1. Home screen
One of the most visible improvements in the new Microsoft phone OS is the updated home screen. The tiles are still there, but now they are more dynamic, and dare I say, usable. One of the issues with the Metro-style home screen on Windows Phone was that the promise of live tiles never really came to pass.
First-party apps did some neat stuff by showing off your pictures or social content, but third-party apps failed to take advantage. It was hard to justify adding huge tiles to your home screen that didn’t really do anything useful. The new home screen allows you to resize tiles, like the Windows 8 Start Screen, and the tiles will go all the way to the edge of the display — no more of that odd gap on the right side.
The other big change is that when the size of the tiles is changed, the data it displays will be different. For example, if your SMS tile is small, it will only show an unread count. Make it bigger, and you get the text of the message right on the home screen.
This is all very cool, but Android is still the king of ambient information with its robust widget framework. Android added resizable widgets in Android 3.0, and many of them have additional capabilities like direct playback control and flick scrolling. Android is far more customizable, but it still differentiates between icons and widgets. Windows Phone has found a way to combine the two concepts in a way that makes sense.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have iOS. Apple has resisted calls to make the home screen more customizable. In fact, the iPhone home screen experience is almost unchanged from its 2007 debut. App icons do have badges to show notifications, but that is the extent of ambient information without opening Notification Center where you have a few pseudo-widgets.
2. Core software
Much of what makes Windows Phone 8 new and different is made possible by the switch to from the Windows CE kernel to NT. That’s the same code that runs at the heart of desktop Windows, including the upcoming Windows 8. Microsoft has confirmed that all the Windows Phone 7.5 apps will continue to work on Windows Phone 8, but that’s where the similarities end.
Windows Phone 7 used a controlled development environment relying on Silverlight and XNA. It was easy and user-friendly, but it lacked the power that many developers wanted. There was also little to no opportunity to reuse code from other platforms. With the new OS, say goodbye to all that.
By moving to a new framework, developers will be able to make use of native code in C and C++ along with SQLite and DirectX to make better, faster apps. Microsoft’s big advantage here is that developers will be able to reuse large swaths of code from desktop Windows on Windows Phone, especially on touch screen devices like Surface. Many Windows 8 programs will simply work on Windows Phone 8 without any modifications at all.
All of the best games on iOS and Android are written in a similar way. Apple gives developers simple tools to access the hardware in Xcode, which is why games run so well on that platform. The limited hardware ecosystem makes it easy to target devices.
Android development is a little more unusual. Android runs a modified Linux kernel at its core, but there isn’t any cross-compatibility. Most apps are coded in Java, which is non-native. However, the platform does support native code for more intensive apps. Hardware differences make this a little trickier, but the support is there.
3. Hardware support
Windows Phone has taken some bruises for having limited hardware support. The system itself was reasonably fast, but users are increasingly demanding multi-core processors, HD screens, and real SD cards. Well, Microsoft is delivering on all that thanks to the previously mentioned switch to the Windows NT kernel.
Both dual- and quad-core processors are on the table, which will look nice in those spec-sheet checkboxes. I would consider the expanded resolution support to be much more significant. WVGA simply isn’t going to cut it anymore, so Windows Phone 8 will also have support for WXGA (1280×768) and 720p (1280×720). That kind of panel will make the crisp lines of the OS stand out all the more. All those pixels might even make use of those beefier processors.
Android and iOS have had support for higher resolution screens for some time now. Apple famously coined the term Retina display with the iPhone 4, and Android phones since leapfrogged it with 720p screens. At this point, all three platforms have stellar screens. The only slight edge might go to Android, which has the advantage of faster innovation in hardware. A 1080p phone? If you want it, Android will deliver sooner.
The NT kernel will also enable real SD card support, not that strange half-hearted unified partition method Microsoft used in the early Windows Phones. This will put Windows Phone on even footing with Android, and ahead of iPhone, which uses all-internal storage.
4. Wallet and Maps and Skype
Two new apps in Windows Phone 8 are a direct challenge to Android and iOS. Wallet, not to be confused with Google Wallet, is a unified NFC payment platform and credit card manager. This is a fusion of Google’s faltering payment system and Apple’s newly announced Passbook app. NFC-equipped phones will be able to interact with Isis payment systems at some point in the near future — Microsoft was a little dodgy on the details.
Bing Maps is no more in Windows Phone 8. Instead, Nokia Maps will be aboard all WP8 devices. From the Lumia phones we learned that Nokia Maps is a nice app, and this move will bring turn-by-turn navigation and offline maps to all Windows Phones. This matches what both Android and iOS are doing with their respective map solutions. Having not seen the new iOS Maps or Nokia Maps on WP8 in action, it’s hard to say who will come out on top. It’s going to be the experience of driving with these systems that makes or breaks it. Android’s maps are fantastic, though. Apple and Microsoft have a lot to live up to.
Windows Phone will finally have Skype properly integrated with the system. You’ll still have to download the app, but it will receive calls and work with the dialer like the regular phone app. Android’s system of app interoperability allows similar functionality with any VoIP app. Apple’s iOS lacks proper VoIP integration, but Facetime has the video calls taken care of.
5. Clean updates
Apple updates everything, but removes some features to spur device upgrades. Android has a scattershot approach to updates hobbled by carriers and OEMs. Microsoft promised the best of both systems with a unified ecosystem run by Redmond. Well, that didn’t happen. We now have confirmation, once and for all, that Windows Phone 7 and 7.5 devices are not getting Windows Phone 8. Microsoft is calling do-overs again.
Android’s update system is a mess, but you know going into it how bad things can be. Although, there is always the option of rooting and custom ROMs. Apple takes care of you, but really wants to make the upsell. You know that too.
Can you trust Microsoft’s assurances about device updates this time around? I don’t know how many Nokia Lumia 900 owners will be willing to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt now. The bright spot may be that so few people have jumped onto the Windows Phone bandwagon that, in absolute terms, Microsoft isn’t going to alienate too many people.