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Windows Phone grows up

"Killer hardware" is not a phrase that's been associated with Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) fledgling Windows Phone effort in the past.  Much like Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Android, Microsoft has chosen the low road try to court third-parties and differentiate itself on an interface level, rather than necessarily beat the top players hardware-wise.

I. New Features, New Apps

But much like Android evolved to sport some of the most bleeding edge hardware the industry has to offer, Windows Phone 8 represents Microsoft's own evolution; the chance for the mobile veteran to finally show off its decidedly different user interface on high-end hardware.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer describes, "[The Windows Phone 8 handsets are] new killer hardware. I would argue some of the best hardware you will find, if not the best hardware you'll find in any smartphone form factor."

While Microsoft's animated mostly two-tone "Live Tiles" interface (aka Metro UI) tended to draw strong reactions -- either admiration or disdain -- the operating system maker is offering arguably the most radical user interface in the business.  You can argue that's a good thing or a bad thing, but you can't fault Microsoft for not innovating; if anything its critics are compelled to argue it has over innovated.

Microsoft would surely disagree.

In the new operating system release Microsoft continues to push the boundary.  It now allows a mix of smaller and bigger Live Tiles.  Before the only option was to pin or unpin tiles; now you also get the option of growing small tiles to be big or shrinking big tiles to be small.
 

Customizable tiles in Windows Phone 8

The lock screen is now able to accept animations from apps (with permission from the user) open a world of new possibilities to Microsoft's growing legion of WinPhone app developers, who to date have produced 120,000 total apps.

Demoed examples included feeds from Group, the Picture Roll, or even Facebook, all on your lock screen.

Microsoft has also worked hard to woo high profile app developers, and announced that 46 of the top 50 titles in Android and iOS will now be on the Windows Phone.  Long missing new additions include Temple Run and The Walt Disney Comp. (DIS) hit "Where's My Water?".  At the start of 2013 Pandora Media Inc. (P) will be launching an exclusive Windows Phone app with a full year of ad-free music (Microsoft must have paid a pretty penny for that).  Skype is also built into the new operating system.

Given U.S. carriers’ shift to bandwidth-capped connections, another key Windows Phone 8 addition is Data Sense.  Microsoft brags that it compresses and decompresses its data traffic much more efficiently than its rivals Apple, Inc. (AAPL) and Google.  The net result is that Windows Phone will take longer to hit their data cap and be less likely to incur overages.  The built in monitoring will also give users peace of mind that they didn't "accidentally" exceed their allotment.

Data Sense
Data Sense helps Windows Phone users survive on metered connections.
[Image Source: The Verge]

With Data Sense, the phone even automatically crawls onto Wi-Fi networks you have access to, in essence making it sort of the war-driver of the smartphone world.  Microsoft estimates that with data sense you will get 45 percent more web browsing per unit of data.

Microsoft also has a brand new children-geared app called "Kid's Corner", which allows kids to play games or apps on their parent's smartphone with parental-imposed restrictions.  Microsoft invited Jessica Alba to give her thoughts on the app.  She comments, "I love kids corner, I think it's awesome.   I love that I can curate the content.  I don't have to worry about my kid going into my social media networks or emailing my partners or anything like that.  So my daughter who is four, when she was two she got my phone and typed away and it showed up on my Twitter feed."

Jessica Alba
Jessica Alba loves Windows Phone [Image Source: The Verge]

In other words, Microsoft hopes Kid's Corner will help stop the youngsters from sending embarrassing "tweets" on your behalf.

Microsoft has tied a new feature called "Rooms" into its people hub, which is equal parts an extension Google+ Hangout and an extension of the existing Groups People hub category system.

For fans of Apple's iTunes with a closet liking for Microsoft products, Microsoft also has created an app that allows your Windows Phone to connect with your iTunes library (no Zune Media Player necessary).  This means Mac OS X computer users could use Windows Phones, an unlikely, but amusing prospect.

Microsoft has beefed up its Office apps as well.  There's superior SkyDrive syncing across the cloud of Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 devices.  And OneNote now supports speech to text notes.

Lastly, Microsoft is offering up Xbox Music in finished form.  The 30 million track catalog is available for both ad-supported (free) and ad-free ($9.99 USD per month) streaming.

II. Hot Hardware

The remaining piece of the puzzle is hardware.

With Windows Phone 8 Microsoft has pulled abreast of Android and iOS in terms of having fast, multi-core processors, large amounts of RAM, better GPUs, larger screens, etc.  The perfect example of that is HTC Corp.'s (TPE:24988X, which features a 4.3-inch 1280 x 720 Super LCD 2 display, Gorilla Glass 2 protective coating, a dual-core 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 processor, 1GB DRAM, 16GB internal NAND Flash, LTE, and a 1,800 mAh Li-ion battery.  

The phone also sports two chips -- a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) for better headphone sound quality and HTC's exclusive pictures-from-video chip technology.  Only a couple Android smartphone and the new Windows Phone will have those features; the iPhone is left behind without the ability to capture photos from video and with inferior sound quality.
HTC Windows Phone 8X
The HTC Windows Phone 8X

Nokia Oyj. (HEX:NOK1V) brings some compelling features of its own with its PureView optical image stabilization -- a smartphone industry first.  Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd.'s (KSC:005930) Windows Phone also made a brief appearance, although it looked a bit anemic, compared to its high-end brethren.  Ballmer praised its strengths primarily by saying that it was "unbelievably thin, incredibly light" -- the handset is arguably less compelling than the actual additional hardware muscle offered by Nokia and HTC.

III. Now on Three of the Top Four U.S. Carriers

The other big news is that, as rumored, Verizon Communications -- the joint subsidiary of Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) and Vodafone Group Plc. (LON:VOD) -- is diving into Windows Phone.  It will be the exclusive carrier, for now, to carry the Samsung Ativ in the U.S.  The Ativ will launch on Big Red, the largest U.S. network, in December.

AT&T, Inc. (T) -- the initial U.S. adopter of Windows Phone -- is rewarded with the high-end Nokia Lumia 920 and the HTC 8X, arguably the most compelling launch Windows Phone 8 handsets.

T-Mobile USA, the fourth place American carrier and subsidiary of German telecommunications giant Deustsche Telecom AG (ETR:DTE) is finally getting in on the Windows Phone action, as well, as announced.  It will be getting the powerful HTC 8X, in addition to the budget-minded Nokia Lumia 822.  Thanks to its recent merger with MetroPCS Communications, Inc. (PCS) T-Mobile could be the carrier to beat for customers who want an 8X.

Verizon LTE
Windows Phone is finally coming to Verizon's high-speed LTE network.
[Image Source: Android Spin]

That leaves floundering Sprint Nextel Corp. (S), as the odd man out; the only major U.S. carrier not to adopt Windows Phone.  Sprint has increasingly turned its back on Windows Phone, and -- to an extent -- Android.  It is today pinning most of its sales hopes on Apple; on the prospect of luring in iPhone 5 customers to its "unlimited" data plan.  Sprint recently took out a $7B USD loan to fund a lump sum payment to Apple to convince it to let it carry the iPhone

Windows Phone 8, like Windows 8, will certainly endure its fair share of criticism.  But it deserves credit for not shying away from pushing the bounds of user interfaces.  And its moves to finally reach parity on certain popular apps, high end hardware, and carrier selection make it much more of a real competitor to Android and Apple, the current kings of the market.

Expect big things from Windows Phone 8.

Sources: Microsoft, The Verge



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This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

By nafhan on 10/30/2012 4:56:11 PM , Rating: 2
Yes. The porting will be effortless for touch screen games that are developed with the specific technologies you described below. This may be a big advantage for developers creating games NOW as it'll be easier to target Windows 8, RT, and Phone without doing a lot of custom stuff for each platform. It'll be significantly less helpful for porting existing games. It also kind of sounds like the games will need to target the lowest common denominator (WP8) for the porting to be truly effortless.

Anyway, it is good that MS is putting some money into game development for Windows Phone, though. I felt like they really dropped the ball in that area last time around with WP7, which is bizarre considering how much they are otherwise invested in gaming. So, good for them.

And... it's a little faster in a single benchmark. It was also a little slower in some other benchmarks. This shows that the hardware and software are competitive in performance with what's out there now (and/or 5 months ago). That's a big improvement over the situation with WP7, but not a differentiator.


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