Windows Phone 8’s Next Update Will Be Phablet-Phriendly

Microsoft rejiggers its mobile software for big, big screens.

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Windows Phone 8 Update 3

Until now, I’ve managed to successfully avoid using the term “phablet” to describe smartphones such as Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3, with screens large enough make them feel like small tablets. No longer. Microsoft is announcing its next round of improvements to Windows Phone — a free collection of tweaks known as Update 3 — and key among them is support for, um, phablets. Microsoft’s Greg Sullivan — who used the term only reluctantly himself — recently briefed me about what’s new.

Until now, Windows Phone screens have maxed out at 4.7″ — a size which, astoundingly, is no longer particularly ginormous. Update 3 is meant to allow Nokia and other Microsoft partners to design phones with displays up to 6″ or so. (Anything bigger than that, and Microsoft thinks that hardware makers should be building small Windows 8 tablets rather than big Windows Phone 8 tablets.)

The changes Microsoft is implementing to make the operating system phablet-ready aren’t radical — it’s not, for instance, adding support for styluses such as the Galaxy Note 3’s S-Pen. But Update 3 will support 16:9 aspect-ratio screens with 1080p resolution, and will use the additional real estate provided by larger screens to accommodate more of Windows Phone’s trademark Live Tile icons — up to 15 medium-sized ones fully onscreen at a time.

The company is updating bundled apps with taller versions with extra interface space, a bit like Apple did with iOS when it introduced the iPhone 5 and stretched the iPhone’s display. The e-mail program, for instance, will be able to list more messages in its inbox; the music player will show more songs.

The update will also support Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 quad-core processors, powerful chips designed for use in phablets and plain ol’ tablets.

Other changes in Update 3 are minor, and mostly amount to playing catch-up with other mobile operating systems — but they’ll work on existing phones that get the update, not just new devices:

  • The multitasking view, with card-like images of running apps, now lets you close any program by tapping an X in its upper right-hand corner.
  • A new rotation-lock option lets you tell your phone not to automatically reorient its screen, a useful feature if you’re reading in bed.
  • A safety-minded driving mode can suppress incoming calls and/or text messages and respond to them with a message explaining that you’re behind the wheel.
  • The phone now gives you a better accounting of what sort of items are filling up its storage, and links to the tools you need to manage them — such as the photo app.
  • You’ll be able to specify custom ringtones for text-message alerts.
  • A new mode for the visually impaired provides an icon grid that’s designed to be navigable even if you can’t see it, and speaks commands as you tap them.
  • As usual, the update also includes a bevy of bug fixes and performance enhancements, including better Bluetooth support.

Microsoft plans to get Update 3 started on its way to consumers; as with previous Windows Phone 8 updates, this one won’t be rolled out to specific phone models until hardware makers and wireless carriers have vetted it, a process that can take a long time. But here’s a cool new twist: starting today, Microsoft is going to release a Developer Preview version that Windows Phone developers can install at will — including anyone who bothers to sign up to use App Studio, a free tool meant to let everyday folk create programs. Which means, basically, that anyone who’s anxious to get the update will be able to get it right away.

How’s Windows Phone doing in general? It remains a distant third place contender compared to Google‘s Android and Apple’s iOS, but one that’s growing rather than flatlining. (Interestingly, Kantar Worldpanel’s most recent market-share data shows Windows Phone 8 making headway more slowly in the U.S., where it currently has 3 percent share, than in a bunch of other countries.)

Which is why I find it a bit odd that Microsoft still compares its software to BlackBerry, which isĀ gasping for life: It’s proudly pointing out that Windows Phone outsells the ailing Canadian OS in 34 markets, including the U.S.

Seems to me that enough is going right for Windows Phone 8 that Microsoft can make the case that it’s making progress without the frame of reference being a product that’s undergoing epic, ignominious collapse. Windows Phone doesn’t need to nip at Android’s and iOS’s heels to be a viable alternative — it just needs to be a good product that’s clearly moving in the right direction. And it is.