve Ballmer said that one of his biggest regrets as CEO was that Microsoft had missed out on the mobile market. Announcing the Surface Book Air, Satya Nedalla restated his "mobile first, cloud first" strategy. You might expect, therefore, that we would be seeing constant and dramatic forward leaps for Microsoft's very own mobile phone operating system, Windows Phone over the last few years.

But no. The upcoming update, 8.1 - which comes preloaded on the Nokia 930, 630 and perhaps even a new HTC flagship - is the first proper consumer-facing update for almost three years.

So is this a giant leap for the platform?

And here's the problem for Microsoft. In mobile operating systems at the top end of the smartphone world (where the company now is), any progression is a really a game of inches. They're hardly alone in this - Apple and Google add fingerprint readers, built-in apps, torches and more pixels, it hardly feels as if we are on the cusp of any game-changing announcements from anyone in mobile.

And so, when you do upgrade to 8.1, your first impression could well be that very little has changed.

As you start to explore, however, you'll realize that the two or three flashy headline changes are accompanied by many many smaller features and improvements. In the long run, it may be the tweaks which matter more than the rest.

For me, before even upgrading, coming back to Windows Phone after a few months in the wild with an iPhone, probably the most remarkable thing was just how well the core features still compare.

Outside of apps themselves, the key built-in features - email, app navigation, lock screen, keyboard are just better by a mile. It's hard to understand why Apple hasn't managed to close some of these gaps in the last four years.

So what are the biggies, the stand-out features the update brings?

Well the Cortana voice assistant is undoubtedly one. Here the world seems to be split into two camps: those that would never use a voice assistant, and those who say they will but never actually do. Siri, for me, has always been little more than a party trick, or something to use in the car when there are no other options. That said, Siri and Google now, can often in impress, understanding surprisingly complex questions and providing answers. Cortana - admittedly in beta and set to US English while being evaluated by a Brit, spent most of her time in "Computer says no" mode. Rarely understanding or transcribing at all, and then progressing to very slow look up the wrong thing. Early days of course. But to sum it up: with Siri, I'm often surprised how well it works. With Cortana, I'm surprised if it works.

The next obviously major addition is the notification and action centre. Like many others, I was concerned that this feature would break the whole live-tile concept. It doesn't, it's extremely well executed. Not noisy or annoying as iOS notifications can be. This new way of seeing a little more of the things that have happened since you last looked at your phone adds greatly to the "glance and go" underpinnings of Windows Phone, despite the fact that notifications cannot be actioned without moving into the relevant app. Easy access to a customisable list of shortcuts and toggles such as Bluetooth, Internet Sharing etc is also extremely useful and again nicely implemented.

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To see the Windows Team maintain their usability thinking is a big relief. It was far from assured. Often around the release of wp8, it had felt that the simplicity and coherence were slipping away, letting the platform drift to the infinitely customisable and infinitely fiddly ways of Android. But we can see that clarity of thought again now in notifications, and it sets the tone for all the other improvements seen here.

The final headliner is the Swipey keyboard - where the user essentially smudges their finger through all the letters in the desired word (and all the letters caught in the middle) and the software decodes the intent. Hardly original. Swype dates back to 2010. However, the implementation is great. For my money, the downside to Swype was that it meant you were left with a rubbish keyboard if you didn't want to enter your message through wavy lines. On WP, there is no problem. The keyboard remains the excellent windows phone model. But if you start smudging away, it’ll quickly get the idea and start responding. Simples. And for the trials I gave it really quick and accurate to use, if you like that kind of thing.

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So those are the biggies. Underwhelmed? Don't be. Look at the little ones.
  • You can automatically share your current wi-fi connection with friends and contacts, without disclosing the password. I couldn't test this as I only had one WP8.1 device. Sounds great though. WP8.1 will also try and re-connect you to Wi-fi hotspots, agreeing T&C pages and so on if necessary.
  • You can see a week at a time in calendar. And you get the weather straight into your calendar. When you’re looking at the week view, you can quick expand each day. It's very simple and easy to use. Oh, and there's a year view too.
  • You can also adjust the volume of the music separate from the ringer. This does make it a little more tricky to silence the phone completely. And is less useful for those who always leave their phones on silent but clearly meets a particular need.
  • In the store, you can now see a full list of apps previously purchased and re-download any you've removed - great for reviewers but also those with a tiny amount of phone storage, like the entry level Nokias and HTCs. Plus the store can now make app suggestions based on location (niche) and through social recommendation connected with Facebook. And finally, you can quickly see which apps you are using and which you aren’t to de-clutter your device.
  • You can now store your apps on a SD card. This will transform entry level phones with tiny built-in memory and SD card slots.

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What else? Well how about getting apps to auto update themselves, and to be able to choose to only have them do that when you're on wi-fi. Guess what? That's turned on by default.

In fact, the new platform is quite a fascist about both bandwidth and battery use, offering users the ability to scrutinize exactly which app is doing what and to automatically turn virtually everything off when times are tough at the end of the day for juice or month for bytes.

There's a complex solution that will optimise your email checking patterns dynamically, rather than always on, so if you were getting loads of emails yesterday, it might limit it's checking today. Sounds more like a life coach than an email policy to me but may prove useful for some who don’t always want their email immediately.

Some of the biggest changes to the platform are hard to understand in the preview version as they are opportunities for app developers to link things together much more richly.

What you will notice is that Facebook is no longer so deeply integrated with "People" or with "Photos". Indeed, when you first turn the device on, it may seem to have disappeared entirely. In fact, much of the functionality has been moved out to apps. You can still do all the same stuff - specifically integrate your Facebook contacts in address book (and link them to other contacts) as well as bringing in Facebook photos. But the same options are now open to developers so we can hope to see more apps with the same kind of integration.

The same is true of apps like "Music" and "Games" which are now slightly disconnected from the device. This means that they could be replaced by alternatives. And they can also be updated over the air. Fingers crossed that this will lead to more competition, updates and quality. Each app has already had a significant overhaul.

Anything else? Yep!

  • You can now swipe apps off screen (as well as close with the 'X') an odd omission on WP8 since Windows 8 has it.
  • You can manage scheduled quiet hours.
  • On the silly front, you can chose to display three columns of tiles even on smaller screens. Whilst this might make sense on phablet cousins, on smaller phones this just creates clutter.
  • You can also put an image "behind" the tiles (instead of a colour) and with a fancy parallax effect. I'm sure the kids will love this. And do creative stuff with it. For me, it's let down by a lot of app developers who've embedded a colour in their tiles. Again risks making the interface more cluttered.

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The integration of Skype, right into the bones of the dialler is impressive, as it should be considering it’s a multi-billion pound Microsoft acquisition. Just like the Facebook integration, it's obvious too that Microsoft is willing to let users chose other phone applications to take its place.

Any more? There’s a bunch of tidying up. Like the ludicrous bug that kids’ corner would require the same password as the parent's phone - now it doesn't. Now we have Bluetooth Low Energy Support, Trusted App List for NFC, Extended support for wallet. Application data now backed up to OneDrive. Better sharing from apps. Improved Browser - including a number of key features, a password manager, "InPrivate" browsing, reading mode and tabbed syncing.

Is there more? Yep there is still more, but I think you're probably starting to get the picture. A few really big ideas. Hundreds of little but important ones. A minor re-engineering of the app model which looks like it can only bring benefit, and a bit of a return to form from a design point of view.

What do we put in the negative column? Microsoft’s original concept of “hubs” as distinct from apps, always seemed to have huge promise. Built-in hubs, in particular "Games", did a good job of reducing the ‘sea of apps’ effect we see so often on the iPhone. This concept seems all but dead today, with games piling up in the app list like everything else. Funnily this is happening just as Apple brings the concept to iOS 8 with health and home “packs”. Manufacturer specific “Folder” apps, fill the gaps, if somewhat messily.

Device search, a long-missing feature, has turned up but with a terrible implementation where the web is searched first. It took me over a minute to search for a contact on the phone while the device tried to connect to Bing online. Until the device is searched first, and apps are included, the feature is pointless. Presumably this is easy to fix if Microsoft cares to do so. Surely the desire to drive Bing traffic is not strong enough to completely break the OS’s search utility.

What does this leave me hoping?

Firstly, it would be great if we didn't have to wait another three years for the next big iteration. The mobile phone market is a lot more dynamic than that.

Secondly, I would hope that the new opportunities and momentum of the platform encourages more developers to look to Windows Phone, and for existing app developers to look at it more seriously. Often the weakness isn't a missing app but rather an app missing half of the features it might have one of the other platforms.

Another piece of engineering Microsoft has included here is the long-awaited shift (if not entirely complete) to a ‘write once’ model where apps can be deployed from one code base to Windows, Windows Phone and even X-box. We’re yet to see what the impact of this will be. But it is hard to think that it will damage the ecosystem.

Finally, wouldn't it be great to get just a few more flagship hardware devices to run all this on? Something that can match the design of the iPhone without the pocket-busting proportions that seem to be standard for Nokia nowadays.

8.1 is an enigma. If you're not looking in the right places, you can almost miss it. But the effect it has on the total experience is huge. And perhaps - at last - we're starting to the feeling that Microsoft really does care about phones.

With 8.1 devices now in market, the release of the update can't be far away now. You won't be disappointed.

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Guest MJonMoDaCo

This is encouraging news from Microsoft. Since thinking hard about whether or not to try an iPhone or a Windows Phone, I think the Windows Phone has more to prove. It will probably take a newer iteration before I bother however, but it's looking more likely than an iPhone at this stage, although the improvements they've (Apple) made have also been promising.

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