It was about two years ago when Microsoft reached out to me as a someone already (in)famous for living without a cell phone for 5 years. Their pitch: give the new Windows Phone platform a try for a month and tell them what I thought. And from then on, I quietly began using a smartphone again. Fast forward to Monday this week and I found myself being courted to check out the latest from Redmond...
I first began using a Windows Phone-powered Samsung Focus, which proved to be a solid first smartphone, later switching to various bigger-better Windows Phone models (the HTC Titan being my favorite), occasionally inserting a few Android devices into the mix as I began reviewing smartphones for the site.
Today, I find myself amongst the myriad of Apple iPhone users, the fifth iteration my primary device. But as friends and colleagues have often heard me complain, I've always pined for the simplicity and informative versatility of what was once called the "Metro" live tile UI (now officially labeled as "Modern UI" by Microsoft), as I'm still beholden to the graphic charm and functional utility of the live tile language that first convinced me smartphones were actually getting smarter.
Still, the OS-previously-known-as-Metro was equal parts unrealized potential as it was hinting of something beyond the static iconographic user experience offered by either Android or iOS. Live tiles only partially or infrequently updated, and some of Windows Phone's quirks were further magnified by the mobile operating system's lack of developer support and mind-boggling hardware spec limitations (explained as a strategy to standardize the platform across manufacturers). There was just enough "hits" to offset the "misses" that I found myself becoming a newfound fan of the world's biggest underdog, Microsoft, but enough misses I became curious enough to explore beyond a monogamous commitment to sow my proverbial oats with a Galaxy here, an iPhone there.
This was my first Microsoft announcement event, and the press attending ranged from enthusiastic Windows Phone users to jaded iOS and Android entrenched devotees. Outside, before the show, I spoke to a few attendees about our expectations: faster and multi-core processors, higher screen resolutions, near field communications, more RAM, better cameras, and the usual suspect of specs-geek wishlist items. But the biggest knock against the Windows Phone platform has been the deficiency of premium cross-platform apps. Where was Pandora? Pinterest? And most importantly for an iPhone/Android photo-sharer, Instagram?
Shortly after we were guided inside the Bill Graham Auditorium (just across the street from where the city was going to celebrate their SF Giants' World Series victory) and greeted by Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president of Windows Phone, the heart and face of Microsoft's mobile platform.
Belfiore kickstarted the presentation with an update about the 120,00 apps now available for Windows Phone (Pandora revealed as their most notable app addition), alongside several new baked-in features to their latest operating system, including a new Windows Phone 8's Lock screen. Now highly customizable instead of a static background and clock, users can now assign 3rd party apps like Facebook as live-updated notifications viewable at a glance. So far, so good.
Another heralded and potentially money-saving feature built into Windows Phone 8 is the announcement of Data Sense, an information-rich app which auto-compresses web pages to trim down data use, while also sniffing out nearby available wi-fi networks, and also displaying how much bytes specific apps use for improved data allocation/management. Initially, this feature will only be supported by Verizon in December, with Belfiore hinting at additional providers joining at a later time.
Then there's Rooms, a information and planning sharing feature which improves on the previous Windows Phone 7's Groups management. Privately share calendars, location, notes, and images with a specified group of users. The idea is very similar to Google+'s Circles in concept, and each "Room" can be pinned to your Start screen for easy-glance notifications.
Parents who often hand over their smartphone to their child as a discrative option while out and about might be especially impressed by the Kid's Corner feature. Basically, the new operating system has created a multi-user "guest mode"...the guest being your own child(ren). Set up a password (hopefully) only known by you, designate which apps, games, and files are available for your child at a left-swipe, then hand over with the confidence your little tyke can't mess with options, settings, or access photos and files that are meant only for Mom or Dad.
After inviting his own trio of cute children to showcase the Kid's Corner feature, Microsoft invited actress and mom, Jessica Alba, with much fanfare to promote the parent-friendly features of Windows Phone 8 with Belfiore onstage to a varying degree of success (as some tweets pointed out, her Instagrams prove she's not fully committed to her Windows Phone powered device just yet).
Jessica Alba sharing a story and screenshot about the time her child nabbed her iPhone and tweeted for her.
And finally, and perhaps most importantly, Windows Phone 8 finally permits users to customize Live Tile sizes, inviting users to designate importance and information specific to their needs. Minimize the static Options and Explorer tiles down to the smallest thumbnail, while stretch out your People and Photo tiles to stretch horizontally all the way across so you can see as many updates and as much as possible. The results are a very dynamic and personalized UI go toe-to-toe with Android's often cited customization options (which usually aren't as intuitive nor n00b-friendly).
Serious Mode Steve Ballmer: Engaged!
The presentation was capped by the appearance of Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer, who came out with his game face on, outlining with much gravitas about Microsoft's commitment to making Windows Phone 8 the most user-friendly mobile platform, while also stepping up commitment to improved hardware (disappointingly without the unbridled sweaty zeal he's become reknowned for), bringing Belfiore and Alba on stage to conclude with an Oprah-esque surprise: WINDOWS PHONES FOR EVERYONE! [cue background stage curtains open to reveal Microsoft show team with hundreds of HTC 8X smartphones waiting for all attendees].
I've just setup the HTC 8X and can quickly note it's possibly the most comfortable smart device I've used right off the bat; the matte "California Blue" polycarbonate form factor is satisfyingly grippy without being sticky, the screen is vibrant and large without being a challenge to thumb-navigate one handed. On the flipside, preliminary camera comparisons shows only a moderate improvement compared to the previous generation HTC Radar we had on us, while falling short in detail and dynamic range compared side-by-side to the iPhone 5 (alongside the disappointment with the no-show of an Instagram announcement).
I look forward to seeing whether Windows Phone 8 offers enough to convince me back into the fold, and whether the latest Redmond designed operation system addresses some of the issues that let me slowly drift away to try out other devices (to quote those Irish pop stars, I still haven't found what I'm looking for). I'll be using the 8X is my primary device for the next several weeks with a future full featured review to follow, alongside an upcoming Nokia Lumia 920 review...more to come in the coming weeks as we become reacquainted with the new Windows Phone 8.
(Images: Gregory Han)