As I mentioned in an article earlier this week, over the past few weeks I’ve been carrying two phones running Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 operating system – the Nokia Lumia 920 and the HTC Windows Phone 8X. And I must say that in general, I've been quite impressed with the OS, and thought I’d share my overall impressions with you here.
To begin with the obvious, it’s true enough that Windows Phone 8 doesn't have the breadth of apps you'll find for iOS or Android, but it has enough to satisfy most of my needs. More importantly, Windows Phone offers a more personalised user interface and tighter integration with the Microsoft ecosystem that could prove to be quite useful, especially for business users. As nice as it is, though, I still haven't seen a killer application that will really draw consumers to Windows Phone.
As you've undoubtedly seen by now, the interface is based on "live tiles" and you swipe the screen to see more on just about every page. This is quite similar, although not identical, to the new interface for Windows 8. With this version of Windows Phone, Microsoft has moved the platform to the same NT kernel that desktop Windows uses.
But despite this, Windows Phone 8 apps are not the same as applications on Windows 8 or Windows RT, though the programming model is similar. Still, I didn't find a shortage of apps. The OS doesn't have quite everything that iOS or Android has – I'd really like to see Google Maps and a real Gmail app – but most of what I need is available. Microsoft says it certified 75,000 apps in 2012 alone.
One welcome change from Windows Phone 7 to Windows Phone 8 is that you can now easily adjust the size of the tiles on your Start page. I'm a bit disappointed, though, that the vast majority of live tiles aren't really "live" at all, they’re just static icons. Several of Microsoft's applications do have tiles that change: The People icon changes the images of profile pictures from Facebook or other sites, the Photos tile constantly changes to show you different photos, and typically the weather icons do change. Your mail messages, however, are limited to showing the number of new emails (not particularly different from the other systems) and even the “Me” icon just shows the number of new notifications you have.
Even so, the level of personalisation tied to the Windows Phone device is quite nice. You can easily pick any person from your contact list and make them appear as a tile so you can quickly call them, see messages from them, and check their social media updates. You can likewise take any web page and make it a tile. You can even change your lock screen so that it displays information from a particular application, such as messages or mail (including a preview of the actual messages themselves). The result is an interface that can be smartly customised to the way you work.
The most interesting part of the user interface is the concept of Hubs, where information is combined. The People Hub brings in information from your email accounts, Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn and is perhaps the most obvious, with the ability to group people together as Groups or in Rooms. Linking all of this together is nice and gives you a great overview of all your contacts with a single individual. Similarly, the Music and Video Hub combine this kind of information from multiple applications.
There are also lots of little features, many of which work reasonably well. Holding down the back button shows all your current running applications. A Kid's Corner feature lets you share particular apps, videos, and games with small children, who can get to these by just swiping left on the phone. This looks like a great way to give your phone to a child, as it turns off the browsing and phone features.
Pressing down on the Windows button brings up a voice recognition feature, but one that is more limited than what you'll find on an iPhone or Android. I was easily able to open an application with it, and it performs web searches, but when you ask something like "where is the nearest Italian restaurant," it does a search of "nearest Italian" rather than showing restaurants near you. "Find Italian restaurants" did bring up a local map with some listings, but neither the selections nor the details were anywhere near as good as what I've seen with Siri or Google Now.
Many of the native apps seem a bit too basic. The mail applications work, but with Gmail, I find threading is awkward and I've often noted that messages I've read on the Windows Phone are still marked unread if I go back to Gmail or Yahoo Mail. The music playing application is light on features, too.
On the other hand, the Office application is quite nice. If you have a Word document, you can do basic editing, add comments, and even navigate through an outline view of the document. If you have an Excel spreadsheet, you can edit, add formulas, and move among pages. Similarly, you can download PowerPoint documents and move or hide slides (but without much editing capability).
All of this works well with SkyDrive, and I like the way it integrates with the latest version of Microsoft Office, so if you store your documents on SkyDrive, they are always on your phone. This can also work with a SharePoint site if your organisation allows. Of course, there are SkyDrive applications and document editors (including some with more features) for the other platforms, but this seems particularly well integrated.
Other changes for Windows Phone 8 include the ability to back up your applications, settings, and photos automatically to the cloud, more links to Xbox games and the Xbox music and video service (renamed from Zune), and the ability to connect your phone to your PC without the Zune software.
Overall, Windows Phone is in a precarious position in the market. Microsoft would like to see it as the third alternative in a marketplace dominated by Google's Android and Apple's iOS, but its market share has remained so small thus far, it has been a weak challenger to third place RIM – even as the latter has suffered a massive decline over 2012. Of course, RIM is looking to BlackBerry 10 for a recovery this year.
There are now enough applications, and the included Internet Explorer 10 browser is strong enough to make Windows Phone a credible alternative. I still haven't seen the killer app that makes Windows Phone a must have for any specific group of users, though, and it strikes me that Microsoft is going to need that if it really wants to make its mobile platform a strong player in this market.
Even so, Windows Phone does have some real advantages with its integration with other Microsoft services, especially Office, SkyDrive, and the Xbox services, and I do admire the user interface, particularly the way you can really customise the phone to reflect your interests and your contacts. I just don't know if that’s enough to make people pick the Windows Phone ecosystem when others offer more choices.
Michael J. Miller is Chief Information Officer at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Mr. Miller, who was editor-in-chief at PC Magazine from 1991-2005, authors this blog for PC Magazine to share his thoughts on PC-related products. No investment advice is offered in this blog. All duties are disclaimed. Mr. Miller works separately for a private investment firm which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.