Windows Phone 8.1: Nice update but hurdles remain the same

The developer preview of Windows Phone 8.1 checks off a lot of boxes, but it unclear whether any of the changes---including the new Cortana voice assistant---will move the adoption needle.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Microsoft has released its Windows Phone developer preview and there's a fair amount of gushing going on. But the challenges for Windows Phone remain the same.


Ars Technica's Peter Bright calls the latest Windows Phone magnificent. ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley noted that Windows Phone 8.1 is a "huge step up" for business users as Microsoft added enterprise VPN and SSL VPN gateways built in. Cortana, Microsoft's version of Apple's Siri, also works well. CNET's Jessica Dolcourt said "Cortana mostly keeps pace with its rivals, and introduces one or two minor innovations that Apple and Google can learn from."

Windows Phone 8.1 Developer Preview screenshot gallery

In many respects, Windows Phone 8.1 checks off a lot of boxes in comparisons to Android and Apple's iOS. The song for Windows Phone, however, remains the same: The OS is a solid No. 3, but has some major hurdles to garner more adoption. Perhaps No. 3 is good enough---for the mobile ecosystem a third place player is critical---but Microsoft likely wants more.

A look at the hurdles, which go beyond core software and hardware, in many respects.

  • Retail. Seeing a Windows Phone device or Nokia Lumia in the field with random people is still a rare event. Microsoft and Nokia need a broader presence with carriers and distribution. Stores seem to push the iPhone and Samsung devices first and Microsoft and Nokia have thrown money at the issue with little payoff.
  • Uncertainty about Nokia after Microsoft's purchase. Microsoft is about to acquire Nokia and the overall strategy is a bit unclear going forward. Will Nokia really follow through on its Android low end device? How about support? Microsoft is likely to integrate Nokia well, but any uncertainty is bad for an underdog.
  • Apps. Windows Phone is working toward fixing its app deficit and Microsoft's move to offer universal apps is an important one for developers. The catch is that Windows 8 hasn't been a juggernaut either. Exhibit A on the Windows Phone app conundrum for me: SiriusXM still ignores the platform. I need Howard Stern in the morning and the lack of a Windows Phone app makes Windows Phone a non-starter. Period. And frankly I don't have the time to assign blame to either side. Wake me up when the app is there.
  • Adoption. It would be a lot easier to hop on the Windows Phone bandwagon with more mass appeal. Just last week, I saw a person with a big yellow Nokia Lumia and the office quips all revolved around whether that guy worked for Microsoft. Not that all consumers are sheep, but most are. There's network effect that Windows Phone lacks relative to iOS and Android. More adoption could make Windows Phone more of a bring your own device play and attract developers.

Unfortunately, Cortana could jump out of the Windows Phone, fetch your coffee and perhaps do a cartwheel as an avatar and those aforementioned challenges will remain. Microsoft is making strides, just not enough to alter the inertia equation.

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