"Actually, Windows Phone, when someone gets it in their hands, looks different and moves away from that grid of icons. It's a more fluid interface and more interactive in some ways with the live tiles. That's what Microsoft needs to push hard now," said Ben Wood, director of research at CCS Insight.
Windows Phone 8.1 is available now in a Developer Preview test version, and will ship in final form over the coming months to existing Windows Phone 8 users and on new smartphones.
In addition to new features, Microsoft is also lowering the bar for developers who want to create apps for the OS, the lack of which has been a big stumbling block for Windows Phone. The app gap compared to iOS and Android has shrunk, but it's still there, according to Wood.
With Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows 8.1 Update, developers build "universal" Windows apps once that run with little or no modification in PCs, tablets and smartphones. Developers can use the universal app project template in Visual Studio 2013 Update 2 RC to build these apps using the common Windows Runtime API. They can also modify existing Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 apps and make them "universal" ones.
"The universal apps announcement is inspired," said Stuart Douglas, an independent front-end system developer in the U.K. who plans to take "full advantage" of this new capability.
The universal app concept will be expanded to include the Xbox as well. Games in particular are going to be interesting as developers start taking advantage of the options the concept affords them, according to Sullivan. He envisions titles that combine big screen game play on the Xbox with sensors, cameras and GPS on smartphones and tablets.
To make Windows Phone more attractive to game developers, Microsoft has to make better use of its Xbox consoles, according to Mawston.
Douglas, who has built about five Windows 8 business apps, is impressed with other Windows Phone 8.1 features, like the Word Flow keyboard and new Action Center. He has high expectations for the Nokia deal because he considers the quality of Nokia phones to be on par with those from Apple and Samsung.
"I hope that the acquisition will open a large number of different mobile/tablet devices to enrich the Windows 8 platform," Douglas said via email.
Microsoft also has to make Windows Phone a better fit for low-end smartphones priced under US$100 without a contract, which are becoming increasingly important as much of the future growth in the mobile market is expected in this segment. The Lumia 520 has already shown there is a lot of potential. If that device hadn't been a hit, it's doubtful that Windows Phone would still be around.
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