Windows Phone 8.1 won’t scare Apple, maybe it should

brain artificial intelligence future AIJoe Belfiore puts on a good show. The Microsoft corporate VP who introduced Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows Update 8.1 this morning at the Build developer conference is as good as any TV infomercial pitchman you’ve ever seen.

Like many others, I keep hoping Windows Phone will find some traction. Its new Siri competitor, called Cortana, the name of a character in Microsoft’s Halo game, appears to do all sorts of things that Siri on my iPhone doesn’t do.

I am pausing a second before writing the next paragraph, because I am not precisely sure about everything that Siri does, and Apple has gone to no special lengths to teach me new things — if any — that she will do for me.

Windows Phone 8.1, if the demo is to believed, makes Siri look like the slow kid seated in the back of the room, hoping to not be noticed by the teacher. For examples, check out JoeB’s blog post describing what’s new on Windows Phone 8.1. It’s a pretty impressive list.

Cortana is integrated with both built-in and third-party applications to create what Microsoft touts as being a “more personal” virtual assistant. I am not a huge Siri user, but would probably use Cortana a good bit more than Siri based on what the demo showed.

In a normal world, Cortana would frighten Apple and Siri would soon get a big IQ boost. But I can’t imagine Contara has Apple shaking too badly. Most would consider Windows Phone part of a string of huge failures, going all the way back to the PocketPC in 2000.

Microsoft is so behind in mobile that, even with the Nokia purchase, it is hard to believe it will ever dig its way out of the hole it’s created. No, Windows Phone is not a bad OS, and if you had it, you’d probably like it. Except, of course, that it is tied to Windows 8 in look-and-feel. That’s a problem that may get better, but won’t go away.

How well is Windows Phone doing?

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In a Feb. 23 blog post, Belfiore said:

“We’ve solidified our spot among the top three operating systems and celebrated some impressive milestones:

  • Recognized as the fastest growing OS with 91 percent year-over-year growth in 2013 (IDC, February 2014)
  • More than 10percent share across Europe—which is more than double compared with last year. (Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, January 2014)
  • Most important to me, we’ve seen high customer satisfaction data—a fact that even our competitors have acknowledged!
  • Reached critical mass in the Windows Phone Store (now over 240,000 apps) and are still growing – fast – with an average of 500 apps added each day. We’ve had key additions such as Instagram, Vine, Waze and Mint—and today, we announced Facebook Messenger will be available in the coming weeks.”

The bottom line? During the fourth quarter of 2013, IDC estimates Windows Phone represented about 3 percent of global smartphone shipments. That isn’t enough to get anyone very excited.

Except me, I’ve always wanted a Windows Phone, but have not been willing to take my life off my beloved iPhones. I’m both a Mac and Windows user, so the iPhone’s close relationship to my Mac works very well for me. If Windows 8 hadn’t been so exquisitely botched, Windows Phone would be a lot more interesting to me and probably many others.

To its credit, Microsoft also introduced Windows 8.1 Update today at the conference. This update makes Windows 8.1 much friendlier to us “mouse and keyboard” people, and less reliant to touch screens. In short, Windows 8.1 Update, due April 8, drags Windows back toward Windows 7. This is certainly welcome, but the failure of Windows 8 will haunt PC sales for quite some time.

I’ve recently become a reluctant Windows 8.1 user, using Stardock’s Start8 to give it a more Windows 7 look-and-feel, including a Start menu. I’ll have to see if the Update will make enough difference to make moving off my Macs a real possibility.

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Windows Phone as standalone platform

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Compared to more mature markets, I am betting Windows Phone (and tablets) will play much better in global markets where users aren’t already tied to a desktop computer. That would reduce the lock-in that I feel toward Mac and iPhone, making it much easier to move from one smartphone OS to another. Windows Phone could be very successful if it gained a decent share among those who use a mobile platform for essentially all their computing.

In a world where desktop computers largely go away (or never existed for most people), Microsoft’s cross-platform UI and experience strategy might work pretty well.

As a standalone experience, the Windows Phone user interface is attractive and functional in ways an iPhone might not be to first-time customers. With Microsoft emphasizing price points, getting into Windows on mobile devices could be much less expensive than going with Apple. And at least as functional.

How to make Windows Phone a success

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I haven’t really seen any signs that Apple gives a flip about, say, the 90 percent of the world that won’t pay what Apple charges for its goodies. Microsoft, despite its recent slip-and-fall with Windows, is still very experienced with creating mass devices for mass markets.

As more people move into a mobile-only world of tablets and smartphones as their primary devices, the Microsoft ecosystem is in a better position to capture these customers than Apple will be.

This could be a repeat of the PC, where Microsoft simply overwhelmed Apple by creating widely supported devices at popular prices, leaving Apple to the elites.

The downturn in PC sales and problems with Windows 8 are things Microsoft can overcome on mobile devices, potentially putting the company back on top once again. This isn’t as far-fetched as it seems, provided Microsoft plays global markets and customers’ move to mobile devices exceptionally well.

Microsoft could even resume being its once-dominant self. Wouldn’t that be something?

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About David Coursey

Editor-at-Large David Coursey is a veteran technology journalist with more than 25-years’ experience writing about business and consumer computing. Contact him at david@coursey.com.