Microsoft has finally unveiled its much-anticipated Windows Phone 8 OS, and after getting hands-on with the platform, Paul Withers was pretty impressed
It’s been more than a year since Apple chief Steve Jobs died but his lingering influence on the market was all too evident last week – and I’m not referring to the iPad Mini launch.
The build-up to the release of Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system oozed his touch, with the software giant making serious attempts to generate the same amount of ludicrous publicity normally exclusive to a new iPhone release. And it succeeded.
PC World and Currys, for example, opened their stores at midnight on October 25 and held a launch party in London’s Tottenham Court Road, attracting plenty of media attention. Hundreds turned out, many of whom were filmed and photographed for the morning papers, which were awash with ads from Microsoft and its various suppliers. Similarly, TV news reports were bookended by seemingly endless commercials for Windows 8.
Last week, Microsoft completed its portfolio with the announcement of Windows Phone 8 – albeit to less noise.
But this may not be an issue.
For Windows Phone by contrast, and certainly by design, was years ahead of Microsoft Windows 7. The two couldn’t have looked more different – and to the uninitiated would appear to be from two different companies.
With the updates to the desktop software, the portfolio now has that genuine feel of synergy, which, as Apple has so successfully done with its Macs, iPhones, iPads and iPods, could lead people to seek out a Windows Phone device.
The first WP8 handsets to be released have been announced and are expected to go on sale this week. These include Nokia’s Lumia 820 and 920 devices, HTC’s Windows Phone 8S and 8X handsets and the Samsung Ativ S. More are due to follow from Huawei shortly.
We were in attendance for the launch in London, a rather watered-down version of the lavish, celebrity-filled event in San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.
Instead, myself and 100 or so journalists were packed into a small room with a large TV screen to watch the feed.
Like many in the room, I had been given a demonstration of RIM’s new BlackBerry 10 OS just a few weeks before, so Windows Phone 8 needed to impress.
When the feed ended, the screen lifted to reveal a room filled with demonstration units.
Having used a Nokia Lumia 800 when Windows Phone 7 launched a year ago, I was pretty familiar with the home screen, which doesn’t appear to have changed too much.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer stated Microsoft is keen to emphasise the ‘personal’ aspect of the OS, with the message of “staying close to the most important people in your life”, and you can see this clearly.
The home screen is made up of ‘Live Tiles’, which form the heart of the OS. This creates a different formation from the static rows of Android and iOS.
Live Tiles are designed to give users access to the things that are most important to them, with items such as call logs, SMS or social networking apps rearranged to be placed at the top of the screen. Users can see their calendar, photo albums and favourite music and games. Tiles can be made into three sizes, with 20 colours available.
Integrated within this is ‘Live Apps’, which brings live information directly to the home screen. For example, the Facebook app will show the person’s updated news feed or a news application will display the top news story at that time.
The ‘personal’ aspect is even further driven home with SkyDrive, the free 7GB cloud-based storage facility. Items such as documents, pictures and music can work seamlessly across all Windows 8 devices – smartphones, PCs and Xbox 360 video games consoles.
For example, when pictures or videos are taken, they are automatically uploaded to the user’s SkyDrive account so they are available on the other two devices. In another instance, if you were to download music tracks to your PC, they would also show up immediately on the other devices.
‘Rooms’ has been added, enabling users to form a group of selected people – not an entire social network – to chat to and share calendars, notes, locations and multimedia content within an ongoing conversation.
Another new addition is ‘Kid’s Corner’. Microsoft seemed so keen to make noise about this feature that Windows Phone vice president Joe Belfiore, who presented the bulk of the show, brought his three children out to demonstrate it. Actress and mother Jessica Alba also took to the stage to discuss the service with a well-rehearsed speech extolling its greatness.
Kid’s Corner enables parents to control what apps, games, music and videos their children can access. The set-up is simple: go to the settings, click on ‘Kid’s Corner’ and you are presented with menus for each of the above. Going into each option presents a list of items – the user can then check the box of each item they wish their child to access. The phone can be given to the child with the lock screen shown – they swipe the screen left and then upwards and they’re into the feature.
However, the business aspect of the OS, an area that Microsoft has been famed for with its various Office programs, seemed to take a back seat and was barely mentioned at all. This came as a huge surprise.
It was only mentioned when I asked the man demonstrating the OS to me. His reply was bland: “It has all the Office programs you’d expect from a Windows Phone smartphone.” I found this disappointing.
Office programs such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint are all built into the OS. ‘One Note’ is also included, enabling people to record notes by speaking to the phone.
This can be done by pressing and holding the start button. The speech service will recognise the user’s voice and the transcribed note will be saved into the program as written text.
I can’t see BlackBerry feeling too threatened. BB10 is perfectly geared to attempting to restore confidence with business customers, with much efficiency in email and calendar apps, as well as BlackBerry Balance, which separates a user’s personal and private life.
From the amount of time put into demonstrating the features, it would appear Microsoft is aiming for the consumer market.
As good as the OS looks, Windows Phone 8 continues to face the challenge of people now knowing about the platform or even what it is capable of.
Microsoft has failed before to do this. OS market share figures from Kantar Worldpanel ComTech show that in the 12 weeks to September 30, Windows Phone held UK share of just 4.2 per cent, growing just 2.2 per cent from a year ago.
Compared to the 58.2 per cent and 28 per cent shares held by Android and Apple respectively, it shows just what a predicament Microsoft finds itself in and the massive uphill challenge it faces to convince users to switch platforms.
The development of the Windows Marketplace has been steady. There are now over 120,000 apps available, a big step from the mere 7,000 apps that were available at launch for Windows Phone 7 on the Nokia Lumia 800 in November 2011.
The good news is 46 of the world’s top 50 most popular apps are available at launch in the Windows Marketplace. The bad news is that, in total, it is over half a million apps behind what is available in the Google Play and Apple iTunes Stores.
In a call with analysts following the publication of its Q3 results, Nokia president and CEO Stephen Elop said that together with Microsoft and its operator partners, it is spending more on marketing campaigns for Windows Phone 8 than on the previous incarnation of the operating system.
It will need that and a whole lot more. The big question is, will it get that? This effort alone from Nokia won’t be enough. The other current Windows Phone 8 manufacturers – Samsung, HTC and Huawei – will need to put their weight behind this but it remains doubtful whether they will commit massive resources, especially when they’ve built their strategies around Android.
A clear marketing plan that can be easily understood by consumers is vital. As is the number of handsets and the price points they branch across.
There are only five devices available at launch. Microsoft must also look at handsets for lower price points and not concentrate on going head to head with the likes of Apple and Samsung in the high-end sector. It must be seen to challenge the various low-end handsets running the Android OS to cater for as many consumers as possible.
As in the case of BlackBerry, there will be no quick fix for Microsoft, and it could be 12 to 18 months before we know whether its new strategy has worked. This could be Microsoft’s last chance, and it must make it count – before it’s too late.