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Can Windows Phone 8 help the OS challenge Android and iOS?

Mobile News
August 13, 2012

With the release of Microsoft’s new desktop and mobile platforms imminent, Jasper Jackson asks industry experts how the software giant’s OS has fared so far and where they see it going from here

Last September, Microsoft launched the Mango version of its Windows Phone operating system, adding basic features such as cut-and-paste and generally sprucing up its under-performing platform.

The changes turned the software into a platform many in the industry felt was technically able to compete with Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. Manufacturers including HTC, LG and Samsung quickly added their support.

Two months later, Nokia unveiled the first results of its strategic partnership with Microsoft, the Lumia 800 and 710 handsets, two devices designed to spearhead the firm’s Windows-reliant strategy for rejuvenation.

While support for Windows Phone from the likes of Samsung, LG and HTC played second fiddle to Android, Nokia promised to go in all guns blazing, staking its future on Windows and Microsoft.

Nokia’s Windows handsets, which now also include the high-end Lumia 900 and the budget Lumia 610, have also been praised for eye-catching design and some standout features.

Operators were also enthusiastic, welcoming the prospect of a third major ecosystem to break the tightening grip of Android and Apple.

Yet almost a year after Mango was released, and more than eight months after the first Lumias hit the shelves, Windows Phone is yet to evolve into the credible player it was touted to be.

Windows Phone market share has increased to around 5.2 per cent globally, with the bulk of sales understood to come from Nokia, so progress has been made, but it is eclipsed by Android’s 61 per cent.

Analysts predict a brighter future for Windows, however, with IDC expecting it  to top almost 20 per cent by 2016.

It is also expected to overtake Apple,  whose share is expected to fall from 20.5 per cent today, to 19 per cent in 2016.

Time will tell, of course. The response from our panel of experts was mixed – but not negative. Universally, the performance of Windows Phone was praised.

The next test will be Windows Phone 8, the new version of Microsoft’s mobile operating system unveiled last month, which has been dubbed Apollo.

It includes a new home-screen layout that takes advantage of larger screens found on devices such as the Lumia 900, and provides support for more advanced hardware features such as dual-core processors and NFC.

It also uses the same core ‘kernel’ as the forthcoming Windows 8 PC operating system, which promises smooth interoperability between different device formats for consumers.

It could also help to boost the number of mainstream applications found on other OS platforms – arguably one of Windows Phone’s biggest drawbacks.

But this is a work in progress and vast improvements have been made. Last month Nokia told Mobile News Microsoft has broken the 100,000 app milestone in its marketplace – with 92,000 applications added since February 11, 2011.

While impressive, its numbers are still way behind Apple’s and Android’s.

The Apple App Store offers more than 600,000 applications and recently passed 60 billion downloads. Google Play has around 500,000 applications and recently passed 15 billion downloads.

Microsoft hopes to be able to bring together developers working for PCs and mobile, significantly increasing the number of people developing for all its software platforms.

The shared basis of the two operating systems presents a huge opportunity for Microsoft and its partners to dominate user’s lives across a variety of screens.

Microsoft’s new Surface tablet is designed to extend the range of devices running its software.

Yet Windows 8 has not been released and already there is controversy.

Microsoft has said it won’t offer an upgrade for Windows Phone 8 to existing Windows Phone 7.5 users.

They will instead have to settle for Windows Phone 7.8, which will offer some of the interface and software tweaks of the full Windows Phone 8 version, but won’t support many of the new features.

Windows Phone 7.8 also won’t use the same core as Windows Phone 8, potentially meaning less interoperability with PCs.

Analysts we spoke to said the lack of a full upgrade won’t make much of a difference to most users.

They point out many of the features in Windows Phone 8 deal with hardware features that existing users would have to buy a new handset to gain access to anyway.

However, many in the industry say that Microsoft has mishandled the release of this news.

In the long run, Windows Phone still looks like the most likely contender to become the third major ecosystem.

RIM is struggling, and with its BlackBerry 10 OS delayed yet again, the odds of it retaining its place in the market are lengthening by the day.

Even if RIM avoids collapse, it appears increasingly likely the manufacturer may follow Nokia in turning to Windows Phone, or even sell its devices business to Microsoft altogether.

Take RIM out of the equation, and Windows Phone becomes the only viable third option (though Mozilla’s Firefox OS may be one to watch).

Operators are desperate to have an alternative to Android and Apple, meaning they are inclined to back Windows Phone.

More importantly, Microsoft is prepared to do absolutely everything necessary to make sure it remains in the mobile OS battle.

We asked our panel to assess Windows Phone’s performance so far and its prospects for the future.

Full article in Mobile News issue 520 (August 13, 2012).

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