Windows Phone 8 is Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger … But Will It Matter?

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This morning in San Francisco, Microsoft took the wraps off Windows Phone 8, the latest iteration of its smartphone operating system and the mobile companion to its new desktop OS. While it’s undergone a radical change to its underpinnings, swapping out its old foundation for the same kernel and core used by its full-sized Windows 8 counterpart, the massive overhaul isn’t apparent from a visual perspective. The new OS features the same minimalistic tile-based user interface we’ve come to know and love from Windows Phone 7, with some tweaks to tile sizes, layout, and animations. Especially once version 7.8 starts rolling out to the masses, it’s not going to be terribly easy to tell Windows Phone builds apart from a distance.

That similarity should be encouraging to devotees of the platform -the design language is part of Windows Phone’s allure- but it also might prompt concerns about whether Microsoft has improved on the OS enough to ensure its growth. Windows Phone market share was still stuck below 4% at the top of October, according to ComScore. The reasons behind Microsoft’s struggle to gain traction in the mobile space are many and varied, but a bad user experience isn’t one of them: Windows Phone 7 has garnered more critical praise than almost any mobile platform in memory. That looks to continue in Windows Phone 8, with our own Adam Lein giving the platform a solid 9 out of 10 in his exhaustive review.

But another wave of glowing press won’t be enough to force Windows Phone into relevance. Does version 8 bring enough new-hotness to solidify the dream of a “third alternative” to Android and the iPhone?

Predicting the future is hard enough in mobile, but especially so when it comes to the bizarre world of Windows Phone. Let’s take a look at the question, then, from opposing angles. Here’s a few arguments from both sides of the “can-they-or-can’t-they” divide.

No Way – Windows Phone Is Dead In The Water

Crucial to understanding this argument is to look at where Microsoft put its focus in this morning’s announcement. There was precious little time devoted to blockbuster, competition-crushing features; instead what we got was in-depth explorations of a few new capabilities catering to niche markets. We got to see Jessica Alba tell us all about how Kids Corner lets her rest easy knowing her four-year-old can’t bang out a nonsense-tweet to four million people. Mmkay. We got a tour of Data Sense, a (carrier-dependent) suite of utilities devoted to saving money on data costs through smart network use and traffic compression. Cool, but also: yawn. There was more talk about keeping your contacts synced across all of your devices with SkyDrive. And, of course, we got the requisite “check out how you can resize the live tiles” demo. If nothing else, folks, we’re all going to know how to change our tile sizes come launch day.

From the more pessimistic perspective, there just wasn’t anything sexy about today’s event. Bringing a beautiful celebrity up on stage to discuss why she uses a device is kind of transparent, but it’s cool– and using her current status as a working mother, running several ventures, is a clever tie-in to the whole “this phone is great for families” thing. But unless you’re demoing something easy to graft emotion onto, like video calling, appealing to families just doesn’t play as well in the tech space as in other fields. There’s just not enough quotable meat there that doesn’t come off sounding like ad copy.

To wrap up the gloom-and-doom angle: Windows Phone 8 is a warmed-over serving of last week’s lasagne. It’s damn tasty and does a great job filling you up, but it’s also a tough sell at a pot-luck dinner full of fresh favorites from popular chefs.

Yes Way – Prepare For Liftoff

Taking off the FUD goggles for a second, the clouds predictably clear up a little. Microsoft didn’t just demo family-centric features and bland byte-saving utilities. It also gave us some solid figures to get excited about. Figures like app counts: 120,000 in the Windows Marketplace. That’s 20,000 more than the company reported in June, solid proof that its efforts to close the app gap are paying off in a big way. And Microsoft is putting its focus on apps people want. Windows Phone Manager Joe Belfiore’s quote might not be the event’s most elegant, but it’s ambitious and exciting: “We will be at a point where we will have 46 of the top 50 of the most heavily used apps on other platforms.”

What’s more, we’re not just talking padding here: solid titles are making their way to Windows Phone, accompanied in some cases by big names like Pandora, which is offering a free one-year premium subscription for buyers of WP8 devices.

Promotional deals like that put us in mind of marketing, and Microsoft has some big talk in that department. Steve Ballmer says that “between Windows 8, Surface, and WP8, you won’t be able to turn on a TV or open a magazine without seeing a Microsoft Windows ad.” As Windows Phone continues to lag behind other platforms in mind share, Microsoft’s renewed commitment to advertising is heartening, and inspires confidence that it knows where it needs to bring the heat. Coupled with a portfolio of launch devices much more impressive than Windows Phone 7 brought to the table, Windows Phone 8 starts to look a little more like it could make the leap from tech-headline-grabber to mainstream success. “If somehow anybody wasn’t convinced yet,” Ballmer says, “Microsoft is certainly all in.”

There are many more variables at play in the Windows Phone-vs-the-world equation, and a lot of room in the market for things to go disastrously wrong -or incredibly right- for Microsoft. Whether you believe the most “beautifully different” platform in mobile will succeed or fail in version 8 will of course depend on your own prejudices, conceptions, and other thoughts — all of which we invite you to civilly share down below in the comments. Fortunately, the speculation period won’t last long, because the first Windows Phone 8 devices will launch in Europe this coming weekend. The only question you’ll face then is possibly the most fun question a mobile geek can be asked:

Will you be getting one?

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Windows Phone market share source: Neowin

Kool-Aid Guy source: DeviantART

Additional information via The Verge, Engadget

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!