(Source: Reddit)
Update may be released in April, adds universal apps and "Cortana" voice assistant

Love it or hate it, you have to admit Windows Phone is a unique looking mobile operating system.  Launched in Oct. 2010, the bold bid to outdo Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Android operating system and Apple, Inc.’s (AAPL) iOS has largely fallen flat in terms of sales.  But as Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) winds up towards its third major release -- Windows Phone 8.1 (originally codenamed "Windows Phone Blue") -- one thing is for sure: there's no quit in this challenger.
I. Packed New Release Looms
Reddit poster "wpthroaway" and Twitter user Roman "AngelWZR" L. have been busy posting a series of notes detailing a software development kit (SDK) for Windows Phone 8.1.
Perhaps the biggest change is the name -- Microsoft appears to be leaning towards the name Windows Phone RT.  While developers suggest the build does not appear to be the full rumored replacement/unification of Windows RT with Windows Phone's source, its name hints that it is a big step in that direction.

Windows Phone RT   WP 8.1 sync

Another critical feature and step towards unification of Windows and Windows Phone is the introduction of "universal apps".  Universal apps are special cross-platform applications written in JavaScript and Microsoft's XML markup language, XAML.  The apps are eligible for dual-distribution via the Windows Phone Store and Windows Store.

Here's a summary of what developers have found in Windows Phone 8.1:
  • UI
    • New accent (theme) colors

      Windows Phone theme colors
    • Navigation Bar
      • Can replace traditional buttons with virtual buttons (OEMs can also still use physical buttons)
      • Can be set to a different highlight color

        action bar
      • Can be hidden

        WP 8.1 navigation
      • Soft Buttons:
        • (down arrow) ---- Hide
        • (search glass) -- Search
        • (Window) -------- Home
        • (back) ----------- Step back through activity stack
    • More display resolution options

      display sizes
    • Battery Sense app
      • Monitor and preserve battery life

        WP 8.1 Battery Sense
    • Camera
      • Ability to use third party apps as primary camera app
      • New stock camera app
        • Similar to Nokia Oyj.'s (HEX:NOK1V) Camera app

          Windows Phone 8.1 camera
        • Control of flashes/lenses
        • Toggable burst mode
    • Multitasking
      • New UI
      • Large 'X' in upper-left still closes

        Windows Phone multitasking
      • Swipe down also closes (similar to webOS)

        Windows Phone 8.1
    • "Storage Sense"
      • Store and run apps off SD card in compatible devices

        WP 8.1 Storage Sense
    • OneDrive
      • Replaces Skydrive

        One Drive
      • Syncs across Windows and even non-Windows devices

        WP 8.1 OneDrive
    • Wi-Fi Sense
    • Optional USB warnings
      • Warn of "slow" (< 2 A) chargers

        Windows Phone USB settings
      • Can require enable to transfer data
    • Sound mixer

      WP 8.1 sound mixer
    • NFC Tap to Share

      WP 8.1 tap to share NFC
    • iCloud account access
    • The ability to replace built-in MMS/SMS client with third party MMS/SMS apps

      Windows Phone third party MMS
    • Internet Explorer 11
      • New file download dialog.

        WP 8.1 IE file download
      • No more Silverlight support
      • Expanded HTML5 support
    • Bing Health & Fitness
    • Bing Food & Drink
    • Bing Sports

      Bing apps
    • Bing Weather
      • Integrated with calendar

        Windows Phone Bing Calendar
    • Bing News app (w/ sync)

      Windows Phone Bing News
    • Media Player/Hub apps
      • Music+Video app disappears
      • Is replaced by two apps
        • Microsoft Music

          WP 8.1 Music
        • Microsoft Video
    • YouTube apps now play in-line on page

      YouTube Windows Phone 8.1 YouTube

      Windows Phone YouTube
    • Podcast Search

      Windows Phone podcast search
    • Filepicker
    • Bing Finance
    • Bing Travel
    • External Display Out
      • Projectors
      • Monitors/TV

        Windows Phone external out
    • "Cortana" voice assistant
      • Similar to Siri or Google Voice Search
      • Hidden/disabled in recent builds
      • Give errors if called
    • VPN support for enterprise users

      WP 8.1 VPN
The Reddit leaker hints that April 2 will be when more details are disclosed.  It's unclear if they mean that's when they will leak more details or if that's when Microsoft is planning to roll out the finished update to users.

II. Can Windows Phone RT Become a True Challenger?

Windows Phone 8.1 is earning praise from Windows Phone developers who say Microsoft listened to their change requests.  "YoungLiars" on Reddit asked:

I don't know much about developing but it sounds like they've had an entire overhaul of the system behind the scenes. Did they listen to what developers were asking for?

The leaker -- wpthroaway -- replies:

So far, yes. I'm still catching up to the docs but the whole building a WP8 app works like WinRT.


Windows Phone is currently the third largest smartphone platform.  According to market analysts at Kantar Worldpanel, a mobile analytics group, Windows Phone commanded a 4.3 percent of the U.S. market in Q4.  In EU it managed slightly better at 10.3 percent of the market.  It's struggling in China, though, where its market share remains at 1.1 percent.
That's far from the commercial giant Microsoft had hoped to breed.  But Windows Phone users tend to be on the higher end of device satisfaction, showing Microsoft is doing something right.
One crucial challenge facing Microsoft is how to revamp the Nokia Devices unit for Microsoft's branded device sales, while at the same time attracting OEMs to produce third party Windows Phone RT devicesNew Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (formerly head of Microsoft cloud-geared Servers and Tools unit) and Devices chief Stephen Elop have a lot of work ahead if they hope to transform Windows Phone from a bit player into a true challenger.

Stephen Elop must help to turn around Windows Phone. [Image Source: Reuters]

Windows Phone users are currently on the third minor update to Windows Phone 8.  Windows Phone 8 devices should all be able to make the jump to Windows Phone RT (8.1), according to past comments from Microsoft.

[All Images of Windows Phone 8.1 come from AngelWZR on Twitter and wpthroaway on Reddit]

Sources: Reddit, AngelWZR on Twitter

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