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

iOS Bulks Up with iOS 8

On June 2, at its Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC), Apple unveiled the next version of its iOS mobile operating system among many other announcements. iOS 8 will introduce a bevy of features, many of which have huge platform implications.

Many of the new features, both consumer-facing and developer-oriented, seem to be pointed squarely at the “power users”. Such users are the ones who may have switched to or prefer Android because of a lot of capabilities in that operating system which iOS did not have or allow until now. But let’s just consider it the natural evolution of the iOS platform, now at over 800 million users (a stat Apple CEO Tim Cook stated in his keynote at the event).

Let’s take a look at some of the key features that Android and to a lesser extent, Windows Phone offer, which lure customers to those platforms, and how iOS 8 has responded to those.

  • Third party keyboards
  • Actionable notifications
  • Widgets
  • App-to-app communication and sharing
  • Google services, including the contextual Google Now
  • Larger choice of devices of various form factors, mostly larger screens

Keyboard improvements

Windows Phone introduced Word Flow, which is to this day, the best predictive keyboard I have used. It is a way by which the system can provide the next few words that you may be about to type, based on what you start typing. For example, if you type “how are”, there is a good chance you want to type “you” next, and the predictive nature of the keyboard will prompt “you”, and maybe a couple of other options like “things” or “the”. iOS gets such a feature finally. It is very similar in nature to Word Flow but obviously it is something the iOS keyboard has missed all this time. No more.

iOS 8 Predictive Keyboard
iOS 8 Predictive Keyboard

Third-party keyboards

In what I thought was a surprising move, Apple also announced that they are going to let third parties provide their keyboards so customers can replace the system keyboard with a third-party keyboard. That is huge because the likes of Swiftkey and Swype have made a name for themselves in the Android world, and users of those keyboards claimed it is a big enough reason for them not to move back to iOS. Already, several key names have announced their keyboards are coming to iOS 8, which is not surprising at all.

iOS 8 Third Party Keyboards
iOS 8 Third Party Keyboards

Interactive notifications

Apple’s Notification Center, while a decent imitation of Android’s notification center, is a bit clunky. Even the upcoming Action Center in Windows Phone 8.1 does a better job managing notifications. So it is no surprise that Apple decided to make some changes and one of the big changes is the interactive notifications. Android has this feature already, where quick actions can be taken on notifications that land in the notification center, without opening the apps. Interactive notifications aim to do the same, and more importantly, Apple has decided to open it up to third parties from day one. That means, developers can enable quick actions like Facebook’s Like and Comment, Twitter’s Retweet and Replies, etc. directly in the Notification Center. Obviously it is a big deal on Android because of the productivity gains, and it was about time iOS implemented the same. (As a part-time Windows Phone user, I do hope this feature is on its way on that platform as well. It is badly needed.)

iOS 8 Interactive Notifications Calendar
iOS 8 Interactive Notifications Calendar
iOS 8 Interactive Notifications Mail
iOS 8 Interactive Notifications Mail
iOS 8 Interactive Notifications Messages
iOS 8 Interactive Notifications Messages
iOS 8 Interactive Notifications
iOS 8 Interactive Notifications
iOS 8 Interactive Notifications 3rd Party
iOS 8 Interactive Notifications 3rd Party

Widgets

The other big improvement in the iOS Notification Center comes in the form of widgets. This has been another ding against iOS until now because Windows Phone first introduced Live Tiles which enable quick information that app developers can provide to customers via the app icon(s) flipping and updating. Android later added widgets which were sub-sections of the apps that could be placed on a home screen and provided snippets to live information to the customers. With Widgets, iOS 8 somewhat addresses this “gap” by enabling developers to provide live updates, although in the Notification Center, not in the app icon or on the home screen like the competition. So the widget will look like a notification but it will have more real estate and will be able to take more forms vs. a text update. For example, score updates during a game could show the two team names and scores by quarter.

iOS 8 Widgets
iOS 8 Widgets

This is hugely welcome news, for customers and developers alike. For customers, it means more than just text updates and for developers, it is somewhat of a parity with other platforms as well as another way to keep their customers engaged with the app.

As for app-to-app communication, Apple has made it possible for apps to communicate and share data with each other. Although the details are more important than the announcement in terms of how useful this feature is, it is remarkable that after so many years of keep each app limited to itself, Apple has decided to enable inter-app communication which has been a stable in Android as well as Windows 8 and Windows Phone.

When it comes to Google services, they are already available on iOS in the form of various apps, including Google Now. Although this has prompted many customers to consider Android, where the integration with the phone is even tighter, I suspect it will also make it easier for them to make the return trip going from Android back to iOS.

Finally, although perhaps it may be an even more compelling reason for normal users to try Android, there is this thing about larger screen phones. It is rumored and by now almost a given that Apple will be introducing phones with larger screens this Fall, which is usually when they update their hardware. A larger screen iPhone will almost certainly be a hit, if the popularity of large screen devices running Android are any indication. It will be interesting to see how Apple handles the application UI. When they introduced the iPad, they had an elegant (although ugly) option of a “2x” mode. It will be interesting how they handle the larger real estate and yet, make developers’ work to address the larger screen, minimal.

Some other important updates from Apple with regard to iOS, not so much related to Android, but definitely showing signs of bulking up:

iCloud Photo Library

Until now, the Photostream feature backed up photos from all our iDevices automatically, but it was limited in storage. Apple also announced at WWDC that they are moving to an “iCloud Photo Library” which would store all photos *and* videos in full resolution, from all our iDevices. The first 5GB is free but instead of the currently expensive storage purchase options, Apple is also introducing inexpensive storage that can be purchased for what they refer to as iCloud Drive. Effectively, much like SkyDrive camera Roll in the Windows world, and Google+ Photos in the Google/Android world, the iCloud Photo Library is the entire photo library, always available in the cloud and all the Apple (Mac and iOS) devices and Windows 8 PCs. All edits made on one device are instantly available on all other devices. For a company that has not been at the forefront of well-implemented cloud services, the proof of the pudding will lie in the tasting, but as of now, it seems like Apple gets it and is on the right track. Also, in another move that shows Apple is opening up in a way they have not done traditionally, they have enabled other apps to integrate their editing tools and filters within the new Photos app.

iCloud Photo Library
iCloud Photo Library
iCloud Photo Library
iCloud Photo Library

Messaging updates

In what seems like a carpet bomb attack on WhatsApp, Facebook messenger and Snapchat all at once, Apple’s iMessage will now support audio messages, video messages, group messaging and automatically disappearing messages. Apple also added the ability to share location which is very handy when coordinating meetups with groups. So instead of relying on several different apps (and therefore, different logins, different address books, etc.), you can do the same with the default messaging app, only as long as everyone you communicate with is on iPhone :-) But that has been the modus operandi for Apple from day one, so there is nothing out of the ordinary in that strategy.

iOS 8 Messaging Voice
iOS 8 Messaging Voice
iOS 8 Group Messaging Details
iOS 8 Group Messaging Details
iOS 8 Group Messaging
iOS 8 Group Messaging
iOS 8 Share Location
iOS 8 Share Location
iOS 8 Expiring Messages
iOS 8 Expiring Messages
iOS 8 Messages Record Video
iOS 8 Messages Record Video

iOS 8 is claimed to be a bigger update than when Apple announced the mobile App Store and it certainly seems like there are many huge changes coming in iOS 8 for iOS developers which may end up increasing the app quality gap between iOS and Android even more than it is today. iOS is still usually the first platform for mobile developers to build their innovative solutions and experiences. With these changes, despite the rocketing market share of Android devices, Apple is poised to make it even more worthwhile for developers to build for their platform(s).

 

(All images via Apple’s website)

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.