Technologizer

Windows Phone 8: This Time for Sure?

Microsoft's underdog of a mobile operating system was already really good. It looks even better now. But it's still not clear how the company can translate that into market success.

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Harry McCracken / TIME.com

Actress/entrepreneur Jessica Alba helps Microsoft's Joe Belfiore introduce Windows Phone 8 at a launch event in San Francisco on October 29, 2012

Last Thursday, Microsoft held its formal shindig in honor of the arrival of Windows 8 and Surface in New York. Today, it’s another coast, another Microsoft event and another version of Windows — namely Windows Phone 8, which the company launched at a San Francisco press conference this morning.

Over the weekend, I tried an HTC Windows Phone 8X, one of the new Windows Phone 8 handsets. (The new software won’t be available as an upgrade for Windows Phone 7.5 devices, so the only way to get it will be to buy a new phone.) I didn’t have enough time to give the 8X a truly thorough workout, and the review unit supplied by HTC is an international model that doesn’t support LTE in the U.S.; I just used it on wi-fi, and therefore didn’t try making phone calls. So this story isn’t a review.

HTC Windows Phone 8X

HTC

HTC’s Windows Phone 8X

That said, my early impressions of the phone are positive: It’s got a tapered soft-touch polycarbonate case which feels good in the hand and doesn’t look like a sad iPhone knockoff. At 4.3″, the screen is big enough to feel roomy, and small enough that the phone isn’t a behemoth, and the cameras (including a wide-angle front one) seem solid. Along with its cousin the 8S, this is also the first Windows Phone with Beats audio, which boosts bass during headphone listening in a way that adds a jolt of energy to certain types of music.

Nice though the 8X hardware is, this phone, like all smartphones, is defined by its operating system. While 2010’s Windows Phone 7 was good; last year’s Windows Phone 7.5 was really good. And Windows Phone 8, from my brief time with it, seems to be really, really good.

The new version is a substantial one in terms of new features, but the biggest change is one of fundamental technology: Windows Phone 8 is now based on the same core as Windows 8, rather than Windows Mobile, the aging junior-sized platform that’s been the basis of all previous versions of Windows for phones. Microsoft says that moving on up to full-strength Windows will permit the operating system to do a better job of supporting more powerful hardware, and will allow Windows developers to more easily write apps which run on both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8.

I’m not going to step through all the new features in Windows Phone, but they’re many and varied, from a new mapping application based on Nokia’s mapping data to “lens” add-ins which add additional features to the camera app to better voice input.

Microsoft is continuing its emphasis on people-centric stuff with even more social-networking capabilities, such as the ability to group people into “Rooms.” It’s added a feature called Kid’s Corner which lets you hand over your phone to your children, content that they’ll only be able to get at the apps and content you permit. And it’s introduced Data Sense, a technology which compresses web pages to help you stay within your data plan’s limits. (Verizon will be the first carrier to support it.) It all adds up to an impressive piece of work.

Normally, the tech industry is a meritocracy: Impressive pieces of work tend to do well. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from Windows Phone to date, it’s that impressive products sometimes fail to take off.

With mobile phones, the alchemy of success is particularly complex. An operating system such as Windows Phone has four constituencies: consumers, developers, manufacturers and carriers. It’s tough for an operating-system company to come up with something compelling for any one of these groups unless it gets all of them excited, all at once. And with the iPhone and Android so deeply entrenched in their own ways, it hasn’t been entirely clear whether the market has room for a strong number three mobile platform.

So far, Windows Phone is stuck as an also-ran. While Gartner says that Windows Phone shipments grew by more than 130 percent year-over-year in the second quarter, that only got the platform to a measly 2.7 percent of the market share, compared to 64.1 percent for Android and 18.8 percent for iOS.

For Windows Phone to thrive, it needs cool apps — both the major cool apps available elsewhere, and some cool apps which are its alone. It needs dynamite phones. And as much as anything else, it needs the salespeople at phone stores to do a good job of selling the platform’s virtues, even though it’s probably much easier to sell the known quantities that are the iPhone and Android.

Microsoft is making progress on the cool-app front: At this morning’s event, Windows Phone honcho Joe Belfiore says that Windows Phone 8 will get 46 of the top 50 apps, including Pandora, until now the poster child for Windows Phone unavailability. (He didn’t mention the four which aren’t on their way, but Instagram and Flipboard leap to mind as iOS/Android all-stars that remain no-shows on Windows Phone.) The new phones from Nokia, HTC and Samsung look promising, too.

As for whether the carriers will do a good job of getting consumers interested in Windows Phone 8, I chatted with Microsoft Corporate VP Terry Myerson after the event, and he said that the company’s relationship with AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon has never been better. (Sprint, however, hasn’t announced any plans to release Windows Phone 8 devices.)

Then there’s the great big wild card known as Windows 8. Until now, Microsoft’s Metro Modern interface, as clever as it is, has been an outlier — a radical departure from the one you encounter on all your other computing devices. Now that both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 have their own incarnations of the Modern look, Windows Phone could go from feeling a tad foreign to being utterly mainstream.

Or, if consumers don’t buy into Windows 8’s brave new world, Windows Phone 8 could get caught in the backlash. It’s just hard to know.

Me, I’m going to give it a try. As soon as I press Publish on this post, I’m going to take the U.S. version of the 8X phone that I (and everyone else at the event) received and hotfoot it over to the nearest AT&T store. I’ll ask someone there to switch my account over from the Samsung Galaxy Nexus I’ve been using for the past few months to the 8X. For a few weeks, at least, I’ll be a Windows Phone 8 person — and I’ll let you know how it goes.

10 comments
JasonDeveau
JasonDeveau

I love WP8 and so help me, when it makes it's way to Canada, I MUST have it!

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

People, to-date in the U.S., Windows Phone has only addressed ~ 33% of the market. One two-year old phone on VZW and Sprint and no pre-paid, means the only game in town for WP for two years has been AT&T. And the Lumia 900 was only out four months before it became widely acknowledged that WP7 was a burning platform.

Assuming W8 is well received, this means hundreds of millions of people will be using it in the next 12 months. With W8 and WP8 being 1st cousins along with strong carrier support, sans Sprint, WP is poised to move to about 10% market share by the end of 2013, which won't be bad. If MS can get 2-3 compelling devices into pre-paid by the end of Q1 2013, this could translate into an additional 2-3% market share gain.

HPittsFlateau
HPittsFlateau

"But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from Windows Phone to date, it’s that impressive products sometimes fail to take off"

Another thing we have learned is that very poor products, like much of what Microsoft has offered over the years, can still be a great MONETARY success when foisted upon people by and entrenched monopoly.

JasonDeveau
JasonDeveau

@HPittsFlateau The computing revolution happened fast, and on the back of Microsoft. So they deserve your respect weather or not Windows crashed while you were writing an email and you harbor a grudge.

StelradPDoulton
StelradPDoulton like.author.displayName 1 Like

@HPittsFlateau The same accusation could be aimed at Apple. Only occaisionally have their products been best in class and yet they still out sell the others with a combination of smoke and mirrors - the latest iPad mini being a case in point.

And let's not mention the merry go round of tech updates - how long was it between iPad 3 and it's slightly updated replacement?

Falcon_CMH
Falcon_CMH like.author.displayName 1 Like

I want a windows 8 Phone to go with my Xbox, PC, and Surface tablet.  I love Windows 8 especially the Metro interface and my Surface tablet.  But I am very frustrated not being able to pre-order and/or buy one at launch date and still no dates given by AT&T for availability.  This is not the way to treat consumers nor a good launch IMO.  Unfortuately due to Windows 8/Metro/Surface/XBox I will probably bit my lip and still buy one.  But you bet if the phone was my first entry to the MS eco-system/platform I would bail and continue with Apple or better yet switch to Google Android.  One pissed off frustrated consumer.

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

@Falcon_CMH Um, Falcon, the average Joe Consuner has no idea W8 is coming. Maybe that will change between now and 1/1/2013, but for now, they have no idea.

eyeb04
eyeb04 like.author.displayName 1 Like

I don't know... if you have to go to an ATT store to switch the sims on an unlocked gsm phone to another, I'm not too sure of your reviewing skills...

that said nice review, I am slowly getting interested in the windows phone but the apps on android are what holds me back, that and I really do like tweaking my phone and windows phone is said to be locked up like iphone.

newmanjb
newmanjb

@eyeb04 I don't know about Harry's situation specifically, but if you're using a SIM card that only supports HSPA+ (which is the fastest network the unlocked GNex supports), you'll definitely want to hit up an AT&T store for a card that supports 4G LTE.

HeruMuharrar
HeruMuharrar

Very nice article I'm interested in seeing how it goes.