Windows: State of the Platform part 2 - WP 8.1 and Expansion

Windows: State of the Platform part 2: WP 8.1 and Expansion
The mobile ecosystem is a diverse and amazing place. It's why we all gather here, because we all want to learn more about it. So, it is good to take a moment once in a while to really look at what has been happening in the mobile ecosystem. We've covered the Android platform, iOS, and what happened with Windows in 2013. Now, it's time to take a look ahead at 2014 for Windows.

As we covered in Part 1, 2013 wasn't as big a year for Windows as you might have thought. The software didn't see much change aside from a couple minor updates; the hardware saw some impressive moves, but users didn't pick up too much; and, overall, Windows Phone was the "fastest" growing platform in the world, but growing fast is easier when you don't have much market share to begin with. Still, Windows Phone has momentum, it has the backing of Microsoft and its deep pockets, and it has the backing of Nokia's hardware. So, while Windows Phone has a long way to go, it's hard to count it out in this race. And, Microsoft does have plans to fix at least some of the issues stated above, and a lot of those fixes are planned to be part of Windows Phone 8.1, which we'll get to in a bit.


Windows Pro

But first, we need to keep in mind that the fate of Windows Phone is somewhat separate from the fate of Windows overall. Microsoft still has a stronghold on the desktop market, but the desktop/laptop market is in a serious decline with the rise of mobile. Microsoft is hoping that its dominance in the PC market will lead users to adopt its mobile offerings, but so far, users have been very split on Microsoft's plan. Windows Phone has been gaining traction in various regions, but users are not sold on the tablet and desktop versions of Windows 8. 

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The Metro/Modern UI was planned to be the unifying link between all of Microsoft's platforms. The trouble is that while users have been fairly happy with the experience on Windows Phone, the Metro UI has been something of a bust otherwise. Part of the problem is an issue with the app ecosystem, which is quite solid for Windows Phone, but lacking when it comes to Windows RT and/or Windows 8. The Windows Store has reportedly hit 150,000 apps, but it is severely lacking in both official apps and quality unofficial apps. Plus, there is a growing problem where developers are deciding to abandon the Metro UI altogether. 

The biggest name to ditch the Metro UI is Mozilla, maker of the popular Firefox browser. Apparently, there were some pretty big issues for Mozilla, first of which was that very few users bothered to use the Metro version. This was due at least in part to the fact that Windows 8 makes it difficult to change your default browser, and if a browser isn't set as your default, it can't run in Metro mode. If Microsoft can't sort out these issues, it could lead to plenty more troubles ahead. The expectation is that Microsoft does have fixes planned for the pro version of Windows, but rather than make the platform more appealing to mobile users, the changes are expected to placate the loud but shrinking population of desktop users. 

The trouble is that the Metro UI is such a wild departure from traditional Windows that despite its relative ease-of-use (especially on touch devices), being different is bad enough. We would say that Microsoft's best bet is to ignore those who want Windows to fall back on the past, and forge ahead instead, but that is unlikely. Windows needs to feel more at home in the Metro UI than in the traditional desktop, and that simply isn't true right now. The reasoning is because of a combination of Metro not being as good as it can be, and because developers have not been taking to the new environment (which as mentioned, is partly because the UI isn't where it should be). 

In the end, Windows 8 is not a perfect operating system, and it does need quite a bit of work to get on the level of the competition in the mobile space, but that work can't be done by offering backwards-facing changes to appease a small, but loud group that wants things to stay as they are. That doesn't seem to be the plan moving forward, but we likely won't see exactly what Microsoft's plan is in this regard until next year, so it doesn't fit into this talk right now. 

Windows Phone 8.1 (Blue)

First of all, we do understand the folly of putting out this article today, since Microsoft is expected to give the full rundown of the update in just a couple days at the Build developer conference. But, there has been so much information about the update pulled from the SDK that we feel confident that the information we have is solid. If there is a big change when the official announcement comes, we'll update this piece, but the real aim of this piece is to look at what Microsoft is doing, what the plan should be going forward and how the changes on the way should effect 2014 for the Windows ecosystem. We feel that what we currently know about Windows Phone 8.1 should allow us to meet that aim. 

Given everything that we've seen, it seems safe to say that Windows Phone 8.1 is expected to be an absolutely huge update for the platform. In many ways, it is big enough to have been called Windows Phone 9, but that would have broken the unity between the platforms that Microsoft is aiming for. We have a detailed breakdown of everything we know about Windows Phone 8.1, and we don't plan to recount the entire piece here. Instead, the plan is to just focus on the biggest changes and fixes that are on the way. 

As we've mentioned a number of times already, a big issue with Windows tablets is a lack of apps. Windows Phone 8.1 is expected to help fix that issue to a certain extent by bringing Windows Phone and Windows RT closer together, at least for developers. The idea is that apps developed for Windows ARM-based platforms (Phone & RT) will be able to scale from one screen size to the other. This would effectively mean that with just a little bit of work, a Windows Phone app would be able to scale to an RT tablet. Some optimization would be necessary, just like when Android began pushing into tablets. But, if this does happen, it would effectively mean that the more than 200,000 apps that are currently on Windows Phone would be able to easily move to RT. This would be huge for Windows tablets, because the lack of apps is by far the biggest issue right now. 

The question still remains though as to how easy it would be to repackage these apps for Windows 8. Presumably, Microsoft wants to bring all of its platforms closer together, and making universal apps is likely in the plans, but that seems like something we'll have to wait for. It is unlikely that we'll see that kind of unification this year, as it may be more of a Windows 9 change. 

Cortana and Action Center

Of course, the Windows Phone 8.1 update won't just be about fixing issues in the platform, it will be bringing much needed features to Windows Phone as well. The main two features on the way are a voice assistant and a notification center, which are called Cortana and the Action Center respectively. These are both features that are considered to be must-haves for mobile platforms, and that goes double for the voice command system, which is becoming the go-to interaction method for wearable devices. 

The Action Center is expected to be a relatively standard notification tray by modern standards, and we expect it to be quite similar to what you find on Android. You'll have your stack of notifications, which will likely be organized by the app from which they originated. What can be done with each notification is unclear, but we would certainly expect "actions" like being able to reply to messages, delete messages, and more. 

It has also been shown in leaks that the Action Center will have quick settings toggles, again much like the Android notification tray. There will be four slots for toggles and shortcuts, and the options available will be customizable. You'll be able to choose which buttons you want from the following: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Airplane Mode, Driving Mode, Camera, Rotation Lock, Internet Sharing, Brightness, Do Not Disturb Mode, VPN, Location Settings, and Screen Mirroring. 

The real big money addition for Windows Phone 8.1 is Cortana though. The voice command system and personal assistant is named after the artificial intelligence from the Halo series, and it is building up to be quite interesting. Cortana will be represented by a circular icon, which will be animated to show different emotions. It will also be able to emote through its spoken answers using six different emotional states: considerate, sensitive, satisfied (excited), abashed (embarrassed), thinking (thoughtful), and sorry. 

Cortana will be able to engage in back-and-forth dialogues in order to ensure that it gets all of the information needed to fulfill any request you make, and it will use multiple synonymous phrases in order to cut down on repetition. It will feature the standard set of voice command options that you might expect, including calling contacts or numbers, playing media files, sending texts, searching the Windows Phone Store, getting weather info or stock prices, conversions, getting news, finding videos, finding recipes, and finding places. On the personal assistant side of things, you'll be able to set alarms, create calendar appointments, take notes, and set reminders. 

But, Cortana is also expected to push into the Google Now side of things by learning more about you as you use it and your phone. Everything that Cortana learns about you will be stored in your personal Notebook. You will be able to manually choose whether to add items that Cortana learns about you to the Notebook, and anything in the Notebook can be edited or removed if you don't want that data accessed. You will also be able to limit Cortana's access to things like your email, calendar, contacts, or location data. The idea is for Cortana (like Google Now) to be able to anticipate what you want, and give you answers before you ask the question. Of course, being able to do this without running afoul of the same data collection policies that Microsoft often attacks Google for using in its "Scroogled" campaign should be an interesting dance. 

Beyond all that is of course the Bing integration. Cortana has actually been rumored to completely replace the Bing app on Windows Phone, but of course you will be able to use it to instigate various knowledge and informational searches. There have been rumors about Foursquare integration and possibly also Wolfram Alpha integration (which can already be found to a certain extent in Bing itself.) There have been rumors that Cortana will be able to answer "why" questions, but that seems like a feature for much farther down the line, because that is an extremely complex problem to solve. 


There are a ton more changes expected to come to Windows Phone 8.1, but as mentioned earlier, you can hit up the big change log article if you want to get into the minutia. We will note that there are features planned for the update that will help Microsoft's platform expand into much needed territory. As we have mentioned in the pieces covering both Android and iOS, emerging markets are the next big battlefield. Windows Phone has the capability to run on lower-end hardware, which is a great start for pushing into those markets, but there have been certain features and policies surrounding the platform that have held it back. 

Windows Phone is the number two mobile platform in India, Mexico, and South Africa, and it is On the software side of things, one of the biggest issues has been the lack of support for dual-SIM devices. This alone was a major reason why Nokia went with Android for its Nokia X line rather than Windows Phone. Windows Phone 8.1 will finally bring support for dual-SIM, which should help it to see far more adoption in many emerging markets around the world. 

The other big issue has been the licensing fees that Microsoft charges manufacturers for using the software. Since its original release, the licensing fees on Windows Phone have been somewhat onerous. The general reporting claims that Windows Phone license fees have been somewhere around $25 per device, which is extremely high when you consider that Android with the Google Apps layer will either be free or could cost upwards of 75 cents per device, depending on if you believe Google or the manufacturers. 

As recently as late February, there were reports that Microsoft was offering to cut those licensing fees by up to 70%, which would mean it would then cost $7.50 per device. That's a much more manageable number, and one that wouldn't change the sticker price of handsets all that much. But, it still doesn't quite compete with free (or 75 cents), especially for manufacturers that focus on emerging markets; and, as we've tried to impress quite a bit so far, emerging markets are the key to future growth for smartphones. With that in mind, Microsoft entered into a few new deals during Mobile World Congress in February that reportedly allowed as many as nine manufacturers use the Windows Phone software free of charge. We have learned that at least two of those manufacturers are Lava and Karbonn, both companies based in India. 

Once you combine the added features like dual-SIM support, and lower (or removed) licensing fees, that gives Windows Phone plenty of leeway in expanding into the lower-end market. But, there is also the spec-whore market, and Microsoft doesn't want to leave them out either. To cater to that crowd, Windows Phone 8.1 is expected to bring support and optimization for devices with 3GB of RAM and quad-HD displays (1440x2560). The first device that has even been rumored to feature specs like that is the second generation Nokia phablet, the Nokia Lumia 1820. 


Microsoft is making the smart moves with its software updates so that Windows Phone should finally hit essential feature parity with Android and iOS; and, the update should allow the platform to expand into emerging markets as well as keeping up with the always higher ceiling of the top tier hardware. There is also a good chance that the update will bring Windows Phone and Windows RT closer. This move may not be enough to save Microsoft's tablet platform, which was pretty close to dead-on-arrival, but it could be enough of a boost to save the Metro UI on larger screens. 

Microsoft needs to prove the value of the Metro UI on larger devices, because so far, the majority of consumers aren't seeing why the new path for Windows is any better than the old desktop. If Microsoft can't get users and developers to fully adopt the Metro UI, it is not out of the question to see a move similar to Ubuntu, where the desktop has the traditional interface, but phones and tablets have a touch-friendly UI. A unified user interface sounds like a good idea in theory, but maybe it is better to have a unified system. Microsoft originally aimed for the former while working on the latter over time. Users don't take too well to drastic change, so maybe it would have been better to go the other way. It's not out of the question that Microsoft would change its plan, especially with a new CEO in charge, but that's getting us into Part 3. 

Up next, we'll tackle the Nokia deal, Windows hardware in general, and the impact that new CEO Satya Nadella could have on 2014.

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