After years of being in the mobility dumps, Microsoft (MSFT) — along with its primary hardware partner Nokia (NOK) — gradually clawed its way back into contention, overtaking BlackBerry (BBRY) in 2013 to become the third-largest smartphone platform, worldwide.
Windows Phone has also been the fastest growing smartphone operating system, but the reality is that apparent momentum is because its share is so small to begin with (3% in Q4 2013). If Microsoft is to keep up the momentum break into double digits, Windows Phone simply has to get better and be able to compete at the level of Apple’s (AAPL) iOS and Google’s (GOOG) Android.
The Windows Phone 8.1 update is hugely important to Microsoft. And the good news for MSFT is that reaction to the new smartphone operating system — released to developers on April 14 — has been very positive. Ars Technica went so far as to pronounce Windows 8.1 “a magnificent smartphone platform.”
Microsoft has been on a roll in these early days of the Nadella era, and Windows Phone 8.1 seems likely to extend that winning streak when it’s released to the public. Until that time, here are 5 features of the new Windows Phone update that are making waves with developers and reviewers.
The 5 Best Features of Microsoft Windows Phone 8.1: Cortana
One of the most glaring advantages both Android and an iOS have over Windows Phone is in the hot category of intelligent personal assistants.
Siri and Google Now may not be perfect, but they are getting better and represent showcase technology — the kind of features iPhone or Galaxy owners show off to their friends — that Windows Phone completely lacks.
That makes Cortana, the new Bing-powered digital assistant, the star of the Windows Phone 8.1 release.
Named after an AI character from Microsoft’s Halo Xbox games, Cortana is a slick new implementation that combines the best features of Apple’s Siri (doing things for you) with Google Now’s proactive learning and notification. Cortana’s speech recognition is solid, Microsoft added the ability to easily modify what personal information it tracks (via a user-editable Notebook), and it’s adding hooks for developers to be able to integrate Cortana in their apps — something Apple does’t offer with Siri.
When Windows 8.1 is released, Cortana will still be in beta, but already looks to be serious competition for Google Now and Siri.
The 5 Best Features of Microsoft Windows Phone 8.1: Action Center
Live Tiles that display information updated in real time are one of the best features of Windows Phone, and the colorful display helps smartphones running Microsoft’s mobile OS stand out from the pack.
But Windows Phone 8.1 finally introduces a way to quickly see notifications from any app along with a customizable menu for quickly accessing frequently used settings like Bluetooth or Flight Mode.
Action Center is nothing ground breaking, but it does address something Windows Phone has been lacking, meaning that a move to a Windows smartphone won’t mean giving up basic functionality for iOS, Android and BlackBerry 10.
The 5 Best Features of Microsoft Windows Phone 8.1: Sense Capabilities
Microsoft has added a slew of features designed to help a Windows Phone 8.1 user maximize their smartphone battery life, get the most out of their mobile data allowance and optimize storage. These are the “Sense” capabilities.
All smartphones have the ability to tell you how much mobile data you’ve used and provide battery-saving modes.
This new version of Windows Phone packages these functions up into handy features that provide visual representations, historical data and offer easy controls for doing things like setting cellular data download limits, automatically connecting to a Wi-Fi hotspot, compressing images to reduce data use or moving apps from built-in storage to SD cards.
The 5 Best Features of Microsoft Windows Phone 8.1: Calendar
Smartphone users love their calendars. Despite the popularity of its smartphone, Apple was slammed over the iPhone’s calendar app since release, finally addressing the majority of the UI and functionality issues in last year’s iOS 7.
Apple wasn’t the only one taking heat; Microsoft was constantly criticized for its Windows Phone calendar, which lacked basic functionality like a week view.
The company paid particular attention to the Windows Phone 8.1 calendar, adding that weekly view, making it look better in general and including nice touches like displaying the weather forecast on each day. In the developer beta, the Windows Phone 8.1 calendar also supports synchronization with Google Calendar — something that should make for a lot of happy users.
The 5 Best Features of Microsoft Windows Phone 8.1: Overall Improvements
When a company releases an update to its mobile operating system, the spotlight features tend to get the attention, but the other little changes are what make a long-lasting impression.
For example, Siri was the star of iOS 5, but once iPhone users tired of playing with voice recognition, it was the other improvements — like iMessages, wireless iTunes syncing, Twitter integration, banner notifications and camera access from the lock screen — that really made using an iPhone a better experience.
Microsoft has gone all out on Windows 8.1, to the point where it almost feels like a new operating system instead of an upgrade. Dozens of functions and features have been tweaked, from camera functionality to the Word Flow keyboard, web browser and Start Screen customization — even the Windows Phone App Store has been overhauled.
With all the improvements and the addition of marquee features like Cortana, Windows Phone 8.1 is poised to give Microsoft the mobile boost it’s going to need in order to keep growing its smartphone market share.
Windows 8.1 looks like a solid upgrade. Combined with the recent decision to stop charging smartphone manufacturers for Windows Phone licenses and an app store that’s grown to 240,000 titles, the idea that Windows Phone could eventually hit double-digit market share no longer seems like a pipe dream.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.