Microsoft has spent the last few years struggling to gain relevance in the mobile world, which is an unfamiliar situation for the undisputed king of desktop software. Android was already starting its meteoric rise as Windows Phone launched in 2010, but the open nature, customisability, and rapid update cycle have helped Google's platform take the lion's share of the mobile market. Now Microsoft is taking aim at Android by ditching OEM licensing fees on Windows Phone and adding a plethora of new features seemingly designed to counter Android. Let's see how Windows Phone 8.1 stands up to the latest and greatest version of Android.
Windows Phone 8.1 vs Android KitKat: Voice control
Smartphone platforms are essentially required to have a voice assistant of some sort in this day and age, and now Microsoft has built one for Windows Phone – it's called Cortana (like the Halo AI). Cortana is designed to be conversational and a little bit quirky. You can ask Cortana to find restaurants, then chain that together with a question about an item on the list like the time needed to get there. Want to hear a joke? Cortana can do that too.
Android has voice search built into Google Now via the official search app. It handles most of the same queries as Cortana, but it's not anthropomorphised – it's just voice search. Whereas Cortana is using Bing, Android is tied directly into Google's search and mapping products. You can ask for various bits of information and Android can provide it by producing cards from Google's knowledge graph. This is probably a little more practical for simple queries.
Microsoft was keen to point out that Cortana learns about you and refines the data it provides. Google Now and voice search do much the same thing, but it doesn't need to learn over time – most of what it needs is already in Gmail and your search history.
Google's voice interactions and card-based Now predictive search are tightly integrated, and Cortana also has a few similar features. Summaries of information you might find relevant are presented by Cortana at convenient times. You might get traffic information when you have a meeting planned or flight information before a trip. Of course, Google Now on Android does much more, but this shows Microsoft is thinking about ways to surface more data.
Cortana also plugs into third-party apps like Hulu to give you control of various functions. Android 4.4 KitKat does this in a limited fashion, for example playing music from multiple apps. The framework is there in Android to do more, but it hasn't been implemented to quite the level of what Microsoft demoed with Cortana. If this can be expanded to work with more apps, it could make voice interactions much more appealing on Windows Phone.
While it seems like Cortana can at least stand up to Google voice search, it's only going to be out in the US at first, and it's explicitly a beta product. When Microsoft says beta, it usually means beta. Android's voice control evolves with each update to the search app in Google Play, which could allow Mountain View to quickly improve and leave Cortana in the dust.
Windows Phone 8.1 vs Android KitKat: Customisation
Microsoft started with Windows Phone as a fairly static platform with slick design, but little in the way of customisation. This has changed little by little as the company adds more personal touches. This has been one of the main focuses in 8.1, and probably the one people will notice most. Backgrounds are a basic thing on most platforms, but it has taken Microsoft a long time to come up with an approach that jibes with the live tile interface. In Windows Phone 8.1, Microsoft has integrated background images with the tile layout – the effect is actually quite nice.
Windows Phone 8.1 also brings lock screen customisation at long last. Android only added true lock screen customisation in late 2012 with version 4.2, but in true Android fashion, it's a very open approach based on widgets. Third-party developers have made this feature worth using on Android by developing very cool, information-dense lock screen content. Microsoft is improving here, but it's not going crazy. The new OS will add a range of built-in lock screen themes that offer various pieces of information and layouts.
Microsoft has made it easier to feel at home with the interface on Windows Phone 8.1. It only takes a few taps to get a really attractive, customised look. Android 4.4 offers a ton of customisation options, but it's not as simple to come up with something that looks great. Still, you can go further than Windows Phone would allow with a little tinkering.
Windows Phone 8.1 vs Android KitKat: Settings
Microsoft has tried a few ways to make notifications better on Windows Phone, but in this new version it just gave up and did what Android came up with years ago. It's nothing to be ashamed of – Apple did much the same thing. The Action Centre is accessible with a swipe down on the status bar and shows you all the recent notifications on the device. Above the notifications are an assortment of quick setting toggles. This is an almost mirror image of the notification implementation in several builds of Android.
If you venture more into the settings of Windows 8.1, you'll come across features like Data Sense. This tool tracks your data usage and can alert you to impending over usage – a must have in this age of capped mobile data. Android has an almost identical feature, though it has a few more options like custom alerts and background data restriction. Google added this in version 4.0 back in late 2011, but it hasn't been improved upon since then.
Windows Phone 8.1 also brings Internet Explorer 11 with support for sharing tabs across devices. You'll be able to see the tabs you have open on the desktop and other mobile devices from the phone. This is almost identical to the setup on Android, though this is reliant on the Chrome app in Google Play rather than a full OS update.
Storage Sense is Microsoft's attempt at making the obfuscated file system in Windows phone a bit more accessible. It allows you to choose storage locations for new content and move things like photos, music, and apps between the internal storage and SD card. Android has a completely open file system, but has actually started clamping down on SD card access in Android 4.4. Apps can no longer mess with the data of other apps on the SD card, making file explorers less useful. Android is still a bit more complicated and powerful in this respect, but Microsoft is getting closer to finding a reasonable middle ground.
Windows Phone 8.1 vs Android KitKat: Catching up
Looking at Windows Phone 8.1 in a vacuum, it seems like a solid OS upgrade. There are more features, settings, and some nice UI tweaks. Windows Phone doesn't exist in a vacuum, though, and Android is way out in front. Many of the additions to Windows Phone are similar to what we already have on Android devices, but that's fine – Microsoft needs to play catch-up if it wants to have a hope of gaining ground.
The emphasis placed on Cortana shows how seriously Microsoft is taking voice interaction. Google has a big head start in implementation, but Microsoft has been working on machine learning and voice recognition for a long time. If it can bring its full technological might to bear on Cortana, perhaps it will be the clear victor down the road.
Windows Phone 8.1 compares fairly well to Android KitKat, but Google is rumoured to be planning a big revamp of the platform in the next version. Microsoft isn't planning to roll out the new Windows Phone for a few more months, which might end up being a problem as Google I/O is coming up fast.
For more on Microsoft's OS update, see our Windows Phone 8.1: Hands-on preview.