One Windows: Forget Single OS, Can We Get Some Feature Parity?

one-windows

This week, we have seen some news items about Microsoft and its OS strategy. Based on CEO Satya Nadella’s remarks in the post-earnings conference call, many were led to believe that Microsoft is going to create a single version of Windows. That is of course not true, and what’s happening is also not new information. What is in fact happening is that from an engineering perspective, Microsoft is hard at work to make a single “core” of the OS which will then power devices of various types: phones, phablets, tablets, laptops, PCs, Xbox, and even “things” in the “Internet of Things”. Again, this is not new, because Microsoft has said in very clear language that they want to get there sooner than later.

It is also clear that Microsoft wants to unify the commerce side (Stores) so that you can buy apps for various devices all from one place. They have also announced the concept of Universal apps which let developers share code among various form factors they would like to target, and also enable their customers to buy once on one device and freely download it on other types of devices. Some apps have already taken advantage of the “linkage” so when one downloads the app on Windows tablet, the message on the phone says the app is already “owned” and can be downloaded for free on the phone.

Effectively, what Nadella was implying in his remarks was they are working to unify the engineering and back-end side of things as opposed to the end product itself, when it comes to “One Windows”.

With that backdrop however, I would like to highlight some customer-facing changes that are badly needed in Windows 8.x which already exist in Windows Phone 8.1. These are now glaring deficiencies in Windows as compared to Windows Phone.

Action Center

As you may have read in my earlier article, the Action Center is a well-implemented and a much-needed addition to Windows Phone. It is coming to phones via the latest Windows Phone 8.1 update (rolling out now). It is great to see notifications pile up in the Action Center as opposed to disappearing after showing up as toasts.

Well, guess what. Windows 8.x now feels ancient because the notifications there are never collected anywhere. On the PC, I especially miss this feature for things like calendar and appointment reminders. The Action Center is badly missed on Windows 8.x.

Windows Phone Action Center: Full Notifications (contd)
Windows Phone Action Center: Full Notifications (contd)

Install apps from web

Windows Phone has had the ability to install from the website windowsphone.com to any device attached to a Microsoft account since a long time. It is very convenient because apps are discovered from a variety of sources, and I imagine a bulk of that discovery would come on a desktop PC, browsing technology sites. When you read of an interesting app on a site, you could quickly send it to your phone so you don’t forget about it when you are at the phone.

The Windows Store on the other hand does not support such functionality yet for Windows 8 apps. I can imagine the experience to be very similar to the phone app install, because Windows 8.x devices which use the Store have to have a Microsoft account tied to the Store. So when you browse to the app’s web location, you could click on the install button much like Windows Phone apps’ web locations, and then choose the device you want that install to be on.

Windows Phone Install App from Web
Windows Phone Install App from Web

Keyboard

This one is at the top of my personal wish list because of how bad the situation is on Windows 8.x. I was impressed with Windows Phone keyboard from the day Windows Phone 7 launched. The predictive nature of the keyboard (Word Flow) was miles ahead of the competition, and with Windows Phone 8.1, they added the gesture-based input on the keyboard to make it even more impressive.

On the other hand, I have nothing but frustration to report when using the keyboard on Windows 8.x. It not only cannot do predictive input as well as Windows Phone, it actually does not seem to be learning as I change auto-corrected words. Even after using it for so long, my PC still corrects my name from “Romit” to “Remit” (yes, despite the capitalization).

Windows Phone 8.1: Wordflow with gestures
Windows Phone 8.1: Wordflow with gestures

I know, patience is the answer

I know all of these are natural additions which may be in the works already. I don’t know when they are coming, but it can’t come soon enough because it makes the difference between using Windows Phone and Windows that much more stark.

Do you have any other nifty features you like in Windows Phone which you’d like to see on Windows 8?

Header image from Windows Blogs

Official Rollout of Windows Phone 8.1 Begins. Lumia Cyan Also Released.

 windows-phones

Microsoft announced on July 15 over on the Nokia Conversations Blog that Windows Phone 8.1 is beginning to roll out to general public starting today. In addition, for Lumia devices, Nokia is also making their firmware named Cyan available in tandem.

Windows Phone 8.1: Action Center
Windows Phone 8.1: Action Center

 

As you know, Windows Phone 8.1 is a major update to Windows Phone 8 (despite the .1 name, which is mostly to be in line with Windows 8.1) which includes many features that bring it up to par with iOS and Android, and in some cases, catapult it ahead of those two. For example, Windows Phone finally gets a notification center in the form of Action Center to bring it up to par with iOS and Android. There are many other new and updated features, including:

Cortana

A digital personal assistant with a personality of her own. Many think¬† of it as a good blend of Siri from iPhone and Google Now. It takes the personal nature of Siri and combines it with the ambient and context-aware nature of Google Now, and throws in a privacy-focused “notebook” which stores all the information that one would want the assistant to track. I have used Cortana quite a lot since the developer preview was released and am really happy with how she works, including the recent sports predictions.

Third column of tiles

Previously this feature was only available on the larger, 1080P screen devices but now it is a setting on all Windows Phones. The added density of tiles makes it possible to see even more information on the go, and thereby makes it possible to have more wide tiles which surface more information on the live tiles.

WiFi Sense

 

Windows Phone 8.1: More tiles
Windows Phone 8.1: More tiles

This feature allows one to automatically log in to wireless hotspots, including optionally filling out browser-based login screens which are common at many wifi hotspots. The settings are saved so that the information does not have to be entered over and over again. WiFi Sense also allows one to optionally share wifi username and password with connected contacts (who obviously should be using Windows Phone), so there is no awkward password sharing involved when friends and family visit each other.

Word Flow goes to the next level

The Windows Phone keyboard is one of the best among its competition, especially given the accuracy of its predictions of the next word, but with Windows Phone 8.1, Microsoft added a gesture-based keyboard. This keyboard is similar to the ones found on Android (and coming soon to iOS 8) but combine that gestures with the predictions and you get a fast, fantastic typing experience.

Windows Phone 8.1: Wordflow with gestures
Windows Phone 8.1: Wordflow with gestures

 

Internet Explorer 11

Besides an updated browser engine, Internet Explorer now lets you share favorites, open tabs and most importantly, passwords among Windows devices (as long as they are Windows 8 and above :-)).

New Calendar view

Not only is the Calendar app now a standalone app (as evidenced by updates to the app delivered recently to those who are on the developer preview of Windows Phone 8.1), but it also adds a much-requested week view. The view is very smartly designed because when you tap on the date icon in the app bar below, it keeps the weekly view but simply expands that day of the week. Similarly, if you tap on any other day of the week, it simply expands that day. Tapping it again will switch the view to the daily view.

The Cyan firmware update is applicable to Lumia devices, and as suggested by it being firmware, the update provides lower-level improvements to the device in general. These improvements help Nokia’s great photo applications like Nokia Camera, Creative Studio and Storyteller.

Cyan also delivers a new Device Hub, which is meant to identify devices near you which you can connect to, as well as suggest apps which will be able to take advantage of the connection to the said devices. For example, if it finds a Windows 8 PC nearby, it may suggest Remote Desktop as an app, if it detects a media streaming device like a DirecTV receiver, it may suggest a media streaming app.

For the low-end Lumias like Lumia 520, 525, etc., the HERE Drive app gets bumped up to HERE Drive+. For the high-end Lumias like Lumia 1520 and Lumia Icon, Cyan enables Rich Recording and Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 sound. The high-end Lumias also get improvements in photos with improved colors and even better low-light photos along with RAW images and a new Living Images feature which adds a tiny bit of animation before the shot is taken, to add “life” to the image.

Now, for the not-so-great news. Windows Phone 8.1 and Cyan are available but they have only been delivered to the carriers. The update rolls out based on the carriers’ testing. The good thing is that Nokia is documenting the updates on their page as usual. The page is here.

I have been running the developer preview and I feel it is now up to the developers to bring their apps to the performance level that Windows Phone 8.1 provides, especially on the higher-end devices. I had almost given up on Windows Phone but Cortana and Action Center kept me interested. Along with many new apps coming to the platform, it has become a truly legitimate contender from a features perspective. The market, especially US and China, will of course speak with their wallets, but at this point Windows Phone 8.1 on a recent Lumia is not a bad choice to go for.

Here’s Nokia’s official video walking us through Windows Phone 8.1 and Cyan:

 

All images from Nokia and Windows Phone sites

Windows Phone 8.1’s Action Center is a Winner

On April 14, Microsoft made their latest update to Windows Phone, Windows Phone 8.1, available as a preview. I have been using it on my Lumia 920 since then, and definitely one of the top features I love in this update is the Action Center.

I recently gave up Windows Phone for an iPhone 5s, and one of the reasons was lack of a notification collection system, so it goes without saying that I am really happy to see it come to Windows Phone finally. Hopefully, being last to implement this feature means that the team at Microsoft is able to get the best of all the worlds. At its core, the Action Center is much like the notification mechanism found on Android and iOS. It resembles the Android implementation more because on iOS, the notifications are split from the “quick controls”. I like all of the things Action Center does (and can do, based on developer implementation in apps) and one big request to make it even more awesome.

Just Settings or entire Action Center: The way to invoke the Action Center is by dragging your finger from the top and swiping it down, much like Android and iOS. However, what’s cool with Action Center is that if you drag the finger slowly and stop about a third of the way down, you get access to just the quick settings area and not expose the entire notification area. This is cool, because if you just want to turn WiFi or Bluetooth on/off, you don’t need to necessarily open the entire Action Center. This is a good example of learning from the competition and doing better.

 

Windows Phone 8.1 Action Center: Quick View
Windows Phone 8.1 Action Center: Quick View
Windows Phone Action Center: Full Notifications
Windows Phone Action Center: Full Notifications
Windows Phone Action Center: Full Notifications (contd)
Windows Phone Action Center: Full Notifications (contd)

 

Settings are customizable: The quick settings area shows 4 (or 5 if you have a larger screen with 1080p, like a Lumia 1520) icons to represent settings which you may want to quickly access. You can change any of the icons to some other settings easily. So if you do a lot of tethering and are always on WiFi, you may not want the WiFi icon and may be better off with the tethering icon so you can turn it on or off quickly. Of course, there is also a link to open all settings, which nicely eliminates the need to have the settings app pinned to the Start Screen like I always have had to do.

 

Windows Phone 8.1: Quick Settings icons
Windows Phone 8.1: Quick Settings icons
Windows Phone 8.1: Quick Settings icons 2
Windows Phone 8.1: Quick Settings icons 2

 

Notifications can be dismissed individually or as a group: Another feature I like within the notifications area is that I can dismiss an individual notification without dismissing the entire group. So if I have received a few new email notifications, and I want to keep some in the notifications area as a pseudo-reminder but unclutter the area in general, I can dismiss some of the email notifications that I don’t particularly care to keep. This is not how iOS behaves, and I do think it is a good benefit to have. Of course, one can dismiss the entire group too.

Dismissing notifications resets the tile counter: I really, really like to keep my tile counter (or badges, in iOS) down to zero. So in iOS it annoys me that clearing a notification does not also clear the badge on the app’s icon. It is good to see that in Windows Phone 8.1, at least for the first-party apps like Mail, Messages, etc., clearing notifications also clears the tile counter. I know that third party apps like Facebook and Twitter don’t clear the counter, but I am hoping it is a feature that those apps need to implement and not private APIs that Microsoft is using in their apps. Assuming it is a feature all developers can use, I do hope that all devs take advantage of it and help obsessive-compulsive folks like me rest easy :-)

Developer choices: Another neat improvement over the competition in Windows Phone 8.1 is that developers have the choice of silently updating the notification center, without updating tiles or showing any banners or playing sounds. This is good because in some scenarios, just adding a notification to the notification area is enough and a user’s attention need not be taken away from whatever they are doing. Giving this choice to the developer and perhaps in turn, the developer offering these type of configurations to the user, means potentially more satisfaction with the device on the customer’s part.

 

Windows Phone 8.1: List of apps with notification settings
Windows Phone 8.1: List of apps with notification settings
Windows Phone 8.1: Tile count
Windows Phone 8.1: Tile count
Windows Phone 8.1: Setting custom notification sound
Windows Phone 8.1: Setting custom notification sound
Windows Phone 8.1: Notification settings
Windows Phone 8.1: Notification settings

 

Having said all that, there is of course one really important feature that is missing from Action Center, which does exist on Android. It is actionable notifications. This is where if there is a notification about a tweet reply, you could potentially reply to the tweet from the notification center itself, without having to open the app. If this choice is given to the developers, it would make the Action Center even more awesome.

Regardless though, this addition is immensely useful, and I am now seriously tempted to start using my Lumia 920 more than I use my iPhone 5s.