Windows Phone 8.1 dropped earlier this week. We saw it at Build, but now we’re actually using it. And it’s for really real. Sure it’s a “Developer’s Preview” and sure some of the features aren’t quite done cooking, but it’s a pretty impressive upgrade to what Windows Phone users have been using. Plus, it’s available for (I think it’s reasonable to say) most Windows Phone users out there, less than two weeks after it’s debut on stage. That’s availability of Apple proportions.
The reason this is so exciting is because in so many ways, Microsoft leveled the operating system playing field. It brought Windows Phone right in line with iOS and Android. If you’re humming “Anything you can do, I can do better” to yourself, that’s OK because in many ways it’s true.
It’s worth reiterating that this is a developer’s preview edition of Windows Phone 8.1. This is not the build that will be sent to carriers or OEMs for testing. There’s still some work to be done. But it’s safe to say that the framework of what we see today will be essentially the same when it is officially launched by the carriers, whenever that will be. Having said that, I feel I need to address the tone of my comments to come.
I spent two years of my life wishing and hoping and praying on what was to come from an operating system. webOS never really delivered on what we wanted, and only rarely on what they said they’d bring. I’m done talking about what’s coming, or what will “probably be cleaned up”, etc. I’m going to temper my comments with the knowledge that most of my criticisms about the OS and Cortana are most likely going to be fixed, but at the end of the day, I can only intelligently comment about what is actually in my hand right now. And that is what I intend to do. So, having cleared the air, lets dive in shall we?
More voice, more often, more everywhere
This first point is one that my colleague Adam #1 has already addressed, but in my opinion he only addressed half the issue. What I’m looking for from Windows Phone 8.1 and from Cortana is more voice everywhere. Adam wants things to be read to you and he’s right. What’s the point of a digital assistant if you have to read all these words and sentences? It’s just not dignified, people.
But I’d like more on the other side of that fence too. I want to talk to Cortana more often. More accurately, I want to talk instead of type. I spend a lot of time in my car, and I have things to say while I’m driving, whether it’s texting, tweeting, or Facebooking, emailing, etc. But sometimes, I don’t initiate those actions with my voice. Sometimes, I want to just press a button on the keyboard and go straight into dictation. My Nexus 5 affords me this opportunity, and Windows Phone should too. If it won’t let us switch keyboards, Microsoft should at least make the default fully, functional.
Smarter, better, faster, stronger
I want Windows Phone 8.1 to be is smarter. These are smart phones after all. There are a couple of use cases I’m thinking of right now, but I’m sure you have others. This morning, I was testing out Cortana in my SIM-less Lumia 920. I asked Cortana to turn the WiFi off, which she did (so flipping cool). But then I asked her to turn it back on, and she did that too. My happiness might confuse you, but with Siri once you turn off the Internet, Siri goes bye-bye. Not so with Cortana. It seems Cortana can perform voice recognition even while offline.
Later in the car, I asked Cortana to navigate home with Here Maps. I was disappointed to learn that Cortana couldn’t do that without the Internet. The thing is, Here Maps are available offline, and Cortana can recognize my command offline, and she knows my home address, because it’s in her handy notebook. So what does she need the Internet for? Of course, I could be wrong about the voice command working offline thing, but the evidence seems to suggest that.
Circling back to the keyboard, I would really like Microsoft’s one and only keyboard to be smarter about predictive text. Swiftkey, in my experience in king of this, having learned the word “FTFML” in just three hours of geocaching (long story). By why can’t Windows Phone learn these frequently typed words and expressions? It’s just a minor irritating point, but if I could not type in an entire email address that I’ve typed 1,000 times before, that’d be nice.
I almost hate to bring this up, because quite frankly it’s a point that has been done to death, but Google services need to work better on Windows Phone. I’m not going to spend more time on here than I have to and I should mention that it seems that some of Google’s services – Gmail in particular – are working decently on Windows Phone 8.1 these days. Google calendar and contact syncing seems to be in place along with push email, which is great, but we’re still missing out on an official version of Google Maps, Youtube, and Google Hangouts, which to me are the last three pieces on my Windows Phone puzzle. They’re not deal breakers, but the other day, Michael Fisher asked me via Hangout to come on the Weekly, and he could reach me on Hangouts because I was using the Nexus 5.
Now that Windows Phone has an Action Center I’d like some…well, action. Google has aptly demonstrated how to do notifications. webOS used to be the king of notifications, but Google has since dominated the field and taken no prisoners. Just the other day, I was playing Star Trek with my Chromecast, and the notification center contained the controls for playback and even the lock screen got into the act. I was an impressive display. But if Microsoft could copy even a portion of that, that would be superb. As it stands, you can control your music playback by pressing a volume key, but you have an action center, so use it.
A waste of space
Finally, I need to address what it probably Michael Fisher’s biggest beef with Windows Phone and touches upon the Action Center too. It’s all that space that is being unused off to the left of the start screen. Putting the action center there would have made so much sense for so many reasons. I for one don’t particularly blame Microsoft for making us drag down from the top – it’s how everyone else does it, so it’s easy to know. But Michael’s argument for relocating the Action Center over there is just so compelling in so many ways.
Even though this is just a preview, the things I’ve laid out here, with the possible exception of the “Cortana/maps offline” thing, are not bugs. They are features that are simply not there. Could they be added before the final release? I suppose, and if you’re listening Microsoft, you’re welcome. None of these things are deal breakers by any stretch. They’d just be nice, and in some ways they would help propel Windows Phone even ahead of some of its competition. For now, we’ll enjoy being evenly matched, but adding even one of these would make the whole experience that much more enjoyable.