Of all the mobile platforms out there, Windows Phone 8.1 was literally the absolute last option I ever thought I would land upon. I had a burning hatred for Windows on the mobile side, seeing that I was forced into using a Pocket PC 6700 (Windows Mobile 5) years ago while working for a former employer. To say that experience soured my opinion of Windows Mobile is an understatement.
Frankly, and I don't care what the diehards say, Windows for phones prior to Windows Phone 8 should very well be erased from memory for anyone who had to deal with it. From unintuitive interface design, to cludgy touchscreen navigation with a stylus, it was a Picasso of a mobile OS for exactly all the wrong reasons.
When some of my technology minded friends (who are now Android heads, go figure) attempted to get me to take another look at Windows Mobile a few years back, I absolutely refused. After my PPC 6700 nightmare of years before, I made a conscious decision to never wade into Windows Mobile territory ever again. And for many years, I upheld my promise.
But as we very well know, Windows Phone 8.1 is a vastly different beast from what Windows Mobile of the mid 2000s exemplified. The terrible battery life was gone. The interface matched the ebb and flow of Windows 8, which I actually find intuitive. And the app experience finally resembled clean design that a mobile phone deserves -- not Windows desktop apps miniaturized for a 4" screen as was previously the case.
My first (and formerly promised, last) experience with the Windows smartphone platform was back in 2006 on a Pocket PC 6700 device. This pile of cr*p ran a terrible excuse for a mobile OS, Windows Mobile 5.0. It was a pseudo-Windows XP interface with the stability of Windows 98. Yes, using Task Manager to kill frozen apps was a near daily necessity. I vowed never to touch Windows on a phone again. Luckily I broke that promise and gave Microsoft a second chance. (Image Source: The Unwired)
So after giving Android a try for a few years, sporting a Galaxy S2 and finally a Galaxy S3, I gave Microsoft the benefit of the doubt and dove head first into rogue OS territory. Since I am on T-Mobile in the US, my best option late last year was a Nokia Lumia 925 that came with Windows Phone 8 in stock form.
Since then, I have already updated to Windows phone 8.1 in the Developer Preview program and have been on the new OS for a few months at this point. More thoughts on the latest iteration of the OS follow below.
Yet I am certain one big mental hump needs to be resolved before I can go into the things I love (and the few I don't) about Windows Phone 8.1.
Why the heck would I switch from Android to what some call a lesser platform, namely in popularity and selection of apps? Am I crazy?
Android, iPhone, BlackBerry: Been There, Done That
I'm not here to give Android the brunt of bad opinion when it comes to mobile OSes. It happens to be the previous mobile OS I was on for roughly two years, but it isn't by any means the sole prior platform I've got experience with. The last thing I need is the BlackBerry or iPhone army pegging me with "why didn't you try our camp?"
At this point, since my last six months on Windows Phone, I can proudly say that I've given all the major mobile OSes more than a fair shake. OK, barring BB 10 -- but I think we can all agree BB 10 has a much larger hill to climb than Windows Phone 8.1 in terms of mindshare. So let's shelve that platform for now.
But as far as the major options are concerned, I was a BlackBerry faithful (and quite happy one, too) up until my final BB handset, the Torch 9810. I always lauded BB as having one of the best battery life offerings of any phone I've worked with. It was hard not to chuckle when my Android friends always complained about having to plug in every 8-12 hours to charge up.
BlackBerry in the waning OS 7 days was nothing excellent, but met my needs. I was never an app-aholic so I was used to a truncated app selection. My biggest needs were always a solid typing experience, clean form factor, and I was in love with physical keyboards on the BB devices -- the slider keyboards on many Android devices of the 2009-2011 timeframe were quite cruddy in my opinion.
Once word started rumbling that BB 10 was taking over soon, I decided to jump ship and give Android a try. I started off on a Galaxy S2, and then when the girlfriend needed to upgrade phones, she took my S2 and I moved myself to an S3. Both phones were exceptional in many areas, the biggest one being app selection.
But Androids have two nasty thorns in their side which many enthusiasts glaze over. The first is their propensity to have subpar battery life unless you opt for one of the gargantuan handsets like a Note 3. Not everyone wishes to carry around a phablet just to achieve day long battery life. I think Google has a long way to go in optimizing battery usage in the Android system, because it seems ages behind especially compared to what I saw on BlackBerry OS 5/6/7 (which happens to be heavily based around Java as well!)
The other, more nagging, nasty edge is the mess that I saw first hand when it came to OS version selection, namely in the form of both first party carrier-driven OS updates and third party ROMs. I think the open source nature of Android is excellent in theory -- but it fails in the real world, running into many of the same harder-than-it-should-be qualms as the Linux platform does on computers.
Take my experience on the Galaxy S3, for example. I was routinely multiple versions behind what Google was showcasing in press events for the latest Android releases, because as they claim, the carriers were holding up versions. OK, fair enough, I know they aren't the nicest parties when it comes to keeping us up to date.
But I routinely updated my old BlackBerry devices on my own using official OS releases from other carriers without issue. It usually took me a mere 20 mins entailing a USB cable, the OS release image, and a helper tool to load on the OS. There was no special magic behind it, as is seemingly needed on the Android side.
The same dilemma on the Android side is a far bigger mess, and I don't care what the ROM community says at this point. Their disconnect from the "average user" (I am an IT Pro, but I have zero interest in becoming an Android ROM enthusiast) was fully on display in my trials and tribulations in not only trying to find a good ROM, but worse, trying to install it myself.
Since I a huge fan of Wi-Fi calling and cannot live without it at this point (an area that iPhone has until recently lacked in, I should mention) finding a proper S3 ROM that doesn't strip out Wi-Fi calling is a major pain in the rear. ROM developers claim that Samsung wraps Wi-Fi calling into its Touchwiz underpinnings, meaning that a ROM developer has to either layer on top of it or remove Touchwiz entirely.
It's all dev speak to me; the end user side of me doesn't care to wade through the intricacies of this menial technical discussion for Android enthusiasts.
I settled on going with a ROM called Dandroid, which was a clean rip of stock Android that didn't remove Wi-Fi calling. Loading it onto my phone was a whole other story! I had to wade through leagues of half-baked instructions spread across numerous websites in how to unlock my phone, install recovery software, and on and on and on. After over 10 hours of research and two near "bricking" instances of my phone (code word for destroying your handset), I ended up with a workable Dandroid installation.
After thinking that I learned the process well enough to do my own upgrades, I was quite wrong. As Android versions underneath the ROM continued to move up, there was discussion that users needed to update their radio files and other critical aspects stripped apart from Dandroid, and this required more fine tuned labor. I dropped my endeavors with Android ROMs and decided to stay put on that release.
For a platform that prides itself on openness and ease of customization, it couldn't be this hard, I was convinced. But when my Android enthusiast friends who are also IT pros had just as much of a struggle getting a ROM onto my girlfriend's S2, I knew I wasn't alone. Even the experts were having trouble, and that's a bad sign.
For as large as the Android community supposedly is, does it make rational sense that it could be that difficult to install and maintain a custom ROM on your phone? If it took myself ten hours, as an IT pro no less, to take my first stab, how could this community expect the average user to ever take advantage of the supposed endless wonders of Android ROMs?
I don't think the majority will, or do. So they are forever forced into using bloated stock ROMs full of bloatware you can't remove (like Zynga and Dropbox, the few nasties I recall refusing to uninstall on my stock S3). In turn, Android will continue to get a bad rap for battery life on most handsets aside from the beasts like the Note series that overcompensate for poor software battery utilization in exchange for monstrous battery sizes.
Just like the Linux community before them, the Android ROM community is full of those who are too entrenched with the wonders and joys of coding and modding, with a complete disconnect from the user base they will never be able to reach. The average user, the beginning IT enthusiast, the teenager who hears all the joys of Android ROMs.
I own a Google Nexus 10 tablet and the OS situation on that device is excellent. I don't have to worry about ROMs to stay up to date. But it's sad that you have to pick between Nexus and every-other-device in order to make a decision about your OS updates for the future.
Google's best asset (Android) happens to be its own worst enemy in my eyes, and they need to seriously clean up the mess surrounding its ecosystem. Until then, I'm staying far away from the Android ecosystem for the time being. Its promises of openness and flexibility are only skin deep -- unless you're willing to stay tunnel-visioned on the Nexus line.
On the Android side, I had to always make a decision: handset freedom (Galaxy line) or easy OS update capability (Nexus line). Microsoft doesn't force me into such boxes with Windows Phone. The Lumia line of devices come in an awesome variety of shapes, sizes, and colors and they nearly all receive similar treatment of access to the latest edition of WP through the Developer Preview program. Goodbye, Android ROM hell, I won't miss you. (Image Source: WinSupersite)
As for the iPhone, I spent a good one month stint on an iPhone 4 a few years back in between phones. I did it moreso as an experiment to see what I was possibly missing on the Apple side. Seemingly, it wasn't much. Of all the smartphones I've used, Apple's iPhone was one of the most lackluster experiences to date.
There was a complete lack of multitasking; the screen was way too small for a touch keyboard (I have fat fingers); and the battery life was nothing amazing.
Apple was always a holdout with never allowing Wi-Fi calling until very recently, so this was a big item lacking in my eyes. I also felt that the OS ran a bit sluggish on the device. I don't recall what OS version I had the device on, but it was noticeably slow in many respects like switching to and from apps. Perhaps I should have given a 4S or 5 a try, but I don't see much progress on the iPhone side to warrant another trial; especially with how happy I am on Windows Phone now.
For all the accolades Apple gets about masterful interface design, I truly felt that iPhone was (and still is) stuck in the past with its interface. Rows and rows of bland icons (now slightly enhanced with folders I should add) don't do much in the face of what Android and especially Windows Phone are doing for their UIs.
As is pretty clear by now, my settling on Windows Phone 8.1 as my favorite mobile OS so far isn't a conclusion reached through a lack of awareness or trials on the other platforms. I've touched them all in some form or fashion, and while Android met most of my needs, I've since been even happier on Windows Phone.
The Windows Phone App Gap: Becoming Irrelevant From Multiple Angles
The biggest, and most widespread, complaint against Windows Phone continues to be a constant harping on the fact that Win Phone doesn't have the million-app counts that Google and Apple's ecosystems enjoy. While there is something to be said for the most popular apps that people enjoy on other platforms daily, after a certain point, this becomes moreso a battle of the numbers and not one of a detrimental user experience due to a lack of ample selection.
Why do I say this? Because even as app store counts continue to balloon on the Apple and Android sides, this isn't translating into a related rise in the average number of apps used per person. In fact, there is almost no zero documented rise in the average used app count per person according to the latest numbers from Nielsen.
According to Neilsen's research, back in Q4 2011, the average number of apps used per month per person was a mere 23.2. Moving ahead to Q4 2012 it rose minimally to 26.5. Fast forward to Q4 2013 and we are nearly standing still, at a similar 26.8. A statistical brick wall, if you ask me.
What's the takeaway here? As app stores on Android and iPhone continue to get bloated, this isn't translating into a user base that is moving their app counts forward in step. The notion of an "upper limit" in terms of how many apps people realistically download and consume is looking like a truth at this point.
So for those that refuse to give Windows Phone a chance merely due to its sub-200K app count: so what? For all the hubbub about the competing app stores bursting at the seams, most people are never going to take advantage of a large majority of these apps regardless of how many you toss at them. And this was something I've believed for a few years already.
For those that are still concerned their favorite apps won't be available on a Windows Phone 8.1 device, let's have a look at some of the most popular apps on iPhones/Androids and see if they are on Windows Store already.
As of July 14, 2014:
Angry Birds: Yes
Adobe Reader: Yes
YouTube: No, but much better alternative called MetroTube available
Snapchat: No, but alternative called 6snap available
Google Maps: No, but alternatives Bing Maps and HERE Maps are available
It's pretty clear that when it comes to the biggest most popular apps, Windows Phone has you covered. For the few official apps that don't exist (namely due to Google's ignorance), awesome alternatives are around that work just as well, if not better (in the case of MetroTube, namely, as an app that blows away Google's YouTube apps).
Sure, some of the niche games out there which may be riding the popularity charts on a given week may be missing, but this gap will be closing further as time goes on.
Am I missing any apps I used to have on my Android phone? The only biggie in particular is RingCentral, as the company is being quite stubborn in releasing a Windows Phone app. However, that frustration has been quelled in large part as my company has shifted its mobile VoIP needs to hosted Lync from CallTower, and Microsoft's Lync support on mobile devices is far better than what RingCentral has right now. And the Lync experience is far more full featured than what RC offers on the mobile side with cross device unified messaging, VoIP, video chat, and more.
The purists may balk at the fact that there are no official Google Maps or YouTube apps for the Windows Phone still, but as I listed above, the alternatives are out there and are just as capable. Shame on Google for having such an anti-Win Phone policy; this isn't Microsoft's fault.
It's quite ironic, though, that Microsoft serves the Android side with official apps for nearly every piece of its ecosystem (Lync, OWA, OneDrive, and the list goes on).
So, Where Does Windows Phone Excel?
I'm quite firmly a believer that a mobile experience does not solely start and stop at its app count. Nielsen's latest findings just solidify my notions here; we have a selection of apps we love dearly and use often, but above that, most of us aren't cycling through adventurous app lists as much as the Apple/Google camps would like us to believe.
I guess I'm a part of that "boring" majority. I'm in email numerous times a day. Lync gets quite a bit of usage for customer phone calls and intra-staff messaging needs. GasBuddy gets me my latest gas prices locally. Pandora gets me music when I'm on the go. And NextGen Reader is a near addiction during spare time; I'm a news junkie and RSS feeds are easily browsed through this excellent app.
There are a couple of other common apps I'm within often, like my Maps app, OneDrive for docs and photos, OneNote when I need to access my digital notes, but I'm not nearly drowning in apps like some others I know. I guess I'm more of a mobile fundamentalist when it comes to my needs. The things I use are used heavily, but I don't truly care about browsing the Windows Store weekly for new apps.
My mobile needs center around my daily life as someone who runs a busy and growing managed IT services company. I need to stay in touch with staff members first and foremost, as well as family and friends. I don't have too much time to frolic like some may on their phones during the day, fumbling between Facebook and Twitter and whatnot.
I also hate gaming on phones; I'd much rather get on my Xbox 360 and play a few rounds in Halo than bear through gaming on my small Lumia 925 screen. That's just me, though. So I won't comment on mobile gaming since I am no authority in this arena.
Think iPhones or Androids have customizable home screens? Windows Phone 8.1 blows them both out of the water. The combination of being able to size your icon tiles along with per-app Live Tile capabilities that are caked into many apps means that you can truly fine tune your phone to your exact liking. Gone are the rows/columns of bland app icons you may be used to. This is truly a tweaker's dream, and no two Windows Phones will ever be the same as a result. Conformity is so 2011.
In many ways, Windows Phone 8.1 is a breath of a fresh air for me. My history with smartphones has been marred by experiences that used roughly the same UI combination with slightly different coats of paint. BlackBerry always used static rows of icons. iPhone without a doubt had the same. And my previous smartphone, the Galaxy S3, furthered this same boxed thinking albeit with a twist: the advancement of widgets. Of which I used only one (the clock).
Windows Phone tosses that thinking out the window. Instead of dividing your icons into separate home screens or hidden into folders, Microsoft extends the same concept that exists on the Windows 8.x tablets/desktops -- you guessed it -- Live Tiles.
Live Tiles offer many advantages over the traditional, bland icon approach of all the other ecosystems. First off, Live Tiles can be resized into numerous "tiled" sizes, ranging from very small, to larger boxes, to some that can stretch nearly the entire width of your phone into a rectangular shape. The shape options depend on the developer of the given app you are resizing; most of Microsoft's first party affairs take advantage of all size options, as a rule of thumb.
Doubly, they also take over the functionality that Android's separate widgets provide (again, on a per-app basis) by having automated capabilities to virtually flip into informational cards. My weather icon, as shown in my actual current Start Screen combination above for example, happens to switch between two screens. One shows me the current day weather at large, and the other brings up a quick 3 day at a glance.
This combination functionality not only saves on screen real estate (as Android's widget system requires an app for the program, and then a widget for live info to be shown) but also allows for excellent customization of the home screen. The combinations of tile placement, size, and transparency for a background image of your choice is by far one of the slickest UI decisions I have seen on a phone.
And the animations Microsoft baked into the OS, ranging from scrolling through the tiles, to going in/out of apps, is elegant yet not overly flashy. Just the right mix of modern muscle and minimalist design.
Coming from Android, I must say that being able to swipe up/down to be able to get to all of my apps, and see status info across all of my Live Tiles at a single time, is a big benefit. I downright hated the limitations of Android's home screens. Icons could not be resized, and you had to work with multiple screens like the iPhone in order to list all your apps out. As such I was always making concessions about what apps I could have on my main screen, as I didn't want to scroll between screens all the time. It was painful, and seemed so old-school to me.
The transparency feature for background images is only partially effective as of yet. This is because not all app developers have turned on transparency for their apps yet. You can see how culprits such as Lync, Skype, Ebay and others on my home screen above are blocking view of the background. But with each passing week, the developers are releasing new apps that are turning this function on.
When I had my Android powered Galaxy S3, I always loved the powerful notification center it offered. When I originally got my Lumia 925, it had Windows Phone 8 which never had this functionality baked in. Now, with the advent of Windows Phone 8.1, Microsoft has made one of the largest and most welcome changes to the UI on the platform and given most of us what we were wishing for.
The notification center in WP 8.1 isn't anything out of this world, but it's functional enough to get me what I need in a quick manner. I am constantly using it now to check on new emails and texts and to shut off/on my Bluetooth and WiFi as necessary. Placement of the options compared to Android is a bit different, but it works well in the end. All of the same things I was able to do on Android are found here.
Windows Phone 8 got a bad rap for not including a notification center. That oversight is a thing of the past. WP 8.1 now has a very capable drown notification area that displays everything you would expect -- quick links to common settings, latest calls/emails/texts, and other pertinent info. It's simple, easy to access, and most of all gets the job done. (Image Source: Windows Phone Central)
I make no effort to hide the fact that I am in love with T-Mobile's WiFi Calling functionality offered on most capable handsets. iPhone has always been a holdout in this area, and one of the numerous reasons I always refused to get one. As a technician and business owner that is constantly onsite with clients where coverage is not stellar in all cases, being able to take calls/texts over WiFi is a tremendous value add that you can't get (from what I know) on Verizon, ATT, or Sprint.
And while Windows Phone 8 did include WiFi calling/texting, it had a nasty bug which I could never figure out. For some reason, visual voicemails never wanted to pass through when I had WiFi calling on. I would either have to go over to regular cell signal or wait until I was out of WiFi coverage so that the voicemails could stream in over 4G/LTE. A pain in the butt, especially when I was in bad coverage zones, like the Sears Tower in Chicago where cell service doesn't reach above the 60th floor or so.
Windows Phone 8.1 seems to have fixed WiFi Calling for the most part. Not only do calls seem to hold up slightly better when WiFi bandwidth is a bit choppier, but I can finally check my voicemails immediately with WiFi Calling enabled. Not sure who to thank for this improvement, but I'm sure both MS and T-Mobile had something to do with it. This was one of my biggest gripes about WP 8 as a WiFi Calling addict.
I also want to touch on battery life briefly, as this is an area where my Android experience was slightly pitiful. The fact that I had Wi-Fi calling on my Galaxy phones was nice, as this helped me extend my battery quite a bit, to nearly a full day when the batteries were new. But getting through a completely full day, with WiFi on, Pandora being used, Lync messages being sent, and email pounding my phone was almost a miracle.
I consider a full day being marked by the moment I wake up and remove my phone from the charger, to the moment I am going to sleep and plug it back in. My days usually start 6-7am and finish up around 11-12 midnight. That's quite a bit longer than what most consider just the regular workday hours.
My benchmark for battery life has always been my time on BlackBerry phones, in the OS 5/6/7 days up through the Torch 9810. I would easily get to 10-11pm at night and still have 30-40 percent battery life. And this was on HARSH days with lots of activity. I will preface this by saying that I did not use as many apps as I do now, but Pandora, email, Wi-Fi, email, texting, and calling were all fairly similar. The old BB devices just rocked in this area. Their propensity to crash due to their Java backbone was not as great, though.
But back to battery life. Windows Phone 8 was already giving me about a full day of battery, and Windows Phone 8.1 is getting slightly better life for my Lumia 925. I would say battery life has increased about 10-15 percent since WP 8. This all depends on usage during the day of course, as I also just installed a Bluetooth radio system in my car which I use for all phone calls on the road, and BT is not friendly to batteries I know that much.
Yet I am very happy with what kind of battery life I am seeing on the Lumia 925 after installing WP 8.1. Perhaps a few times a week I have to plug in early, around 5-6pm some days, due to extremely heavy usage like loads of calls over cell signal and Bluetooth all the while using Bing Maps to route my courses to client sites (relying on GPS, no less). I never remember my Galaxy S3 treating me as well in this area. Let me clarify: the S3 was good, but never great.
Another area that really pissed me off on the Android side was the double standard when it came to email apps. Want to use Gmail on your Android? Of course, Google treats you like royalty with their better than sliced bread Gmail app. But looking to connect your Office 365 account or POP account? Good luck with their awful native "Email" app. It is something you would expect on a Windows Mobile 5 device! I used Office 365 email on the Android for a little while using its native email app, but found it be utterly sub par and nothing like the Gmail app experience.
Yes, there are plenty of alternatives out there in the Play Store, like the fabulous Touchdown, but come on -- really? I have to rely on third party apps to get basic functionality like Exchange-based email to work properly with due features and functionality? I know Google has no love left for Microsoft, but their reluctance to build a better non-Gmail email experience on the Android is frustrating. And part of the reason I waved them goodbye.
Already using a Windows 8.x tablet or computer? The up and coming concept of Universal Apps means just what it says: purchase/download an app once, and you have it immediately across all connected devices with a common usage experience. Apple has been hinting at such possibilities on its iOS/Mac platforms, but Microsoft is actually making it happen end to end. The unified Live Tile experience is already present, but it will take some time for developers to catch up on the app end. (Image Source: WinSupersite)
Windows Phone, like iPhone, doesn't treat non-MS email services with as much disdain as Google does on their phones. My experience for my Gmail account is as slick as it is for Office 365 and my Outlook.com account. Same interface, same options, and a unified experience overall. There are some aspects I enjoyed about the Gmail app experience on Android, but seeing as this was exclusive to Gmail, I'd rather have a fairly powerful experience that is similar across all of my various email accounts.
Google's assumption that everyone will be using Gmail or Google Apps is a mistaken one.
Another aspect I find severely lacking on the Android side is a fast, accurate camera an app experience. The biggest issue with the camera on the S3 was its verrry slow entrance into the camera app and time between photos. That is a thing of the past on my Lumia 925. I happen to use the Nokia Camera Beta app which is blazing fast (the stock app is quite good, but this one is by far the best) that has minimal delay on app entry and time between shots is almost as minimal as that for an entry level DSLR. Microsoft wasn't kidding when they said they wanted to provide the best mobile camera experience on the WP devices.
I use my Lumia now for all client site surveys, for example, when we need to install a new network or upgrade a server room, just to name a few. I can take easy panoramic shots, shoot video, or take traditional pics. Nokia Camera Beta is quite slick in its interface and I find it considerably more feature filled than what I had on my Galaxy S3. I also find using the dedicated camera button on the Lumia 925 to be much more fluid than tapping on the touchscreen to take photos, as I was doing on the S3.
I had numerous problems with ISO levels and blur on my S3 shots, which is also nearly gone on my Lumia 925. Most shots are crisp, have proper color levels, and the image stabilization on shots is actually darn accurate in most cases. Lumia cameras should be considered the bar for mobile photography.
Cortana is something which I admittedly don't use as much as some others probably do, but the service, just like Siri when it was released, is rapidly improving by the week. At initial launch, my tests with Cortana were just decent. It was missing some of my words and spitting out too many plain text Bing searches when it "gave up" on providing a contextual response. Now the service is increasingly becoming more accurate and the number of searches coming up with proper context returned are inching upwards.
Cortana isn't perfect by any means, but she's learning quickly due to the crowdsourcing that Microsoft is pushing through its Azure service to power Cortana. I'm personally letting others continue to guinea pig the service, but I can imagine that Cortana will have the reliability of Google Now in a half year to year timeframe at this rate, perhaps sooner. She's useful so much more than just searches, and you can go much deeper in depth on her capabilities in this great video.
It's also hard not to be excited about the future of Universal Apps across Windows 8.x devices. Microsoft let loose at BUILD 2014 that going forward, development effort for Windows Store apps is going to become unified so that Windows tablets/PCs, Phones, and Xbox can all share a common code baseline and therefore have apps that truly flow across all devices with ease.
Curious about what fruits the Universal Apps model will bring Windows Phone? Office Touch, the Windows Store edition of Office coming soon, will be one of the first heavy hitting collections of such apps for Windows devices. Windows Phone 8.1 users will soon have nearly as powerful of an Office experience as desktop users do -- beating out even the iPad, some say. The future of Windows-powered devices looks pretty bright. (Image Source: WinSupersite)
Think about it in plain terms like this. You may use a Windows 8.1 PC at work. You could also have a Windows 8.1 tablet or computer at home. And say you also pick up a Windows Phone device. When this concept of Universal Apps starts molding together, you will be able to place a single purchase of an app on your work computer, and it will instantly stream onto your other devices without any extra effort. This is all controlled through your sign in via a Microsoft Account.
As more apps continue to shift into the Windows Store model, and away from the legacy desktop approach, this functionality will start to have much more benefit for end users entrenched in the Windows 8.x ecosystem. For now, we still have a large distinction and separation between Windows Store apps for the desktop/tablet side and that of Windows Phone, with Xbox being on its own as well, but that future will be changing soon as Universal Apps become the standard.
Office Touch will likely be one of the first major flagship app suites that carry this model, and yes, it will presumably be available on Windows Phone the same day it hits Windows 8.x tablets and PCs. Getting serious work on on your phone will finally not be a second rate experience, here's hoping.
Finally, I want to touch on the overall stability of Windows Phone 8.1. Of all the mobile OSes I have touched, this has to be by far the most rock solid, crash-proof platform I have used. The worst of all were my BlackBerry OS 5/6/7 devices, that constantly hung up on Java exceptions and the like.
Once in a blue moon I have to restart my phone because of an odd issue with an app, but this seems more so induced through rare app crashes than general OS instability. But far less than what I had experienced on BlackBerry, Android, or even my short stint on an iPhone 4 (which later iOS releases seemed to be pressing to the limit, it seemed).
If you have any predispositions about the stability of Windows Phone based upon your experience with buggy Windows releases, like Windows 98 or XP or Vista, do yourself a favor and wipe those preconceptions away. Win Phone 8.1 is a completely different animal in almost every respect, and my daily usage with it for the last few months has proven that even to myself -- one of the biggest former doubters of the Windows Phone ecosystem.
Windows Phone 8.1: A Great Mobile OS, But Not Perfect
There's no such thing as perfection when it comes to fluid, changing software like a mobile OS. Windows Phone 8.1 is no exception. While I find it to be the best mobile experience I've personally used to date, it has its fair share of rough edges that people should know about.
As I continue to use my Lumia 925 more heavily on Bluetooth in my car, I am noticing the huge tanking that my battery takes when the technology is turned on. Bluetooth 4.0 LE is supposed to be one of the aspects that hits in the final final version of Windows Phone 8.1, but it doesn't seem to be included yet. I am sure many Bluetooth users would heavily appreciate being able to use this energy saving edition of BT, especially for mobile warriors like myself. Here's hoping this makes it into the final release from Nokia, along with the upcoming Lumia Cyan firmware update.
While I do think that Microsoft's Bing Maps and Nokia's HERE Maps apps are quite good, I sometimes wish I had Google Maps back, especially in situations where the mapping technology brings me to some bizarre addresses I am trying to get to. This has happened already twice in the last few weeks. One was my attempt to get to an animal shelter in our area (it took me to a destination about 1 mile off course) and the other was a client address that led me to a spot along a forest preserve. The technology is great when it works, but mistaken addresses seem to be a nagging problem on one of every 10-12 trips I take. I'm sure this can be easily resolved through some increased development effort on Microsoft's end.
Lync 2013 on Windows Phone runs great for the most part, but it still confuses my staff and I as to why and when it decides to show me as going offline. It's interesting, because as soon as a message is sent my way, it will "wake" me up on the mobile app and show me as idle, and the message will come through. But the bigger gripe I have is how Lync calls in the car that I push to Bluetooth only work about half the time.
The other half, the call just continues on silent and the other party doesn't know what is going on. This could be more of a Lync bug, but the Bluetooth aspect could be a fault due to Win Phone 8.1. Hard to say, but I wanted to alert potential buyers who are heavy Lync users. Since we switched our company onto hosted Lync through CallTower, our usage of Lync calls/chats is ballooning heavily over traditional phone calls and texts. I really hope Microsoft's Lync team can fine tune the mobile apps where we can rely on them for all client needs without needing to resort back to the native phone interface.
I also tend to rely on the official Podcasts app quite a bit when traveling. When I have enough of Pandora music, I tend to like to pop on some technical podcasts like Windows Weekly or Mike Tech Show and listen away. The app has a tendency to auto stream some shows behind the scenes, but the files don't always play properly. I sometimes have to force them to re-stream multiple times for them to work. Again, likely a work in progress, but annoying.
My final gripe happens to be centered around my phone of choice, the Lumia 925. The decision NOT to offer the handset in one of the dizzying arrays of cool colors like the other units have gotten (920, 1520, etc) is beyond me. As such, I went out and got a yellow outer case for my phone in an attempt to jazz it up over the standard silver/white it carries. There are no great cases on the market with color for the 925, so I'm stuck with a half baked aftermarket case that is already on its last leg.
I also have to scold Microsoft for choosing not to include both a removal battery and a removable SD card slot. Not that I am using SD cards anymore, but I am sure others out there would love to continue using the slot. But the lack of a removal battery is something that nearly turned me away from the Lumia 925, as I have always sworn by having a removable battery that I could replace when it died (another area I dislike Apple's approach in).
But I gave in, biting my lip. Here's hoping Microsoft brings back self-replaceable batteries to future Lumia models as I am sure many love purchasing replacement batteries for their phones. I did so heavily on my BlackBerry and Android phones and to me is a minor, but still strong, selling point.
The Media Is Changing Their Tune on Windows Phone, Finally
It seems that I'm not the only one finally being bullish on what Windows Phone 8.1 brings to the table. Numerous media outlets, even some that scorned most previous versions of Microsoft's mobile platform, seem to be coming full circle and actually praising the new OS.
The Verge wrote a detailed, lengthy writeup on the new WP 8.1 OS, giving it an official score of 8.0/10 (users are pinning it at a higher 9.1/10, ironically) with especially high praise to the excellent Live Tile home screen UI.
Engadget had similarly high praise for the OS, giving it an 85 score of 100 with kind words for the new action center, swipe keyboard, and potential being shown in the form of Cortana.
And ArsTechnica's headline for its formal in-depth piece on WP 8.1 speaks for itself: "Windows Phone 8.1 review: A magnificent smartphone platform".
Even Matt Miller over at ZDNet outlines how far Windows Phone 8.1 has come over all previous iterations, claiming that "Windows Phone 8.1 is compelling, so stop dreaming of Android". He goes on even further, adding that, "Developers continue to roll out apps for Windows Phone and the stability of the platform can't be beat. Roll on Windows Phone, roll on".
I think Windows Phone is an ecosystem that is rapidly improving, trying to distance itself from the image as an OS on the fringe and as more of a mainstream offering finally due to increased developer interest and high quality handset selection. I couldn't be happier with my time on the Lumia 925 since late last year, and Windows Phone 8.1 has furthered my comfort on the platform.
Should iPhone and Android users consider giving Windows Phone a try? I'll leave that up to you. I myself was a huge skeptic until I dipped my toes, and admittedly find it hard to go back to Android.
Over six months in at this point, all those flashy Galaxy and iPhone devices don't tempt me anymore. I'm already playing with the thought of upgrading to the phablet Lumia 1525 when it hits T-Mobile here.
Windows Phone 8.1 has lived up to my expectations for the most part, and proves that you can have leagues of customization capabilities without having to sacrifice device quality, OS stability, or feature sets. If app counts are your sole bearing for the value that a Windows Phone can bring, you may be slightly disappointed.
But if you're like most of the population that is App'ed-out at this point (myself included), Windows Phone 8.1 is a friendly, functional OS that will likely surprise even the biggest Android/iPhone lovers.
Derrick Wlodarz is an IT Specialist who owns Park Ridge, IL (USA) based technology consulting & service company FireLogic, with over eight+ years of IT experience in the private and public sectors. He holds numerous technical credentials from Microsoft, Google, and CompTIA and specializes in consulting customers on growing hot technologies such as Office 365, Google Apps, cloud-hosted VoIP, among others. Derrick is an active member of CompTIA's Subject Matter Expert Technical Advisory Council that shapes the future of CompTIA exams across the world. You can reach him at derrick at wlodarz dot net.