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Cortana, Action Center, Swype, new themes: Microsoft pours on improvements, but is it enough?

Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) this week announced the next generation of its smartphone platform, Windows Phone.  Windows Phone is currently the world's third largest smartphone platform by sales volume, behind Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Android and Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL) iOS.

I. Windows Phone Gets Inspired

While Microsoft has a lot of ground to gain before it can come close to matching the app catalogs of Apple and Google's platforms, Windows Phone 8.1 does creep Windows Phone much closer to complete feature equivalence to its rivals, while adding some features its rivals lack.

In other words, this is the bottom line, take it to the presses message about Windows Phone 8.1:  Microsoft has finally transcended the stylish, but "me too" feel of Windows Phone 7 and 8, and delivered a release that does many things its competitors can't, or do far worse.




II. Virtual Buttons

"Hard buttons" have long driven smartphones, with either pushbutton (rubbery) or haptic button (e.g. capacitive button) designs. Apple's iPhone arguably started the great hard button culling, claiming phones only needed 1 hard button.  Android stepped things up even further, doing away with buttons entirely -- instead using on-screen soft-buttons.
Nokia Lumia 630

Both virtual buttons and hard buttons accompany some space.  

But virtual buttons have a couple of key advantages.  First they can shave as much as $20 USD off a bill of materials and reduce the number of failures via incorporating less parts in your design.  Also, they can be hidden at will to add a bit of extra screen real estate.

There are some disadvantages as well -- namely virtual buttons often aren't as responsive as actual physical buttons.

III. Cortana -- the Best Voice Assistant?

Another major addition is Cortana, a voice assistant tightly integrated into the entire Windows Phone 8.1 operating system.  While some may view this as a "me too" response to Apple's Siri (and to a lesser extent, Google Now), remember that Nuance Communications Inc. (NUAN) was the primary developer of Siri, not Apple.

All of these solutions are the result of graph theory and roughly three decades worth of effort by university researchers.  We're fast approaching the 30th anniversary of the Cognitive Science Laboratory of Princeton University's WordNet project.  The 1985 project -- and a couple of similar efforts of the time -- pioneered much of the low-level technology that developed into the Cortana, Siris, and Google Nows of today.

So none of these solutions are really "new".  They're all old hat.  Apple commercialized the technology first.  The natural next question is who can commercialize a product noticeably superior to that first generation graph theory-based assistant -- Siri.

Wordnet treebolic
WordNet predated Siri by two and a half decades. [Image Source: Univ. of Sheffield uSpace]

Apple surely would like to best its own effort.  But if anything, Apple is in the weakest position right now.  Nuance rebuffed Apple investor Carl Icahn's takeover overture last year.  Nuance VP Matt Revis in Jan. 2013 declared that Nuance "want[s] to be completely platform agnostic."

Nuance's Project Wintermute was teased at last year and this year got official as Nuance Coud Services.  In a press release Nuance described:

Brand A might be interested in three unique personalities for its voice assistant, while Brand B may want to lead with a security story bolstered by voice biometrics. Nuance Cloud Services can offer the breadth of capability – voice recognition, voice biometrics, intelligent conversational systems – and the depth of customization to match any brand’s preference.

Most have said that Microsoft's Cortana was developed solely in house.  Google says the same thing about Google Now.  I wouldn't be so sure.  It would not come as a surprise to me if Microsoft is blending its own fledgling Satori knowledge engine -- an evolution and first productization of Microsoft Research's Trinity graph database -- with Nuance's Cloud Services.


But like Google, Microsoft is in a stronger position as it developed at least a substantial portion of its natural language recognition solution itself.  By contrast, Nuance has implied on numerous occasions that Apple played a far more hands off role in Siri's development.

Now, with Nuance straying, Apple -- and Siri -- may be in trouble.  And Cortana is more than happy to cause trouble.

Microsoft's goal with Cortana was clearly to take the best bits of Siri and Google Now, and then add on even more functionality.  Cortana can schedule reminders, set appointments, dial by voice, dictate messages, and perform local and internet searches.

Cortana

Cortana aims to "get to know you" on an even deeper (or creepier?) level than Siri. She learns your interests, your "inner circle" of trusted friends, what hours you want to keep quiet, and other pertinent details.  These details allow Cortana to do things, like control who can access you during your "quiet hours" or help you plan trips (even suggesting locations for sightseeing, for example based on your interests).

Cortana trip planner

Microsoft helps to de-creepify this process, however, by keeping on the details Cortana has gleaned in the Cortana Notebook section of the Cortana app.  If Cortana gets something wrong -- or there's something you're not comfortable with Cortana knowing, you can always go in there and delete away.

Cortana's Notebook

You can even authorize Cortana to scan your email to spot details like flight times.  The information is stored locally, but Microsoft promises it is secure (Sureee...). Cortana can also do unit conversions, count calories for you, and tell you the weather.  It even cracks Siri-like jokes.
 
One of the neatest features shown -- something Siri can't currently do -- is to log a reminder that plays next time you communicate with a specific contact (even one referred to by a familiar title like "mom", "dad", or "my sister").  You can even tell Cortana how you plan on communicating with that contact (what channels to watch on).
 
Cortana is currently a U.S. only feature, as it's still in beta.  Eventually it will be rolled out to other regions like Europe and Asia.
 
One way where Microsoft has an advantage over Google and Apple is that it is utilizing cloud-based natural language recognition technology in multiple products, versus Google and Apple whose use is monopolized by mobile.  The first major application of Satori and the SDKs that underlie Cortana was in last fall's Xbox One
 
Many of Cortana's cool third-party features (via Microsoft's developer SDKs) will sound familiar to Xbox users; you can ask what's up with your friends on Facebook, Inc. (FB) or tell Hulu to add a TV show/episode to your queue, just like you can on your Xbox One.
 
Another way Cortana trumps Siri: it can fully interact with the user via text, perfect for noisy locations.
 
III. Action Center and Word Flow
 
Google's Android is the king of notifications.  Included since the first mass market release of Android in 2008, the Notification Bar has been slowly expanded and diversified into a rich hub for fast access of common settings and alerts -- including carrier messages, messages from Google, and important messages from third party apps.
 
Apple was late to the notifications game.  It first tried to cobble popup push notifications onto iOS 4.0, with relatively poor results.  Then in 2011 it finally "fixed" notifications, with iOS 5.0's new Notification Center.
 
Microsoft is ridiculously late to this game, but at last it has a notifications center of its own -- Action Center.  As with Google's Notification hub, it is accessible via a simple downswipe.  The familiar items – Wi-Fi connections, app messages, system messages, carrier messages, screen brightness, etc., are here.

Action Center

But here comes the twist -- Microsoft actually offers something Google and Apple don't -- the ability to swap out its preferred System items in the notification tray for others.  In that regard Microsoft appears to have taken advantage of its years waiting and watching Apple and Google's Notifications Centers.
Nokia Action Center

Here's a video of the center in action ... er, no pun intended:



Having to go clicking through multiple menu screens to do something simple like discover a Bluetooth device or access WiFi was a major headache, marring the overall polish of the OS.  In that regarding including a notification center was an absolute necessity, but Microsoft delivered and then some.

IV. Word Flow

Word Flow is basically Swype (which Nuance owns and licenses to Google) on steroids.

Lumia 630

Maybe this is something Nuance has been cooking up (after all Nuance has the market on fast predictive typing pretty much cornered between Swype and T9) and Microsoft licensed it quietly.  Or maybe Microsoft developed this itself.  Much like Cortana, while the origin is a bit mysterious, the end result sounds promising.  
 
In fact The Guinness World Book of Records has certified WordFlow as the world's fastest keyboard -- faster than Swype.
 
V. New Looks
 
Windows Phone's Live Tiles (basically widgets) are admittedly a love it or hate it look.  With Windows Phone 8.1 Microsoft doesn't diverge from that look, but it does offer some interesting new additions to try to make it more appealing.
 
First it allows any Windows Phone 8 device to have 3 columns of pinnable tiles, versus the normal two.  In devices with lower resolution screens like the Lumia 630, that might not be the most desirable thing, but customers are free to try it out and see if it works for them.

Windows Phone triple row

Also Microsoft is adding the ability to set a picture as the background to your tiles, instead of just picking a color.  Tiles will sometimes revert to the flat look, but many icon details (in white) and notification animations will overlay, showing off your picture.

We're assuming this feature will work best with darker images (see above) given the white overlays.

Microsoft has also added new themes that freshen and allow customization of the home screen.  Here's one for example.

Windows Phone Lock Screen Themes

To switch up your theme you visit the new "Lock Screen Themes" app.  Previously third party apps offered custom quasi-lockscreens or images to customize your lockscreen with.  But they lacked the tight integration with Microsoft's notification icon imagery that Microsoft's new firsthand solution offers.

Again, darker images work better with the light overlays.  Hopefully Microsoft will add a feature in future versions that allows users the ability to customize the overlay with a different color or even a gradient, to allow more options with lighter images.

Here's an example of what I mean (my modification of Microsoft's example):

Windows Phone themes

... hopefully that will be added in future Windows Phone versions (Windows Phone 8.2 or 9, perhaps?)

V. Honed Core Apps

Nearly every core app in Windows Phone has been amped up or improved in some way.

The dialer gains tight integration with Skype.  

Windows Phone Skype call

Users can now upgrade standard phonecalls to Skype video calls at will.  This is basically Microsoft's answer to Facetime, but do consider that outside the mobile space Microsoft's acquired hand (Skype) has been at the video messaging business for longer than Apple has.

The Calendar app has been heavily overhauled.  Intuitively swipe left and right now allow panning/navigating between weeks and months.  Weather forecasts are included as small icons in each day's tile.  The overall look mirrors the refreshed Outlook 365.

Windows Phone 8.1

An orangle triangle on the top left corner indicates the current day.

One headache in Windows Phone 7 and 8 was an inability to accurately track device storage space usage on the go and to track (and limit) cellular data usage.  A trio of new apps -- Storage Sense, WiFi Sense, and Data Sense remedy that.  Wi Fi sense automatically enters and clicks through authentication pages.  We'll have to see how well that works in the wild, but expect it to eliminate that chore at common/widespread public Wi Fi offerings, such as Starbucks Corp. (SBUX).  

Windows Phone Sense

They're accompanied by Battery Saver, an app that allows things like screen brightness adjustment.  How aggressive the app is able to get in conserving battery remains to be seen.  But Microsoft's rivals -- such as HTC Corp. (TPE:2498) have shown the merits of this approach, and Microsoft should see benefits as well.

Battery Saver

The Music app has received deeper Xbox Music support.  You now have access to videos and can find podcasts via a Bing search.  And you get separate ringer/call volume and music volume sliders.

Windows Phone Xbox Music

The Store app also received upgrades to search and layout.

There's also retouched People and Photo Album Hubs, the latter of which is accompanied by a new Camera app.  The biggest changes in photos are the ability to plug in third party galleries like Facebook's photos, Flickr, or Google's Picasa.  When you take a series of pictures, they're now added to an auto-generated gallery.  The new Photo Album hub is smart enough to arrange separate outings as separate galleries; you can go back at any time and rename these albums and add pertinent details.

Windows Phone 8.1, People and Photos

The People app finally gets access to more third-party content, including larger photos posted by friends on services such as Facebook.

Last, but not least is Internet Explorer 11.  IE 11, you may recall debuted with Windows 8.1 last fall.  Now IE 11 has been upgraded to support flexible screen sizes and with improved touch support -- which is good news for both Windows Phone (newly supported) and tablets (previously supported, but now better supported).

IE 11 cross platform

Unsurprisingly Microsoft focused much of its IE 11 work to making HTML5 and WebGL run smoothly on the smartphone (or tablet).  Probably the biggest addition, though is the ability to sync or transfer tabs between your PC(s), tablet(s), and smartphone(s), allowing for seamless device switching.

VI. Business/Security/Developers

On the business and security front Microsoft is finally moving towards a serious solution.  Support for virtual proxy networks, a staple of the business world, is added, as is optional full-device encryption.

Storage Sense
You can now encrypt your phone's storage.

There's support for more kinds of email, including iCloud and S/MIME (secure, encrypted email).  In IE 11 there's a "legacy mode" of sorts that supports web apps and websites designed to run in aging browsers such as IE 6, IE 7, and IE 8.  The compatibility features are enabled when running Enterprise Mode, which also streamlines user management/website-blocking.

IE 11

And to wrap things up Microsoft has added a built in device management client which it says will play nicely with popular enterprise device management software.  The client features simplified device enrollment for enterprises, as well.

On the developer side of the equation Microsoft has announced "Universal Apps".  This feature is incorporated into Visual Studio 2013 Update 2 (just released).  The new development tools allow you to design new apps that work on both Windows Phone and Windows (PC)... or quickly port an existing app from one platform to another.  

Many features in Windows Phone 8.1 (e.g. notifications) have been brought into line with core parts of the Windows 8.1 PC GUI and its underlying XAML code and APIs/SDKs.  In that regard you can code one simple action that automatically is handled optimally on mulitple platforms without the headache of custom code.

This is a major step on Microsoft's path towards unified apps, a key goal of the company.  Microsoft is aiming to offer an increasing degree of unit between mobile, the traditional PC, and the Xbox.  If it can pull it off, it not only has the potential to increase developers reach and revenue, but its own as well.

Here's a video from one of Microsoft's BUILD talks, highlighting some of the changes for developers:



Developers get early access to Windows Phone 8.1 later this month.  The update will roll out to the public sometime in May, likely.

VII. Outlook

The big question is whether these updates make Microsoft-powered smartphones a superior option to the iPhone on the high end and to Android on the the high end, mid-range, and low-end.

One complicating factor is partner support.  Nokia Devices will soon be Microsoft owned and it is (of course) strongly supporting the Windows Phone platform.  Things appear to be moving along, though, in recruiting outside OEMs.  At BUILD this week Microsoft announced that Prestigio -- a Limassol, Cyprus based firm -- and Micromax in India.

Presitigio specialized in dual-SIM budget smartphones.  To date it's primarily used Android, but it may eye using Windows Phone as a way to differentiate some of its product.  Its phones are referred to as "MultiPhones".

Micromax Mobiles is India's second largest smartphone maker, shipping roughly 13 percent of the nation's handsets:
Micromax market share
Considering that it's also the tenth biggest phonemaker in the world, even modest adoption would be a big win to Microsoft.

Remember, there is cause for skepticism. Microsoft had announced nine partners at the 2014 Mobile World Congress and at least one of them -- China's Huawei Technologies Comp., Ltd. (SHE:002502) -- already appears to be backing out in belligerent fashion, insulting Microsoft by calling it a "low priority."  It's possible Huawei will change its tune now that Windows Phone -- like Android -- is free.  But maybe not.

Returning to Nokia the Lumia 930 is a nice device, and the Lumia 630/635 appear well featured and attractive at such a low budget price point.  But for most, neither device seems capable of convincing users to switch from Android (or iPhone) based on the merits of spec of price alone.  Microsoft needs some sort of boost on the hardware front.

Lumia 930

Overall, my feeling is that most will acknowledge that Microsoft's Windows Phone 8.1 has several killer features, the biggest of which is proably Cortana.  But the problem is that competitors seem to have as many killer features or more.

The biggest single factor still working against Microsoft is lack of third-party apps. Microsoft has tried a two-pronged approach to scaling this massive barrier, wooing developers while pushing out essential in-house apps.  The Sense Apps for example, go a long way to filling the void of what was "missing" in past releases.  But for those accustomed to Android or iOS sort of volume of fresh apps, the catalog may feel a little sparse.  There's not 200 new RPG games -- theres' a couple dozen -- for example.

This will eventually change (or so Microsoft hopes), but in the meantime the company needs something extra to convince customers to bite.  In other words, while Windows Phone 8.1 is a huge step forward, it's also not enough currently outside of budget devices.  But with the release of new devices that could quickly shift.

Monarch
Nokia Devices is rumored to be prepping a device called "Monarch", which not only packs the best camera on a smartphone, but also could be the first flagship phone with a 2K display.
[Image Source: Steve Burt on Flickr via CC]

Recall that Nokia's rumored "Goldfinger" and "Monarch" devices have yet to be announced (these devices were leaked by @evleaks, who has corrrectly verified nearly every other Nokia device to date early).

Phone Arena spotted benchmarks hinting that the Monarch is the Lumia 1820 (it might also be named the Lumia 1030) and will feature:
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 805
  • 3 GB RAM
  • 5.2-inch screen display with 2K resolution
And other rumor mills are suggesting there's a massive camera sensor derived from the Lumia 1020's 41 megapixel shooter is onboard.  If these rumors hold true, Nokia would enjoy at least a brief lead in terms of spec over its rivals' flagship devices.  If it can use some measure of common sense and add a microSD card to its super-shooter it will likely have the best phone on the market, hardware wise.

That's a lot of if's -- but assuming they're all true, there may be a compelling reason to switch to Windows Phone (or for us early adopters, to stick with it).

Sources: Windows Phone Blog, MSDN [1], [2]





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