Let’s be honest: Microsoft needs to include a chunk of gold with every Windows Phone to begin to take down iOS or Android. Already in a haggard situation, Microsoft isn’t taking advantage of its hardware providers or its advantage as a game maker through Xbox to make Windows Phone a definitive platform for anything other than third place. But with today’s big announcements on changes to the platform with version 8. But are they enough changes, or drastic enough, that they can start to gain a foothold after two years on the market?
Allowing for dense tiles alleviates much of the glanceability issues I had with Windows Phone 7, which simply can’t match what a decently set Android home screen can deliver, or include as many apps on the same screen without scrolling away on iOS. I could never build the same muscle memory scrolling down a huge list of apps and contacts in WP like I could setting up widgets or folders in Android. This looks dramatically better and I appreciate not being penned into a 2-wide tile formation.
Just as predicted, Windows Phone’s core was swapped from the legacy CE kernel that has powered Microsoft’s E&D devices like the Zune, for Windows 8 proper. This will allow Windows 8 developers to create tons more apps (hopefully) because Windows Phone 8 will run much of the same core processes. Microsoft has also opened several key APIs, such as voice recognition, giving them some parity with the other platforms as well. While you’ll never use half a million apps (Microsoft announced 100,000 apps on Windows Phone today), you don’t feel the pinch until you’re missing the apps that your friends or co-workers use (which has happened ot us several times, between two Windows Phone users, two Android users, and… a lonely iPhone user. Will we finally see a dramatic rise in the quality and quantity of apps for Windows Phone? To early to tell. And while several of these new features will make it into 7.8 for older phones, any hardware sold before this fall (including the luscious Lumia 900) is going to be largely left in the dark.
The most frustrating part about Windows Phone 7 was that Microsoft kept far too tight a leash on the hardware spec to really allow OEMs the ability to customize their offerings. HTC’s Titan II, unveiled at CES in January, features a 16MP camera, but while the sensor could handle 1080p video recording, Microsoft’s strict hardware management ensured that the phone couldn’t. Why would you buy one Windows Phone over another, aside from build quality, some slight screen differences (they now accept 720p at least!), and some camera differences? It’s difficult, and those phone makers simply haven’t been giving it their all, aside from Nokia, who has banked their entire company on Windows Phone’s success. Thankfully, Microsoft has raised the bar by including multi-core support to create a new class of “superphones”, but you’re still grounded to pre-selected Qualcomm SoC’s (CPU+GPU together). They’re also including comprehensive NFC support, which I heartily endorse.
Unfortunately, I don’t get any feeling that these additions are more than Microsoft catching up to the competition, which has been their play since the beginning. Windows Phone is built around some very rudimentary components and the extra frills of the world that have made its competitors enticing has sadly been lost on them. Microsoft wants you to play by their rules, as if their platform exists in a vacuum. I’d still recommend a Windows Phone over any Blackberry device, but that’s hardly an endorsement. It’s going to take a bit more than the rejuvenated Xbox Music to win me back.