Windows Phone could be more than it is

25 November 2014

Despite its huge progress, the Windows Phone operating system continues to feel like it’s catching up to iOS and Android. Microsoft has ignored some areas in which it could stand out, and has never quite closed the gap in basic functionality and app support.

It's so close to being a great operating system, but that's been the case for far too long now. Microsoft has the ability to make a real mobile contender, yet the same issues continue to plague its devices.

Late to the party

A lot of the progress that Windows Phone has made are the implementation of things that have been around for a while on Android and iOS. The drop-down notification tray with quick-settings which came with Windows 8.1, for instance, is a feature that was more obvious by its absence than now it has finally been added. The task-manager is another example.

These features were implemented well. There are no complaints to be made about them at this point. The problem was that they came so late. This seems to be a fundamental problem with Microsoft's development method. Once it actually gets around to building services they're great, but it has a serious problem with punctuality.

Take Cortana, which is currently in beta and will not be fully released until next year. Cortana honestly does look like it will be the equal of Apple and Google's personal voice-activated assistants. The voice recognition software works fantastically, even with my Australian accent. Cortana can already do some things the other's can't, such as contact-based reminders, but like other WP features she's a couple of years late to the party.

Siri and Google Now voice have been out for so long that it's almost difficult to care about voice interfaces anymore. It's 2014 - our phones talk to us now. That's just the way it is.

Live Tiles

Live Tiles are great. They're a refreshing and viable change from the icon layouts of iOS and Android. They show live-updated information at a glance without taking up as much screen space as an Android Widget, or requiring a pull-down tray like in iOS.

Yet, other than the ability to resize them, and that they can now transparently reveal a background image, they haven't changed since they were first demonstrated years ago. Microsoft is letting iOS and Android catch up in the one area that it dominated: glance-able information. This would be acceptable if Windows Phone was blazing ahead in other areas, but it doesn't feel like that's happening.

Tame gaming

Microsoft's Market looks a little less spartan these days, but despite having closed most of the bigger gaps the app store still reads like something from a couple of years ago. My Talking Tom, Fruit Slash (a Fruit Ninja clone), Plants vs Zombies (the first one, not the second), Angry Birds (the first one) and Cut the Rope are all still top-rated games. There's not much else to choose from, unless you like a good original Sonic the Hedgehog play-through. I do, but everyone's favorite blue dude is not strong enough to carry an entire mobile platform.

If Microsoft is looking for an area of phone functionality to corner then this could be it.

Thanks to Xbox, Microsoft has access to some of the greatest titles in gaming memory. A lot of these are older or indie games that could be capable of being adapted to the hardware of a modern mobile device. Other than Halo: Spartan Assault, there aren’t too many benefits that Microsoft’s gaming clout delivers on.

There is a whole universe of incredible platform and indie games that have hit the PC and Xbox market in recent and even earlier years that could be adjusted, either in graphics or with tweaks to the physics, for the mobile market. Plants vs Zombies did it, as did World of Goo. Why not the rest?

It's not as easy as flicking a switch. Developers must be convinced that sinking their time in to a cross-platform port is going to herald results. This wooing could be an expensive process, which makes it a lucky thing that Microsoft is now the second largest company in the world, recently overtaking both Exxon Mobil and Google to claim the #2 spot behind Apple.

Money doesn't solve everything, but Microsoft has the resources to corner the mobile gaming market. It has the connections, the hardware, the ecosystem, the people and, by the looks of things, it has the capital.

The other big player in gaming, Sony, doesn't run its own mobile platform; its phones work on Android. Despite this, Sony has leaped ahead when it comes to integrating its smartphone and tablet products with its PlayStation 4 gaming console. Microsoft has the same trump card, it's just not playing it.

Throwing a hat in to the mobile market ring was never going to be inexpensive. Microsoft will need to commit serious resources if it wants to carve out a bigger portion for itself than it already has. Gaming is as good a place to start as any. Better, if you're a fan of playing to your strengths.

Camera woes

Moving on from gaming, the cameras on Windows Phones tend to deliver good images, especially the PureView ones, but at a fairly slow pace. The app launches slowly and the shutter speed can vary wildly, as can the time it takes to autofocus.

These cameras were great a couple of years back, but just like the Metro UI not much seems to have changed since Nokia PureView first hit the market. It’s still plagued by light-bleeding, poor low-light image capture, and lag.

By contrast, tap as fast as you like on a modern iPhone or flagship Android and you'll get almost as many photos. Each generation makes noticeable improvements in low-light handling, flash coloration and light bleeding -- with the given exception of the tiny camera upgrades between the HTC One M7 and M8. You can see the technology moving with each new release. This isn't happening on Windows Phone to even nearly the same extent. The hardware keeps sounding more impressive, but the real-world results show little improvement.

In its day, the Lumia 1020 was the best camera phone on the market. It had to be, given its 41MP camera and massive lens system. It's still the best Windows Phone camera, but the 8MP iPhone 6 Plus shooter more than just leaves it for dead; it doesn't even notice lying in the street it as it strolls past casually churning out the kind of night shots the 1020 can only dream about.

Windows Phone's best camera is over a year old. And it's beaten by a phone with one fifth the megapixels.

No YouTube app

This one is not entirely Microsoft's fault, but the lack of a dedicated YouTube app is a big problem. I don't care what you have to do, Microsoft. If Google tells you to put on a stupid hat and dance a jig in front of your childhood hero then it's time to hit the costume shop.

YouTube accounted for around 14% of all internet usage in the USA last year. It was only beaten by Netflix. It's a huge part of modern life that isn't supported by the world's third largest smartphone operating system.

Easy-access YouTube is a necessary part of a modern mobile ecosystem. This needs to be fixed. And fast.



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