However, it seems to me that there are still several things Microsoft (and to a lesser extent, Nokia and the other companies making Windows Phones) needs to do to make the next version of Windows Phone more competitive in the market.
Increase the number of commercial applications
I’ve seen stories saying there are 65,000 or even 70,000 Windows Phone applications in the marketplace now. That’s a huge improvement from a year ago, and indeed, in almost every category you can find something you’re looking for. But there are still a few big names missing, and Microsoft needs to work hard to correct this. (My colleague Sasha Segan has a list of some of the most important gaps.)
It’s probably unrealistic to think that developers will typically write for Windows Phone first any time soon – they tend to write for iPhone first, Android second, and then either Windows Phone or BlackBerry – but Microsoft has to work to reduce the time lag.
Allow for faster hardware changes
Since Windows Phone 7 was announced two years ago and the first phones started appearing in the fall of 2010, all of the Windows Phones pretty much run on the same basic hardware specification, with a fixed screen resolution and a particular family of Qualcomm processors (although the speed for the processor in the latest phones has gone from 1 GHz to 1.4 GHz). Apple has pretty much upgraded the processor once a year, and changed the phone resolution just once, when the iPhone 4 came out in 2010. Android supports a large number of processors and many different screen sizes and resolutions. As a result, typically Android phones offer the latest hardware, throughout the year, but the diversity can make it harder for developers to test their applications; while Apple changes things only once a year, so it’s easier on developers, as there are a relatively small number of models to test on.
I don’t expect Microsoft to support as broad a range as Android has, but I would like to see the platform support a broader range than it does, and to move faster with new hardware support.
Make the apps experience easier
On the Lumia, there’s a tile on the home page for the marketplace. This leads you to a screen which leads with ATT Featured apps (including its own Navigator GPS system, cod scanner, and U-verse apps). After the ATT apps, then you see the Nokia collection, which has things like Nokia’s renditions of CNN and ESPN apps, as well as a Creative Studio (Nokia’s picture editing app, which is quite cool – though it shouldn’t be confused with the better known Adobe Creative Studio) and Nokia Drive, its navigation system, Nokia Maps, and Nokia Transist. The third choice gets you to the general apps screen. Yet another home page app sends you to “app highlights,” which includes the apps that Nokia is highlight (not counting its own), then something called “Staff picks” and finally “starter kit”.
It’s just too many choices, and if it’s really to be a starter kit, then that should be first, not buried in a menu. (Also, some of Nokia’s apps are a bit of a pain to install. You install Drive, but the first time you want to use it, you then need to download the Maps. And then you need to install the voice sepearately).
Improve application integration
Making applications work together is often a great part of Windows Phone– the way the People app lets you add in Facebook, Twitter, and Linked In contacts as well as your email ones; or the way the music+video hub can integrate radio apps, videos from apps such as Vevo, etc. But the integration is not quite as complete as I’d like. For instance, the browser now does integrate with Microsoft’s navigation app, but if you’ve installed Nokia Drive, it’s a separate application. Microsoft is clearly moving in this direction – indeed one of the coolest things in Windows 8 is the ability for applications to really work together, using “contracts” so one application can call another. I’d like to see this extended even farther in the next Windows Phone.
You can hold down the back button to see the applications you have run recently, but in general, they don’t really multitask. (You can do things like play music in the background, though.) I understand the tradeoff between battery life and real multitasking, but it’s still an area where Android 4.0 has a lead.
Make the “tiles” more “live”
One of the big differences between the tiles in the Metro user interface and traditional icons is that they can be “live” – in other words, constantly showing you information. The People tile shows faces of people in your social network with updates, the mail tiles show the number of unread messages, weather applications show you the current temperature, and the calendar shows your next appointments. That’s great. But I’d like to see this taken further – how about having the ESPN app show me the scores for my favorite teams or the Facebook apps show me posts from only my most frequent contacts?
Replace the Zune software
To transfer software from your PC to your Windows Phone, you need to download and install the Zune software. While the program itself isn’t bad, and the Zune services are actually pretty nice, it mostly serves as a reminder of Microsoft’s failure in the music player category. A simpler program that transfers files (or just having the phone show up as a device in the OS) would be easier.
Improve enterprise support
It doesn’t get talked about a lot, but in practice, Windows Phone is harder for an enterprise to support than iPhones or Android Phones right now (while BlackBerry still has a lead on everyone). I’d like to see Microsoft focus more on enterprise support tools – from VPN access to active directory support – as well as mobile device management features (both internally and third-party tools).
Given Microsoft’s formidable presence in the enterprise, the continuing weakness in APIs for mobile device management came as a surprise. Several of the MDM vendors are working on it, but it seems to me that this should be a strong point for Microsoft instead of the weakness it now is.
Microsoft is widely expected to release the next version of Windows Phone – Windows Phone 8, known as “Apollo” – in the second half of this year. It’s already widely reported (though not officially confirmed, as far as I know) that it will have improved hardware support and allow for faster changes; and do a better job with enterprise support. I’ll be looking for that, and how well it will address these other issues, and these will be crucial if Windows Phone is to be a real competition in the mobile market.