Joe Belfiore answers many important questions regarding Windows Phone

Joe_Belfiore_AMA

“Windows Phone Guy” Joe Belfiore from Microsoft did his first AMA on Reddit today, he answered a lot of questions regarding Windows Phone and its current state.  He announced that an official file manager is making its way to the official Windows Phone 8.1 update, which is due in about a month, he gave us a glimpse of it. We learned there will be major updates to Facebook and Skype soon and that Microsoft is pursuing Snapchat for an official app. Here are  all the answers Joe Belfiore managed to provide us with today on Reddit – Source: Reddit :

Joe talks about strategy and feature gap compared to Android & iOS…

“As you folks know, MS’ mobile strategy had a big reset back in 2009 when we changed our model for WP7. At the time, the iPhone had shipped with a new approach to mobile– touch enabled, big screen, new functionality.

To react to this we had to implement a new system — a new UI, a whole bunch of apps we hadn’t built ourselves (interestingly: the old “Windows Mobile” that MSFT shipped didn’t even have a dialer– it had to be built separately by each OEM!)… and there was a LOT of work to get the same set of features built.

So… I’d say we’ve acknowledged plenty of times over the past few years that we’ve had features missing relative to iOS or Android. Some of this was intentional decisions to be focused– we did NOT focus on Enterprise/Corporate at first– but then we did.

I’d say with WP8.1 the feature gap is ALMOST completely closed. As mobile is much more mature now, it’s less likely that ANY platform will have ALL the features of its competition — and that’s what makes one platform fit certain people better.”

Why did the developer program take so long? Was it a broken promise?

“Let’s talk ‘broken promises’ and ‘second-class citizen’ treatment.”

“We sure as heck try not to break promises. The thing that’s tricky is WHAT YOU PROMISE.. And it’s amazing how much the internet gives things a “life”.

Last summer we said we’d enable developers to get updates separately from the carrier-approval process. It took us longer than we would have liked to roll — this out… but the reason for that was a combination of work we had to do to implement the program AND the fact that the updates we were shipping early in the year wouldn’t have had as much value for existing phones.

We knew we had BIGGER updates coming later– the Update 3 last year not only had some solid features in it for everyone (rotation lock, driving mode, storage sense updates) but also carried Update 2 with it. BY THEN it really mattered to get it out. Plus we knew 8.1 was coming, so we wanted the system up and running.

In this case I’d say it took us longer, but I wouldn’t say it was a “broken promise” (though I can see how people felt that way for some months).”

Is Microsoft treating Windows Phone as a ‘second-class citizen’ when it comes to feature and services roll-outs?

“Microsoft DOES NOT treat WP as a second class citizen! We have a very senior, well-funded team that has amazing support from our senior leadership and from other groups.

What does happen time to time is that teams who are working on cross platform work make prioritization decisions (or are limited by the nature of WP itself) such that features show up on other platforms first — we are a company about devices AND SERVICES and when you think about something like Skype it’s important that they remain compelling and competitive on other platforms as well.

As a general rule, we work with teams to make sure WP users aren’t lacking in benefits… and all the teams here are getting better and better at this… Skype now has WP-specific benefits, the Remote Desktop client is out, etc.”

How does Microsoft plan to tackle app development issues with Windows Phone?

“There’s no silver bullet here… Apps, like most things in software development, are a marathon, not a sprint. And I’m not claiming we’ve nailed it – as you point out, there is more work to do. Fundamentally, the ISVs who write these apps are making business decisions about how they can make the most money– and as WP has grown, and as MS has invested time & money in the apps, and as the platform has gotten better/stronger… more and more apps have shown up.

So — sitting in 3rd place, it’s tougher for us to get the apps– but I do think that we’ve made great progress in the last couple of years. We’re not resting on our laurels. We (and not just we.. I) are visiting ISVs, looking for ideas that can help them grow their volume and user engagement, providing them with funding and development help – and in some cases we are even using our own team/devs to write apps ourselves.

You’re seeing these results through both well-known apps SHOWING UP (Instagram last year) as well as higher average user ratings per app on the store – we look at ALL sides of the issue. Right now we’re MOSTLY focused on continuing to GET the key apps– although lately with more of these present, we’ve shifted a bit towards improving the current ones.

You mentioned Skype and FB — on Skype, we have new version in development that our team (and me) have been using and it certainly helps with performance– we’ll keep going– and on Facebook, we’ve been working with FB on an update to that app too, targeted for the June timeframe – this update brings improvements to performance, having full-width photos in the newsfeed, and seeing photos & comments at the same time.”

What do you think is the feature that can make someone choose Windows Phone over other platforms?                                                           

“Right now, it’s not ONE FEATURE. It’s the way the whole system is designed and what it’s about. We think WP is the MOST PERSONAL SMARTPHONE– and that’s a combo of features, starting with live tiles and now Cortana makes it even more personal. This is kind of a mantra for the team– we’re serious about this. We’re balancing a unique, attractive visual appearance with letting the user customize it a ton. We really want your phone to feel like your “fingerprint” … better than any other phone.”

Will Cortana come to Windows 8?

“Nothing specific to announce, but Cortana herself is always telling us she’s a fan of PCs herself.”

Will Cortana ever be able to toggle actions (such as turning off Wi-Fi when you leave a place)?

“You can turn Wi-Fi on/off by speaking in the developer preview now, but cool suggestion to do this automatically based on location.”

Why are games listed in the main app list in 8.1? Will this change in a future update?

“This was a close call for us –- this kind of situation happens a lot in design… I call it a “45/55 thing”. In this case, we made the change (to the “55” 🙂 because we found through usability testing quite clearly that NEW USERS to our platform sometimes had a hard time finding games.. so we chose to optimize for these new users. It’s reasonable to suggest having an option for this in the future… something we’ll explore.”

Star Wars or Star Trek?

“Star Wars. Sorry fribbley. :)”

How long do you think can Google continue not-developing official apps for Windows Phone?

“We think we’ve developed an awesome platform with Windows Phone, and definitely look forward to welcoming Google’s apps on it. We have these apps high on our “want list” so it’s something we’ve invested in (ahem, YouTube) and are absolutely willing to continue investing in.

Unfortunately, the apps are Google’s and I can’t say when they will act. Only our friends in Mountain View know timing.

You should ping them! (Often!)”

There’s currently a long time lag between announcing a new phone/OS and having the product actually available. Is Microsoft doing anything to address this?

“The time-lag thing is tricky. It depends on: – what LEAKS. (We can’t prevent these, and they make people start looking for stuff that may be a ways off). – When we ANNOUNCE. We have to balance early announcements (better for ISVs to get apps ready on the new platform) against waiting to announce close to availability (more fun for end users because you hear about something and then, poof, it’s ready to go. Also — done right, this can help sales because people will hear excitement and then head to a store and find a phone ready to buy.)

We are trying to strike this balance in a better way — with WP8.1, the announce was aimed at devs and just days later we had the developer preview in everyone’s hands, so the MOST motivated users (and there are a LOT of you!) can get the software quickly.

We expect to keep our pace of updates similar to what we did last year– we are pretty proud that we shipped three software updates last year, and we’re already working on some cool stuff that I know you’ll like.

On HARDWARE — it’s trickier. Up until now (welcome Nokia!) it was different companies doing this work, and they had to sync their schedules with ours. We do think that for first party phones, the acquisition will help with time to market… and you’ve seen us already announce new phones at the same time as announcing the software. I can’t comment on any new phones that might be coming– but of course Nokia and other partners have a bunch of stuff in progress.

Last — we’re doing plenty to help HW partners get devices to market faster in general. At build, we showed some phone prototypes for India and China that partners took only a few months to get running.

Overall, we feel like we have made some progress in getting to a higher velocity, but we know we have more we can do, and I think you will see us continue to accelerate where we can.”

Is Snapchat app coming to Windows Phone?

“Yep, talking”

Are there any plans to give Xbox Music the love and support needed to bring it back to par to what Zune was capable of even before the advent of the Windows Phone 7?

“Music is a good topic for this AMA… lots of interest!

There’s a balancing act we’re trying to effectively walk here… (1) We have a super-valuable audience of subscribers who’ve been with us since Zune, and who value subscription, etc… And at the same time (2) we’re selling the significant volume of phones to people who are NOT Xbox Music (Zune) subscribers and (based on needing to pay a monthly fee) aren’t likely to become subscribers. They use music “simply”.

SO … we’re trying to build an experience that runs cross device on your PC, your Xbox, your Phone– in a service-oriented way (think: cloud collection)… but simultaneously work for the hordes of people who manually sync content using the shell or iTunes. Getting both of these right has been challenging.

We moved away from the PC Zune client in the interest of serving the broadest phone-buying audience in the way they already knew. We learned that many people who ALREADY USED iTunes or the shell viewed learning a new Zune client as a “speed bump” in the way of getting going on a new phone. So, we changed the structure to appeal better to those people.

The new experience in WP8.1 Dev Preview will get us to one system that works GREAT for “ordinary side loaders” (it works with the Windows Shell) AND for people who use multiple devices and are more “cloud-oriented”. It’s re-architected to handle both of these well– and in particular we’re shipping it as an app on the phone and have committed to regular updates which will make a BIG difference over the next few months. You’ve seen one already and more are on the way.

Upcoming in the app: you’ll see performance improvements (we hear you!), better stability, UI improvements (some of you have been asking for a “swipe” to change tracks), etc. etc. Do take a “months” time view of this, as there’s plenty of stuff in the pipeline.”

Is there any plan that Windows team will bring ALL the basic apps to Windows Phone such as Alarm and Sound Recorder anytime soon?

“We’ll do more ourselves– but while WE are always working on various apps, I would also encourage you to work with the /r/windowsphone subreddit because I know there are devs on here who are looking for ideas of what apps to build.

We love seeing the community add-value here too!”

I have WP 8.1 and it’s really cool. Still, it obviously has a few flaws that need fixing. For instance, Nokia headset’s button isn’t working, non-Cortana Bing search is just a site link, etc. Can we expect to have another major update before WP 8.1 goes public?

“Developer preview is NOT final… There’s client-side software fixes we’re still making, when UPDATES go out to existing phones they will come with “BSP” (low-level phone firmware) updates from the OEMs… and the Services (Cortana) are continually getting improved. SO… when you get an official update or buy a new phone, it’ll be more polished than what you folks have now.

In terms of timing… no specific dates to mention, and keep in mind that the software updates will vary by phone and carrier. Do keep in mind our history last year with updates to get a sense of how we think about this.

In terms of the specific issues you hit — the dev preview has gone very well from our POV, with hundreds of thousands of “devs” having downloaded it so far (smile), and we’ve been closely monitoring feedback on the platform, features like Cortana, action center, etc.

And since you mentioned this, it’s a good opportunity to mention our UserVoice site –windowsphone.uservoice.com. The team uses this site A TON to help structure and prioritize feedback on what customers want to see in the product. Yes, I read it myself and I FREQUENTLY send links to people on the team when I need help winning an argument. One of my favorite stories from a previous release about how we use UserVoice was how you can now configure the button in the browser address bar to do what you want – e.g. favorites or tabs. Everyone who voted on that feature, THANK YOU for making your voice heard.”

What is the most outlandish/futuristic idea you guys have ever wanted to implement, but technology is a limiting factor?

“Well, speaking for what I PERSONALLY would most like us to implement… a small phone that will fit in my small pockets… But that has HUGE screen size.

Does your team realize the downside of limiting Cortana to the US for the beta?

“Cortana in other countries: We’re definitely working to bring Cortana to other countries. She tells us she’d like to travel. We’ve already announced that when we launch V1 after Beta, we’ll be in China and the UK as well as the US. We’re also hoping to get other English-speaking countries (e.g. Canada, Australia) out relatively quickly as well. The challenge in doing this is we want the Cortana experience to be EXCELLENT for everyone -– and this involves not ONLY delivering great voice recognition for all the different languages, but also making sure that we have a great regional experience with local content so she doesn’t feel like an American!

In the meantime, we’re thrilled that people are trying it out in other countries and we use that data to train the system. It’s helpful to get accents and hear other queries, and we can detect WHERE these are coming from to help improve the experience later.”

Why is the Settings screen still an unordered mess, in 8.1?

“Yeah, I agree this could be better — it’s something we intend to address in the future. For now, we’ve tried to organize it by the most frequently used setting. But we realize that’s tricky because people are SO DIFFERENT in what they care most about. Action Center’s configurable buttons helps with that– and btw, we hear many of you asking for extra buttons (e.g. cell on/off) in Action Center and I’m optimistic we’ll be able to oblige… but no promises here.”

Why is the local phone search via the Search button dependent on an internet connection?

“Although we do always put you in the ‘web’ pivot when you do a search, you can swipe over to see results from your phone – even when you are offline.”

Why is the touch target for closing the action center so small?

“Hadn’t heard this issue below… as a tip, you can also hit the back button to close the action center.”

When will the Store search have any kind of filtering?

“Good feedback… We’re always thinking about new ways to make our apps more discoverable and generally add the things people are asking for most.”

Is there any plans for file managers on WP?

“WOO HOO! SOMEONE ASKED THIS QUESTION!! I’ve been waiting! in fact, I’ve avoided tweeting on this very topic just for all you redditors. Seriously.

in fact– you GET A CORTANA T-SHIRT FOR ASKING!! 🙂 (PM me your size and we’ll get it to you.)

*** YES *** We are doing a File Manager for WP8.1! I know a LOT of you are looking for this (thanks for the tweets, I’ve read them all). In fact, I’ve been running a build of it on two of my phones for the last week or so and it’s getting to pretty good shape.

Here’s what it looks like: http://imgur.com/a/hvqGD#nRuOFXp

We are expecting to get it into the store HOPEFULLY by the end of May.”

Are there any “easter egg” on Win 8.1 that most people don’t know?

“Hmm.. easter eggs.. related to an AMA… maye you should ask Cortana if SHE’D ever do an AMA.

here’s what she told me… http://imgur.com/2WpVGfm

We seem to be on a feature backtrack with our updates. 8.0 lost radio, 8.1 killed music, Me integration, Photo Hub integration, and Windows Phone pales in comparison to our syncing options we had with Zune. What’s the reason for this? Can we expect some of this stuff to come back?

“Let’s talk Radio first… FM Radio wasn’t in the initial launch of 8.0 because it wasn’t finished when we made the base-level OS change to the Windows NT core… so it came in the first update. From your POV as a WP7.5 user, it “disappeared” (yes) and then came back. From our POV, we swapped out the kernel and didn’t finish this part of the work for a few months. This aspect is one of the tougher parts about software development, we sometimes have to make tradeoffs in terms of features and time as a result of technical change that has benefits that are WAY less visible to users.

Let’s take the social integration in 8.1 as another good example of tradeoffs that some of you don’t see without an explanation. When we had Facebook and other SNs deeply integrated into the OS code, it was very challenging (and we got a LOT of feedback from customers about this) on two counts (1) because we were missing a number of desired features –- like being able to “Like” a photo and (2) because it limited our ability to do great international support for the key social networks around the world. As you’ve seen on other questions here, when we end up doing something that doesn’t work worldwide, that causes users pain too. There’s an old phrase that’s been used at Microsoft for a long time about how creating big software projects is like ordering pizza for a million people.. and there’s a lot of truth to that.

So after a few releases of getting feedback that people LOVE the UX being integrated but are frustrated by the limitations… we decided to go with the app-powered model for social integration in 8.1. This approach empowers the individual services as well as individual devs. Now new social networks can be added at ANY TIME via an app update, and thus a lot of people around the world will get a feature they’ve missed entirely. Furthermore, by linking to the app, we have a mechanism for “deep users” to get access to “deeper features” in a nice, natural way.

I’m not saying we got it perfect out of the gate – but there are real advantages to the app-powered model in the long run. Besides what I mentioned above, it will get better over time as the apps get updated. For example I mentioned in another reply that we’re working with Facebook on an update to the fb app that improves performance, and that’s in turn going to make the social integration experience better. We’re working with others developers on this too.

I would encourage ALL developers to look at this integration as an opportunity – and work with us together to make it better. Give us feedback, write integrated apps, use integrated apps, give developers feedback, etc. etc. etc. Let’s make it happen together.

On PHOTO HUB … we changed the design because we got actual telemetry data on what people ACTUALLY CLICKED. By far, the most clicks when people opened Photo Hub were to go to the camera roll — and only .5% of clicks were to a 3rd party app. The re-design in WP8.1 addresses this, putting the FREQUENT task right up front and making the other tasks generally available but in a different place.”

How are you working with other division (office, onedrive, xbox team and so on) on their hub/application on Windows Phone?

“We spend a TON of time with people from other divisions.

I have regular 1-1 meetings with my counterparts in Office, Skype, and Xbox. Our teams have a standing process at every milestone for jointly reviewing our work, and we use each other’s products deeply.

The environment at Microsoft has been great for us to get better and better at this… And although we sure have room to improve, it’s a place that I think has become a strength.”

Windows Phone is so awesome, but the carriers in Canada make it hard to be a fan here. Rogers tried to talk me out of buying my 920 and made it really hard to get it off contract. Will Microsoft please start selling Lumia Windows Phones unlocked on their online store? Apple and Google both give us this option. Microsoft needs to step up their game here.

“Carrier Exclusive phones…in the US and Canada, the carriers value having exclusive phones because they are reasonably looking for any angle to get people to sign up for a long term contract. They are really selling contracts, and their method is to attract with a phone that they promote aggressively. As part of this model, they expect to and DO spend a LOT of money on marketing. When their business works this way, it’s very hard for a hw maker to NOT participate because you’d be competing against the money that the carriers themselves would spend on marketing and against the work they’d do to sell other phones against yours in their stores.

We understand this creates a dilemma for end-users… you want to buy a phone but it’s not on the carrier you’re already signed up with. Well, that’s precisely the effect the carriers are trying to create, they want you to switch. 🙂

In the higher-volume ecosystems, you have seen this dynamic change… iPhones and Samsung phones are typically the same device across carriers. I expect as WP usage grows and along with that as broader end-user demand begins to ALREADY EXIST in the market, the need for carriers to spend money educating people will diminish and the phones are likely to be more broadly available.

SO… in the meantime… try expansys.com or zones.com to buy unlocked phones.”

How can Windows Phone be faster? I hate to envy iPhone owners with their near instantaneous app opening/resume times.

“The MAIN thing that will affect this perception is whether the apps you use have implemented “Fast Resume”. This was a new thing in WP8 (I think — can’t remember if that was the release we added it in) and an ISV has to “flag” their app to support it. This might involve testing and in a few apps it involves more work than just testing. SO … ping the ISVs if you’re feeling that apps come up slow. MOST PEOPLE don’t say this.

A lot of people ask about TRANSITIONS and they assume the transitions “add time” to getting to the app. We’ve worked hard to make that NOT THE CASE. What we’ve done is made the transitions happen “while the app is loading” so they give you something to see that fills the time but does NOT slow it down. (OK, maybe a tiny, imperceptible bit.) We would NOT NOT NOT gratuitously make millions of people wait longer to show a turnstile… we show you the turnstile while you’d be waiting anyway.”

The way windows phone currently “multitasks” is inelegant and quite frankly, bad. (apologies if my terminology is not 100% accurate) My main complaint with it stems from the fact that is incapable of realizing apps are tombstoned and instead re-launches them. This leads to things like 3 or 4 instances of the same messaging conversation being tombstoned (which pushes out other apps). Or other things like opening here maps, returning to the homescreen, clicking on here maps and waiting for the app to completely reload from scratch. This makes no sense. Are there any plans to change this?

“Multitasking. This is the classic “balance-striking” design challenge. What we’ve tried to do here is (1) make sure that REGULAR USERS (think: less sophisticated, don’t tweak their phones that much) get GREAT AND PREDICTABLE BATTERY LIFE while (2) Apps can do powerful things for everyone (and especially for power users).

The biggest killer of battery life is typically an app that’s got some kind of runaway process. Usually this would be a bug if it happens– and it could happen in any app. Thus to accomplish (1), you restrict apps to “runaway” and try to do as much on their behalf as you can.

Now, with that as background, know that we’ve GREATLY EXPANDED the multitasking features in apps with every release, and we’ll continue to do that. As app developers are doing more stuff and as we learn about the gaps in our system, we try to enhance. I can appreciate you folks– generally power users– hitting the limits of this approach and asking for more… and we hear you.

On your TOMBSTONING question– honestly I can’t answer that myself, but I’ll pass it on. When we switched the activation model, we chose to make the APP decide so the APP could be sure to effectively manage its own activation. Our intent is that users get apps with “instant resume”, but this is a case where we have to trust the ISV to get things right– kind of like the general topic above.”

Why is cortana completely useless without location turned on? Surely she doesn’t need to know my location to set an alarm or play music. Are you using the selling of my location metadata to fund the cortana servers?

“It comes down to this: we want to provide a COMPLETE EXPERIENCE for Cortana, and we want that complete experience to be PREDICTABLY present and not vary too much. If you hear about something she does, we want it to be true on YOUR PHONE, in YOUR COUNTRY.

Cortana builds rich inferences by rationalizing across lots of different signals and content that you give her permission to access. For instance, by having access to your location, within a few days Cortana figures out where you live and where you work and starts giving you commute inferences based on when you leave to go to work or come home from work. Without location a bunch of the important end-to-end scenarios wouldn’t work or key questions couldn’t be answered– e.g. what’s the traffic like to home/work, remind me when I get at a location to do something, show me great Caribbean restaurants in Seattle, etc.

Our current view is that without location Cortana would “feel limited” and we don’t want to create a fragmented experience where some things will work and some things won’t depending on whether you give us access to location. Part of this is that she’s entirely new and we want her to develop a GREAT reputation, compared favorably to the competition. Over time, we might make her more flexible so that we can accomplish BREADTH… but right now the focus is on consistent quality.”

Joe, you’re a very admirable presenter with a very laid back style. How do you prepare for these presentations?

“luckily, I’ve grown more laid back as I’ve matured…”

Windows Phone is the ultimate on-the-go companion

Check out these two new promotional Youtube videos, released by Microsoft yesterday, designed to show off some really impressive features of the Windows Phone devices. The videos focus on how the Windows Phone can help people living multi-faceted lives carry out their passions in efficient and creative ways.

In the first video, we meet Seble Abebe, a world traveling blogger, artist and designer, who shows us the remarkable photography and image editing she can accomplish using her Nokia Lumia 1020 Windows Phone. She shows us just how easy it is to take amazing photos, edit them through different apps, share them and even upload them to OneDrive.

The second video we are introduced to KEXP Dj Derek Mazzone, a music lover who is always on the go and looking for new inspiration. He makes it clear how heavily he depends on the both his Windows Phone and Surface devices to keep him ready and organized for his shows. The seamless syncing and integration capabilities of his devices, along with the use of the OneNote app, keep him constantly connected and up to date on all his music needs.

Windows Phone 8.1's New API's Spawn First Full Fledged Video Editor

The Windows Phone Store hasn’t had a proper video editing app, however it has plenty of video trimmers, with the recent Windows Phone 8.1 update developers now have access to more API’s, this spawned Windows Phone’s first full featured video editing app, it’s called Movie Maker 8.1.

It allows users control of every frame in the movie and lets users mix videos, photos, and music to create.  The user interface is beautiful and streamlined and the app will allow users to extract mp3 from a video and offers a 10x slow motion effect

wp_ss_20140428_0007

wp_ss_20140428_0006Features of the App:

Adding Video

• Pick any video from your phone video library or the camera

• Trim, crop and split clips

• Set clip volume level

• Copy, paste and delete clips at any position

• Use simple playback controls to review clips

• Real time preview in which you can zoom

Background tasks

• Pick any sound and music file from your phone

• Trim, crop and split tracks

Set track volume level

• Copy, paste and delete tracks at any position

• Use simple playback controls to review tracks

Adding Images

• Pick any image from your phone picture library or camera roll

set duration, trim, crop and split the clips

• Apply the awesome Nokia filter effects

The app costs $1.49 and is created by Vanetasoft, this is not the official Microsoft Movie Maker which is part of Windows Live essentials

 

Windows Phone 8.1 Amazes!

This is the day Windows phone users have been waiting for eagerly for a long time, after so many rumors about what’s coming in Windows Phone 8.1.

Microsoft finally announced it two weeks ago at Build. It exceeded many of our expectations and brought tons of great features to Windows Phone, some were needed, and some are bonuses that make using this platform even better.

Windows Phone is known for taking a minimalistic modern approach in software design, while being elegant at the same time, but with 8.1 some of the elegance is stripped away for more functionality – a lot more functionality. There are so many features to this update, but we’ll go over the major changes that consumers will recognize.

This preview is a developer preview, which is essentially the RTM (official) version of Windows Phone 8.1 from Microsoft, without the Nokia Cyan update, and without Carrier Approval. The official version of Windows Phone 8.1 which is to be coupled with Nokia Cyan is expected to be released by carriers sometime in June. For those of you who can’t wait to take the plunge, you’re able to receive this update by downloading an app called “Preview for developers” and enrolling in the developer program through Windows Phone App Studio. It’s free and accessible to anyone, you don’t have to be a developer.

Start Screen

The first thing that’s immediately noticeable is the addition of an extra tile column which all Windows Phones could now use. It doesn’t turn on by default, it can be turned on in the setting menu, and this layout was previously only available for devices with 5” screen or larger. This is a great feature that really enables you to use the start screen to its fullest potential, by being able to place even more apps and information. Another new feature available for the start screen, is the ability to add custom background wallpapers. This feature is really neat as it makes the live tiles now transparent while the wallpaper bleeds through the tiles. However, not all apps pinned will become transparent, there are still 3rd party apps tiles that will need to get updated to receive this feature.  The start screen has always been very personal, but now it’s even more personal with a much richer customization experience.

Word Flow Keyboardwp_ss_20140419_0008

The Windows Phone keyboard has always been a first class mobile typing experience with its smooth typing and predictive keyboard technology. But now there is a really great feature added to it – it’s Microsoft’s own version of the popular Swipe keyboard for Android. Microsoft calls their version Word Flow and they put their own twist to it. Microsoft claims to have broken the world record in speed typing with its Word Flow keyboard, and with our tests it feels extremely fast. It’s natural, smooth, and once you get the hang of it, it gets addicting. Emoji’s will also pop up that correspond to the words your typing, this is neat little feature and it certainly makes using emoji’s more useful rather than looking and finding the one you want. This is not a replacement of the original keyboard, it’s actually an additional feature.

Cortana

The biggest and most popular change to Windows Phone is the addition of Cortana. Cortana is Windows Phone’s personal voice assistant, and inspired by Cortana in the Halo Franchise. Cortana works as if Siri and Google Now were melded together, but she also has some specific capabilities of her own, like setting people specific reminders, and providing you with up to date news about things you care about.  wp_ss_20140427_0011She has the excellent location services, and with your permission will track what you do and like to read about, based on your searches, much like Google Now, but will need your permission to do so, unlike Google Now which will automatically do it. Cortana will ask rather than anticipate, while Google does the latter. She also takes the best of Siri with her witty and funny answers to certain types of questions and having a personality, she sounds more human though, but not with every type of request.

 

You’ll have to tell Cortana about you, she has her own notebook and this is where she keeps everything she knows about you. The more you tell her, the more powerful and useful she becomes. In the Inner Circle menu is where Cortana will store the people that are most important to you, and let their calls go through even when quiet hours are in effect, you can tell her who your friends and family members are, and provide nicknames for them, so rather than using your wife’s name, you can just say “next time I speak with my wife, remind me to ask her about hair” Cortana will know who your wife is and remind you about what you had asked, when you get in touch with your wife either through text, email, or a phone call.

You can also give Cortana permission to scan through your email where she can track things such as flights and other appointments for you. Google Now will just automatically do those things without asking, and Siri doesn’t support those features.wp_ss_20140427_0006

 

Cortana can be accessed through the search button and will replace Bing, you can also pin her to the start screen where she can update you on all of the news you care about, with a live tile. When searching with Cortana, just underneath your search results is an option called “update me on this topic” by selecting this option Cortana will know you are interested in that certain topic and will provide constant updates, via live tile and when scrolling through the Cortana app. To see more on that topic you can select “see more news”. You can access Cortana’s notebook and edit all of the things she knows about you to personalize it even more. You can access things such as you interests, reminders, quiet hours, which is a great feature that will block incoming calls from people you choose, at the hours you select, it’ll let calls through if someone calls twice in a span of 10 minutes. There are also options for your places of interest, such as your work, home or whichever place you chose, Cortana will update you with traffic information to these locations and she will eventually learn your schedule.

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Cortana will also do music searches of your favorite tunes and prompt you to download the track if you have an Xbox Music Pass. When you receive texts or emails regarding an event, Cortana will recognize this by underlining the date, time and of the particular event, tap the underlined text and Cortana will add it to your calendar. She’ll use the text written prior to the date and time in your calendar. This works great with messages such as “meet at Joeys at 9” but with messages like “come over to my place at 9” the calendar appointment doesn’t sound right. It would be great if she knew who was sending the message and could reword the event in your calendar by adding “come to Vlad’s house at 9”. Were pretty positive that this feature will be improved upon in the future since Cortana is in a very early beta, but it’s definitely a neat feature.

If you chose to type a request to Cortana she won’t speak back to you, she’ll write back, which is neat, especially at times when having her talk is inconvenient. She is also able to interact with apps, this is a great feature with apps that support it, and Microsoft is opening Cortana’s to developers so they’ll add as much of Cortana as they please to their apps. wp_ss_20140427_0008You can say things like “Foursquare check in” and it’ll launch the Foursquare app and check you in. Cortana is still in Beta and will remain to be until the second half of the year, and for a Beta she seems to work extremely well, She is only available to download in the US, but if you change your Region to the US she’ll work in any country, but she’ll only understand English. Microsoft plans to a global roll out eventually, but we don’t have any dates yet. Halo fans will be happy to hear that Cortana will eventually be voiced by “Jen Taylor” Which is the voice actress for Cortana in the Halo series. Microsoft eventually gave in as a huge number Halo Fans demanded this feature. Now if she can only be replaced by Cortana’s actual Avatar.

Cortana is a big step up in terms of the limited voice functionality Windows Phone provided, and is arguably more complete than Siri and Google Now, since it combines the best of both assistants. We love what we see so far and look forward to Cortana evolving, especially as she comes to the PC, tablet and Xbox.

Camera

For all of the non Nokia Windows Phones out there, the stock Windows Phone camera has been updated with a new UI, it includes a burst mode and basic camera functions on the screen, like flash, the lens, an icon to access a menu for pre-set camera settings for a variety of different shooting modes, such as Close ups, Night shots and so on. These are good needed features to the regular camera app, but doesn’t come close at the level of manipulation that Nokia’s Pro Camera App provides.

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These are the major improvements on Windows Phone, but there are many more minor improvements, like Internet Explorers the new reader mode which gets rid of photos and graphics and makes the webpage more readable, and swiping left and right to go back and forward just like Windows 8.1 with touch. Apps now get updated automatically, and action centre will let you know which ones have been updated. The calendar app has been completely overhauled, it’s split up into different views, such as the yearly, monthly, weekly and daily view. We especially like the weather integration on the calendar, it actually helps for scheduling, and it’s a nice touch.

People Hub

Windows Phones killer feature was always the People Hub and its integration with apps and core services from Microsoft and Major social networks. Microsoft’s vision of an integrated OS was ambitious and genius, but in order to achieve that they would have to update those apps frequently by updating them through the OS. There’s a major roadblock to these updates and they’re the Cell Phone Carrier. In order for Microsoft to roll out updates to the OS, Carriers need to do rigorous testing and it’s quite costly. As these Social networks update frequently, the OS can’t keep up. There are advantages to integration, such as speed and the fluidity of apps, but this model still exists on Windows Phone, it’s just a little less integrated.wp_ss_20140427_0015

The People Hub is now prettier, as photos are larger and the layout seems better organized. However as you select a post or a photo to respond to, the app which presented the post will open and take you to the corresponding screen, these tasks aren’t completed in the OS anymore. The same applies to the Me Tile, posting from there will take you the app that you’re trying to post from, but to the posting part of the app. Notifications from social networks aren’t shown in the Me Hub, those are all in the new Action Centre. This may be a slight inconvenience but there’s still a good level on integration and as these apps get updated, you’ll always have the latest in functionality. It strikes the perfect balance of integration and functionality, there was too much integration in the past with less functionality.

Action Centre

Windows Phone’s new Action Centre works beautifully, for users who don’t have many tiles on the start screen, and who don’t have tiles always arranged in the best way, the new Action Centre provides you with all of your updates from social networks and apps, it’ll even tell you which apps have been updated in the background. wp_ss_20140427_0009It works extremely well and the best part is, that clearing the notifications in the action centre will reset the tiles with the notifications. Tapping the notification takes you to the part of the app with the notification, we wish that it would clear individual notifications from apps rather than all of them from particular app, but everything else work great. It also gives you four toggle buttons of your choice, and a setting icon is present which will take you to the full settings menu. You can set up which apps will show notifications and what types of notifications they’ll show.

Windows Phone still retains is modern clean minimalistic design, but as more functionality takes place, some of the elegance goes away, such as the Music Hub which used to display a graphic on the tile as music played, now its just a green tile without movement. The photo gallery loses its beautiful picture background and integration with social network updates, but as it gains functionality, photos from your camera roll are displayed by date and location. Photos from Social networks and OneDrive are not mixed in to the photos hub with the photos on your phone anymore, their corresponding tile will be there, that when you open, the photos hub will show display all your albums from these apps,, which results in a cleaner experience.

Windows Phone feels fresh and new once again, it’s also more competitive than ever. For people who are using Windows 8.1 on the PC’s or tablets, the experience is better with the level of integration between the two operating systems, such as the new universal apps that’ll work on both platforms, purchasing an app or game on Windows Phone will enable it on the PC, Xbox, and Windows Tablets. Changing your tile color on the phone will also change the background color on your Windows 8.1 device, providing you enable that setting. Windows and Windows Phone will eventually become one, were excited for the ride as these two platforms merge along with their app stores.

Overall the improvement is a tremendous one, and a much needed one, as the official Windows Phone 8.1 update comes along with the Nokia Cyan update, we look forward to seeing more refinements and what Nokia has to bring to the table.