At their annual BUILD Conference, Microsoft announced an update to their mobile operating system. Though just a point update in name, Windows Phone 8.1 introduces a major feature among others more minor ones and design tweaks which will work to greatly improve WP's appeal. Speaking personally, this is the update that finally makes Windows Phone a possible daily driver.
Finally On Par
I believe a good notification center is the crux of any mobile operating system. It is surprising that it has been absent from a modern mobile operating system for this long. I find that most of my interactions with apps on Android are done through the notification drawer and specifically through the actionable nature of notifications. It is extremely useful to be able to archive email or reply to a tweet without necessarily having to leave what you’re currently doing. Action Center seems to be a good notification center though it does not appear that notifications are actionable.
Also in 8.1 is the ability to skin Live Tiles with a background image. The tiles are basically transparent and will show whatever image is set in the background. Microsoft touts Live Tiles as a way to deliver glanceable information (like Android’s widgets) and personalize your phone’s user experience. Critics have long argued that the UI will eventually get stale and old over time. Microsoft has addressed this in past updates by adding new tile sizes, and now through this skinning feature. Recently, a friend of mine purchased a Lumia Icon. Previously an Android user, she touted how the “boxes” influenced her move to Windows Phone. This speaks to how Microsoft got the user interface just right. Tiles, especially brightly colored ones against a stark white or black background, make for a very bold look in comparison to iOS and Android. I only wish Microsoft had fought to use the Metro name. Metro was a good modern modern name to describe an equally modern user interface. Marketing-wise it would have served as a better descriptor than “boxes”.
The other reason for my friend’s purchase of the Icon was the camera. Nokia and Windows Phone are synonymous in people’s minds as having great cameras. Microsoft needs to keep running with this feature and continually improve it.
As highlighted by the success of devices like the Lumia 520 and 625, Microsoft has perfectly positioned Windows Phone in the prepaid, off-contract market. Besides cameras, Windows Phone is associated with lower cost devices that are still incredibly capable. The operating system is speedy on even the lowest end hardware. With the announcement of the the Lumia 630 and 635, Microsoft/Nokia is continuing in that tradition. The Lumia 521 on T-Mobile was a hit success and I have seen the device countless times while using public transportation. In fact, the other only Windows Phone I have seen in public is the Lumia 720, which was also on the magenta carrier. The 635 on T-Mobile will be the first Windows Phone 8.1 device in the states.
With Windows Phone 8.1, Microsoft finally has an operating system that is on par with Android Kitkat 4.4 and iOS 7 in terms of the key features that any modern mobile operating system should have. Luckily, Microsoft did not stop there.
And Then Some
The key feature of Windows Phone 8.1 is Cortana, a “personal digital assistant” that is Microsoft's answer to Google Now and Siri. Feature-wise, it seems to be better than Siri and on par with Google Now. Technology-wise, Google will always have the advantage due to the larger user base of their search engine.
Personality-wise, Cortana is more similar to Siri than Google Now. It can be argued that the ability for these assistants to talk back to you with some sass in their voice and personality is nothing more than a marketing angle that aims to draw people in. It is meant to add an aspect of fun and wit to the software. Siri and Cortana talking back to as if it has a personality is an attempt to create the illusion of artificial intelligence. In reality, it’s nothing more than canned responses recorded ahead of time. Hopefully, in the future we will have a true artificial intelligence in our phones, but till then what Siri and Cortana says are just jokes.
The idea of a personal assistant is still up in the air for most people. Besides being useful for hands-free texting, Siri is still considered a parlour trick for people to use when among friends. I find that most people will still go to Safari and Google questions they have rather than ask Siri. Google Now faces the issue of being obscured behind OEM skins. Google would prefer, as seen by the launcher on Nexus devices, Now be accessible with a left hand swipe from your homescreen. However, on HTC’s Sense newest skin, that same action brings up Blink Feed, the company’s news reader app. Though Galaxy devices are everywhere, most people are not aware of Google Now even existing. That issue would be resolved with Google releasing its launcher to every single Android device. However, I am sure that such a move would be highly political.
No digital personal assistant has taken grasp and for the most part, people don't know that they want one. Or through previous experience with older technology do not think it will be accurate enough to be worth their time and effort. For the most part, Siri and Google Now are very accurate and at times can be genuinely useful. I’m sure Cortana will do the same. It’s no longer an issue of technology, but of marketing and getting people to use the assistants built into their phones. Cortana differentiates starting with its name. Halo is an extremely popular gaming franchise and has been played by countless people, not just geeks. If Microsoft uses the Cortana branding heavily in its advertisements, I am sure it will be able to at least make gamers curious about checking Windows Phone out. This is of course in addition to the Xbox Live integration in Windows Phone.
In the end, Windows Phone 8.1 represents a new interconnected Microsoft where using any of their devices be it on a phone, desktop, or gaming console is meant to be a trojan horse to get you to use the rest of their services.