Microsoft needs Windows Phone 8 to succeed in a big way.
The first reason is financial: a successful smartphone operating system equals big profits—which in turn can help Microsoft weather any future declines in Windows or Office sales (or a failure by its cloud products to generate significant revenue).
The second reason has everything to do with prestige: for the past several quarters, Google and Apple have split the mobile-device world between them—and considering how the tech world’s center of gravity is rapidly shifting from traditional desktops and laptops to mobile devices (i.e., tablets and smartphones), that means Google and Apple have much more sway in how the industry looks in coming months and years.
And the latter, to mangle a quote from Brad Pitt in Inglorious Basterds, is something that Microsoft cannot abide.
That brings us to Microsoft’s Oct. 29 unveiling of Windows Phone 8, a few days after the official debut of Windows 8. Both operating systems feature Start screens of colorful tiles linked to applications. (Microsoft used to call this aesthetic “Metro,” until a murky copyright dispute with a German company forced them to abandon it.) In addition, the two new platforms share a kernel, file system, graphics support, and other elements. In theory, that means apps will port from Windows 8 to Windows Phone 8 with relatively little work.
Microsoft claims that Windows Phone now has 120,000 apps, including popular favorites such as “Angry Birds” and “Temple Run.” In a bid to further spur adoption, Microsoft made a deal with Internet radio hub Pandora to offer a year of ad-free service on the latter.
Seeking to further differentiate itself from Apple and Google, Microsoft is also introducing what it calls a “Kid’s Corner,” which lets the little monsters run rampant within a specialized area of an adult’s device without the adult in question worrying about unapproved purchases, accidental phone calls, and other mischief.
Windows Phone 8 also includes near-field communications (NFC) along with a feature called Wallet, wherein users can store debit, credit, and other card membership information on their phone. Another feature, known as Data Sense, conserves data by compressing Web images, adjusting usage as the data-plan limit approaches, and bumping various tasks to WiFi rather than the 3G or 4G connections.
Microsoft is leveraging its ownership of Skype with a streamlined Windows Phone 8 app that lets users make and receive Skype calls like a regular phone call.
Will those features (and more) help Windows Phone 8 succeed in a crowded and constantly evolving mobile marketplace? Microsoft certainly hopes so, but time will tell.