As announced, last week Microsoft unveiled the new version of its operating system for smartphones, Windows Phone 8. Here's a look at what's new.Windows Phone 8 has been charged with a daunting task: to successfully transform Microsoft into "the other guy" on the mobile block, simultaneously staring down iOS and Android, and to secure Microsoft a cosy place on the coveted smartphone market. To this end the firm has overhauled its two-year-old Windows Phone 7, which today holds a mere 3.5% or so of the mobile OS market share.
Microsoft has chosen the angle of product diversity by pushing multiple devices with different designs. In other words it's doing the anti-Apple—the company that championed the one-size-fits-all design strategy. "Apple hit it big with the iPhone and iPad, and now with smartphones we're seeing the market develop and grow, with consumers wanting greater diversity. We're returning to a world where there's more variation in devices; that's an asset we have against Apple", explains Marc Jalabert, Consumer Channels Group General Manager for Microsoft France.
Windows Phone has gained ground over the past year, carried largely on the back of the Nokia Lumia 610, but it still has a long road to travel before it can catch up with the likes of Apple and Google. Here are some of the new features in this new chapter of the Windows Phone story and a look at the phones that are being released for the occasion.
HTC 8X, full review coming this Thursday
By basing Windows Phone 8 on the same kernel as Windows 8 for computers and tablets, Microsoft is hoping to create a cross-device ecosystem: with a Microsoft OS on each device you can access all your stuff (pictures, documents, movies...) from any screen (smartphone, tablet or PC) via SkyDrive, which has a customisable, yet similar, interface. "The cross-functionality is clearly an asset for us against Android", adds Mr. Jalabert. The company is also courting app developers by creating a world in which individual apps will run on either operating system (any game created for Windows 8 only requires a couple of hours of recoding to be made Windows Phone 8-compatible). This means not only simplified multiscreening, but also the ability to run a game on multiple devices and operating systems that are not 100% similar. The Windows Store currently has 120,000 apps.
The Interface"Highly customisable" and just as original as ever when compared with the competing interfaces (although it's no major break from the general Windows Phone 7 design), the Windows Phone 8 user interface is meant to adapt to your wants and needs; the idea is that you can set up the interface more or less to your liking. The "tiles" (the square/rectangular touch icons) can be moved around and switched between three different sizes. They're also dynamic, providing the user with as much information as possible without having to open the app. This is a fact: the interface is more customisable than before and is a close cousin to the Start screen (ex-Modern UI / ex-Metro) Windows 8 interface.
The lock screen has also been revamped with a thorough, practical and dynamic notification system for Facebook and messaging that stops you from having to "go into" your phone to see your messages or read a friend's Facebook status. When it comes to this, Microsoft is doing just as well as the competition.
In terms of responsiveness and ease-of-use, WP8 is like Windows Phone 7 and 7.5 Mango: everything runs quickly and smoothly, from browsing the web to running apps and games. The dual-core processor certainly has something to do with this, but it isn't everything: remember, the old Windows Phone 7 handsets ran the OS like a Swiss watch with the aid of nothing but a single-core processor and 512 MB of RAM (1 GB today). Windows Phone is easily one of the best-optimised operating systems on the market, if not the best.
Microsoft has come up with a nifty feature that lets you choose which apps and content your kids have access to when using your phone. The Kid's Corner is sort of a smartphone playspace for children in which you decide what music, movies, apps and games they get to use. This could definitely come in handy...
After you activate Kid's Corner it becomes available on the lock screen. All you do is slide to the right to enter this world-within-a-world. From there your child will need the password to leave the Kid's Corner or enter your section.
Like Passbook on iOS and Google Wallet on Android, Microsoft's Wallet is an app that stores all your coupons, tickets, membership cards, and so on, and even saves your credit/debit card information to allow you to make easy payments via your smartphone. Microsoft has been making partnerships with local businesses to bring longevity to this feature.
Rooms is an app that attempts to simplify social networking and make it easier to share information and content with friends and family. Rooms allows you to create contact lists and then send pictures, messages and e-mails to and create calendar events for selected lists (compatible with iOS). If you already have contact lists on your Windows Live Messenger account, they load automatically when you sign in to your Hotmail account.
Again, in the aim of encouraging cross-system use, Microsoft thought up SmartGlass, an app that syncs with your Xbox 360 and allows you to manage your Xbox avatar, talk with friends online, control your console and launch games, movies and apps from your phone. SmartGlass is also available for Android 4.0 ICS and up. To enjoy all the features in SmartGlass you have to be connected to the same Wi-Fi network as your Xbox 360 console. The interface is carefully designed and identical to the console's UI.
Data Sense is a great idea, but unfortunately it only works for the moment with one carrier, Verizon, in the United States, and won't be immediately available from any UK providers. It's a feature that compresses web page data, allowing users to get more out of their data plans without exceeding their caps. It's too bad no UK carriers have jumped onboard yet—we wouldn't want them to lose their priciest data plans, would we? In the US, however, where network infrastructures are often chaotic or lacking, the idea was welcomed with open arms.
Skype is conspicuously well-integrated (some might say "omnipresent") in Windows Phone 8. It has been given a larger role, showing up in a number of apps and directly accessible as well, as long as your contacts are Skype-compatible.
Nokia Lumia 920, Nokia Lumia 820, HTC 8X, HTC 8S, Samsung Ativ S
Excepting the biggest, thickest of the new Windows Phones, the Samsung Ativ S, which is expected to be released "at a later date", each of the other new smartphones designed for WP8 that are currently in the works will be hitting stores already by mid-November.
The HTC 8X, which we are currently testing—the review will be out this Thursday—and 8S are two such smartphones. As is common with HTC, in addition to WP8 the company also included a photo editing programme and other in-house apps designed specifically for the operating system.
HTC bet its money on a sleek, lightweight design, whereas Nokia went for pure brawn with the Lumia 920. The Lumia 820 is Nokia's shot at the entry-level/mid-range market (like HTC's 8S), but the press and public currently have their sights on the 920, a technological steamroller with a 4.5-inch screen and an image stabiliser. Like HTC, Nokia too has a collection of in-house apps for the user, but Nokia takes it a step further with Nokia Drive, Nokia Music and an extensive photo-taking algorithm.