Windows Phone has been less than a success for Microsoft. With a low market share, only exceeding that of the fading BlackBerry brand, Microsoft's mobile OS has basically gone nowhere. Indeed, the company's purchase of Nokia's smartphone division, which has seen better days, may be one the only possibility to save the platform, and it's a risky one at that.
Not that Microsoft has helped. The company famously prevented devices shipping with Windows Phone 7 from being able to use Windows Phone 8. Imagine, for example, a new iPhone that came with iOS 6 being excluded from running iOS 7. Yes, older hardware isn't compatible, but the iPhone 4, which shipped with iOS 4 in 2010, is.
Well, Microsoft has unveiled the latest update to Windows Phone, version 8.1. The key feature is Cortana, which is a voice assistant that is heavily influenced by Siri. The name comes from a character in Halo, a popular game, and is reportedly being voiced by the same performer.
But while it seems similar, the API for Cortana will be opened for third-party apps to tap its features, which is something that neither Siri or Google Now presently offers.
Now Siri and Cortana do have one thing in common, which is that both use Bing for searches.
An article from AppleInsider, however, indicated that it's not at all clear just how many developers might take advantage of the feature, since Microsoft's mobile app ecosystem is far smaller than Apple's or Google's.
The other key feature is Action Center, which, as the name implies, is similar to the Notification Center in iOS combined with Control Center. In that, it's closer to the Google alternative.
Yet another feature, "shape writing," is a keyboard scheme that is reminiscent of the Swype keyboard feature that has become popular for some users on the Google platform. There are Swype apps for iOS too, but they cannot fully integrate with Apple's input system.
All this joy and other new features will roll out to Windows Phone users over the coming months, according to Microsoft, which seems to imply a fall introduction.
The real question is whether adding features already on the leading two platforms is sufficient to convince a reasonable number of customers to try the Windows Phone alternative. This game of catchup, however, can't really demonstrate that Microsoft's mobile platform is state of the art. At best, it shows that Microsoft is willing to borrow features from other platforms to enhance Windows Phone. At best.
At worst, you wonder whether Microsoft has any bright ideas on how to build a better mobile OS. Sure, I suppose allowing third parties to access Cortana might deliver some compelling new voice-driven apps. But until that happens, it remains a potential and not a reality.
But are there any truly innovative new features on the horizon for Microsoft? Will acquiring Nokia actually boost sales, or just stall promotion until the handset division is fully integrated? Certainly buying Motorola Mobility didn't do anything for Google, except cost money, and it was sold to Lenovo for a fraction of what they paid for it.
Will Microsoft have to hand off Nokia to yet another company if Windows Phone fails to gain traction? In the past, Microsoft was able to spend loads of money and build new platforms into money-making enterprises. The Xbox is certainly an example of a success, although it took years of pouring cash and more cash into the venture to make it work. But if you consider the losses against the profits, Microsoft will take years to get out from under all that red ink if you count the accumulated costs. But since the company booked huge profits from other products and services during those years, on the whole it doesn't really matter.
This is not to say Windows Phone is a bad OS. It's not, and has received favorable reviews for working well and being different enough from the competition from Apple and Google to stand out among the crowd. That's a positive, and if customers are satisfied, perhaps they will tell their friends, and buy more Windows Phone gear over the years. If Microsoft is willing to wait long enough to sustain losses, perhaps the market share will, some day, match or exceed that of one of the top players. Perhaps.
In fact, some industry analysts have suggested that Windows Phone will beat iOS in the next few years, but there's little indication the platform has enough momentum to realize that far-fetched goal.
This doesn't mean I wouldn't like to see Windows Phone succeed. You see, iOS and Google are two variations on a theme, even though it's clear Apple got there first. Rather than imitate the existing platforms, Microsoft's tiled interface represents a very different approach. Some suggest it works better for those who only want to run a few apps and need quick access to their information. At least it's different, and that might be a good thing for those who aren't enamored of iOS or Android.
Time will tell whether Microsoft, by adding features already on other platforms, can substantially boost the prospects for Windows Phone. However, this week's move, to make Windows licenses free on smaller screens, less than nine inches, may help. But doesn't that decision have "fire sale" written all over it?
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