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Intelligent Machines

Windows Phone 8: Despite Some Issues, an Excellent Mobile OS

Microsoft’s latest attempt at smartphone software is a job well done—but there’s still plenty of work ahead.

The vast majority of smartphones sold today use Google’s or Apple’s software, and Microsoft is among those struggling to provide the third-place operating system.

For a smartphone operating-software maker whose name doesn’t rhyme with “Snapple” or “frugal,” success doesn’t come easy. The market is littered with companies that have succeeded in grabbing only a small number of users.

Live tiles: The screen of a Windows Phone 8 device shows panels that highlight new e-mails, calendar reminders, and alerts from apps.

Microsoft approached its recent launch of Windows Phone 8 as a member of this brotherhood of stragglers. It had just 2 percent of the global smartphone market in the third quarter, according to data from IDC, compared with 75 percent for Android smartphones and 15 percent for the iPhone.

Fortunately for Microsoft, Windows Phone 8 is a strong effort. It’s snappy, easy to navigate and customize, and good-looking to boot—all traits that will help the company as it tries to surpass Research in Motion’s ailing BlackBerry and Nokia’s dying Symbian platforms.

But—and of course, there has to be a “but”—the operating system still faces an uphill battle to become a strong third-place player in the smartphone market, and the weakness of its app store won’t help.

If Microsoft wants to be taken seriously by consumers and app developers, it will have to make serious strides with its Windows Phone Store, which for now includes just a fraction of the apps available for Android and iOS. But Microsoft is an old hand when it comes to wooing developers, and Windows 8—its operating system for desktops and tablets—is designed to make it easier for developers to create software components that work on both mobile and conventional computers. So I’m going to bet they can do it, even if it may take some time.

As with previous versions of Windows Phone, I really liked the look of Windows Phone 8, which I tested on a Nokia Lumia 920 (the phone itself isn’t under the microscope here, but suffice it to say it’s a good device though a little on the chunky side).

It was fun and easy to customize the main screen of my Windows Phone 8 device with a slew of “Live Tiles.” These are basically the Windows Phone version of widgets, though they’re more dynamic than the ones bundled with, say, Windows Vista, and you can fit a ton of them on a single screen. The Live Tiles can take the form of a big square, a quarter-size square, or a large rectangle (the tiny ones didn’t seem to show live info). If you want to see a long list of all your applications, just swipe left on the main screen.

The tiles updated often, showing me things like an ever-changing array of friends on the “People” tile and images stored on the camera on the “Photos” tile. Since there’s no notification center, it’s important that the live tiles give consistent, up-to-the-minute info, and I found that with the tiles and the alert data that popped up on the Lumia’s lock screen, I didn’t really miss that corral of alerts you get on the iPhone or Android smartphones.

Windows 8 includes Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 10 browser, which, as expected, was quite zippy in my tests. Pages looked good and rendered quickly.

Another smart addition is the Kids Corner, which you can use to share specific apps, videos, music, and games with kids (and presumably keep them out of your work e-mail and away from unwelcome content). It’s easy to set up and add apps, and kids (or adults who don’t know your phone’s password) can get to it by swiping left on the phone’s lock screen. Little fingers can move tiles around and resize them, giving them a sense of control over the phone, but they can’t delete the apps.

Windows Phone 8 also includes near-field-communications support, so phone makers such as Nokia can include an NFC chip and users can then tap two NFC-capable phones together to transfer photos, Web pages, and more.

More intriguing to me is the promise of NFC for making quick payments with Microsoft’s new Wallet app (a feature that wasn’t enabled on the phone I was using). If Microsoft can get this working on a large scale, the Wallet app will be really cool. At the time I tested it, all I could do was store payment card and PayPal account info, which I could use to buy apps and music in the built-in Windows Phone Store, keep track of my loyalty cards, and check out and save local deals.

Less impressive was the voice recognition software on Windows Phone 8. It can do things like open apps or find local restaurants—I had no idea there were so many doughnut shops in San Francisco—as well as call contacts, send texts, conduct Web searches, or make notes. But it sometimes had trouble understanding what I was asking for, and the features seemed pretty limited. It couldn’t, for instance, update Twitter or create a new e-mail. In this regard, both Apple and Google, with Siri and Google Now, respectively, have a big advantage.

The biggest shortcoming, not surprisingly, was Microsoft’s Windows Phone Store. Without any context it sounds pretty big: it is stocked with 120,000 apps, including a number of popular ones like Netflix, Draw Something, and Yelp. But it’s still just a fraction the size of Apple’s App Store (over 700,000 apps total, the vast majority of which work on the iPhone) and the Google Play store for smartphones and tablets running Android software (over 500,000 apps total). Microsoft’s store also lacks some really key apps like Instagram, Pinterest, and Pandora (the latter, at least, will be here next year, along with a year of ad-free tunes for Windows Phone 8 users).  

The apps I tried, such as Foursquare and Facebook, worked well and generally looked good. The Facebook app in particular includes a photo-focused, swipe-friendly, uncomplicated layout that I quickly came to prefer to the version on my own iPhone. (One gripe: oddly, the live tile for the app only seemed to show my latest Facebook status update made through that app—not updates I made on the Website itself.)

Yet, like a spoiled kid, I missed the huge app stores with overflowing categories that are available on an iPhone or Android phone. I really hope Microsoft can catch up in this regard, because in many ways it’s the apps that have made Apple and Google so successful in the smartphone market.

Despite this gap in particular, I was pleased with Windows Phone 8. It’s a well-done operating system. If Microsoft can get developers coding away for its platform, consumers will be wise to give it a look when searching for a first smartphone—or a replacement for an existing one.

Keep up with the latest in Apple at EmTech Digital.

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