The market, including me, has dramatically underestimated Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows Phone 8 (WP8). The operating system (OS) is fresh, fun, stable, well thought-out, innovative, and falls short of Android and iOS in very few areas, while surpassing them in many. Beyond the requisite smartphone abilities of apps, email, Internet, and camera, WP8 has some unique and surprisingly useful new features like Live Tiles, Kid's Corner, Rooms, and Office Hub. To say that WP8 meets the requirements of a modern smartphone OS is an understatement; it surpasses them. Whereas many products seek to satisfy, WP8 goes a step further; it delights.
Merriam-Webster defines "delight" as "A high degree of gratification. Joy. Extreme satisfaction" or simply put, "Something which gives great pleasure." So what are the unique elements of WP8 which create the sensation of delight?
Before jumping into the key features of the OS, a word should be said about stability. Since activating my WP8 device (the Nokia Lumia 822) one month ago, and after using it frequently every day since, it has never once seized up, slowed down, spontaneously powered down, or required rebooting. This is a far departure from both Android and iOS, which frequently freeze or mysteriously shut down. WP8 is the most stable mobile OS I've ever used. It works right every time. I've only seen the start-up screen twice, once when it was first turned on, and once when writing this review. This alone is a source of extreme satisfaction.
After years of Android trying to become iOS, it may have finally succeeded. Today the two user interfaces (UI) are nearly identical. Both share the same blank backdrop dotted with app icons spread out over multiple pages. To access apps, users must first find them by flipping through anywhere up to 7 pages on Android or 11 pages on iOS. Another less convenient way to find apps is to use the universal search function on iOS, which requires knowing the name of the app and typing it in, or on Android, by visiting the app bank, which is itself spread out over multiple pages in no specific order.
WP8 has one home screen. When flipped to the left, a vertical, alphabetized list of all installed apps is displayed. Rather than flipping side-to-side through multiple pages searching for apps, the user can pin an unlimited amount of apps from the app list directly onto the single home screen, in any layout they wish, which scrolls quickly up and down. Finding apps feels surprisingly quick and effortless.
One key innovation of Windows Phone is "Live Tiles", which are the icons which represent apps on the home screen. Unlike Android and iOS which use static icons, Live Tiles are dynamic boxes which display information from underlying apps on the home screen like messages, news, stock prices, or photos. Any app, contact, photo, or messaging account (IM, text, email) can have its own unique Live Tile added to the home screen in one of three sizes, and positioned anywhere on the screen. Multiple messaging accounts can also be linked in any combination to a single tile. This allows users to put the information they find most useful in the most convenient location, and size it appropriately. The final effect is the home screen goes beyond just a list of frequently used apps, and becomes a wall of real-time information, messages and images, the utility of which surpassed my expectations.
WP8 takes a unique approach to the traditional contact list with a proprietary app called "People". Similar to Android and iOS, People syncs with all social networks and downloads the contact's information directly into the phone. It also has a news feed similar to Facebook which aggregates status messages. However, one truly unique feature of People is called "Rooms", in which any contact can be invited to join a private room in which they can share texts, photos, notes and calendars. As can be imagined, this is an extremely useful tool for families who want to share calendars and to do lists, and the OS comes pre-configured with a Live Tile called "Family Room" on the home screen. Multiple users can be invited to any room, and the Live Tile displays updates on the home screen. Using the Family Room has proved to be surprisingly fun, easy, and useful.
Children love to play on any smartphone they can get their hands on. Once in their clutches they tend to wreak havoc by opening or deleting apps or messages they shouldn't. Microsoft has come up with a custom user account called Kids Corner, which once turned on creates a unique profile which can be customized for kids. The user can select which apps they want available in the Kid's corner profile, such as games, and password protect access to the rest of the phone. A simple and elegant solution to a common problem.
I guess it's to be expected from any Microsoft OS, but Office on WP8 works perfectly. The Office Hub application is seamlessly integrated with Skydrive, and Word and Excel files can be created, opened, and edited easily. Because Office is native to WP8, large Excel files can be navigated and resized smoothly and without the normal jerkiness that can be experienced when viewing in a web browser or with 3rd party apps. A great utility for any business user.
Outside of the big features mentioned above, users migrating from Android and iOS will notice a number of small differences which are Microsoft's unique take on smartphones and are fun and useful. For example, the lock screen can be integrated with Bing to show the Bing website's picture of the day. Personally, I've been amazed by the beauty of the Bing photos, which give the phone a fresh feel and are fun to watch change each morning. I was so impressed by the Bing photos that I decided to keep Bing as my main search engine, and so far have been completely satisfied (there's that word again) with the search results. Another fun feature is the Xbox Games app, which in addition to grouping all your games, lets you design a unique avatar which is associated with your Xbox Live account, and has a bunch of fun animations. The theme of the phone can also be customized quickly by going into settings, allowing users to choose from among 21 colors as the background for their Live Tiles. Lastly, switching between apps is extremely fast and easy by simply holding down the capacitive arrow key on the left.
Fast switching apps is easy
If WP8 has any big shortcoming it's only that not all major apps have migrated to the platform yet, some notables including Pandora and Amazon MP3 Player. That said, workarounds exist for many of them, such as Metroradio, a 3rd party client which provides full access to Pandora.
Another shortcoming is the lack of integration with Google services, which for users coming from Android can be a nuisance. That said, almost everything can be downloaded in either the original standalone app, such as YouTube, or 3rd party clients which give nearly identical access, such as gMaps for Google Maps, G+ for Google+, or CloudMuzik for Google Play Music.
For decades Microsoft OSs seemed to cater to the needs of the enterprise while ignoring the needs of consumers. Its OSs were designed from the back-end looking inward, giving IT professionals far-reaching control over features and security, while remaining inscrutable to most casual users. Conversely, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) was lauded for designing UIs which were intuitive to use and simply did what you want. With WP8 Microsoft not only designed an OS with the consumer at its center, but one which leapfrogs iOS and Android by being more customizable and interactive, and putting more of the information consumers want up front via Live Tiles.
The biggest challenges for WP8 will be to overcome the legacy of WP7, which developed a bad reputation for lacking a few elements early in its roll out, and growing its app developer support. Although WP8 boasts only 125k apps vs. Apple and Android's 800k each, the number will grow as developers seek to tap into the unified platform of Windows 8 which now spans PCs, tablets and smartphones. Microsoft has also added key functionality to attract developers, such as in-app purchases.
WP8's market share is somewhere in the low single digits globally, and for this reason may be dismissed as being too small to matter in the ongoing smartphone war for platform supremacy. Yet this would be a mistake. For as small as WP8 is, it contains the secret ingredient which every product strives for, yet few attain. The thing which Windows has been missing for many, many years. The ability to surpass customer's expectations. The ability to delight.
A note about my smartphone history. I was an early adopter of the iPhone in July of 2007, soon after it was launched and kicked off the age of mobile data. I moved to Android in 2010, mostly to break free from iTunes which as an avid music listener I felt was too restrictive in the days before iCloud. I jumped to Windows Phone in January 2013, primarily because I was unhappy with the performance of my Samsung Galaxy S3, and was looking to try something new. I was pleasantly surprised.