Once again, Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore took to the stage and officially unveil the next version of Windows Phone. Back in June, Joe shared details of what’s new in Windows Phone 8 for developers. That included great things like an all new kernel that is shared with the desktop side, support for new hardware like multi-core processors, Internet Explorer 10, support for native code, improved multi-tasking, native NFC, support for a digital wallet, Nokia maps, and enterprise readiness. With yesterdays announcement, Joe focused on the consumer improvements to Windows Phone 8, including the new Lock screen, Skype integration, apps, data plan management, kids corner, and improvements to the people hub.
The new and improved lock screen on Windows Phone 8 is powered by your applications. You can configure the lock screen to display a static picture, just like you can today, or you can have it automatically pick pictures from your Facebook, or even locally from the phone. If that’s not to your liking, you can even have it pull down the Bing picture for the day. If pictures aren’t your thing, don’t worry because the new lock screen is more than just customizing the picture it displays. With Windows Phone 8 you can also specify which applications will display notifications on the lock screen and which fonts will be used. With the new lock screen you will have “moments of delight” as Joe put it, every time you go to unlock your phone.
Skype adds some deep integration to the latest version of Windows Phone. Skype is always running and always on ready to receive a call from a friend. The best part, all of this is done without Skype actually running in the background. That means you can expect the same great battery life you’ve had with Windows Phone in the past, but with the added flexibility for VoIP and video calls.
Apps, Apps, and more Apps
46 out of the 50 top apps on other mobile platforms will be on Windows Phone 8. Apps and games like Temple Run, Urbanspoon (with speech integration), Angry Birds Star Wars, Where’s my Water, and more. And in early 2013, Pandora will be coming to Windows Phone 8 with a full year of free music with no ads! With all the big name applications, you don’t have to worry about missing out on your favorite app, game, or social interaction.
Microsoft has added a feature called Data Sense that will help you manage your data usage, helping to ensure you don’t get any surprise bills for going over your monthly data allotment. Data Sense will work in the background to track your data usage and alert you when you are getting close to the limit. It can also locate nearby WiFi hotspots and even offload data so you won’t go over your limit. It even breaks out the data usage on a per app basis, so you know which application is a data hog and which apps are data friendly. Data Sense also uses a backend system to pass your web requests through. The end result is that all your web viewing traffic is now compressed saving you the bandwidth but with the same content. In testing, Microsoft has seen a 45% reduction in data usage. Of course, your savings my vary but even if you only managed to save 20%, that’s still 20% more data than you had before! The down side of this feature appears to be in the backend server. Your carrier needs to role out a server in their network to allow this feature to work. It integrates with the customer billing and provides that compression service. If you’re carrier is not Windows Phone friendly, you can’t even find Data Sense on your device.
Personally, I think Data Sense is an awesome feature, but it should also be allowed to work without carrier involvement. Even if that means that some of the features will not work. The Data Sense app could look for this server on the carriers network, and if it’s not found feature X or Y would just be greyed out with a simple message about these advanced features require support from your carrier. At least this way everyone can better manage their data use and be aware of how much the are using.
Kids are great creatures, but they can sure wreak havoc on a mobile device. From dialing 911 or sending cryptic emails or tweets, or even deleting files and applications. Kids Corner is a safe place for kids to play and have fun without accessing your email, phone, and other applications. From the Settings / Kids Corner menu, you can select which games, apps, or music that they should have access to. Whatever is selected here, is all that they will have access to use. Then on the lock screen, instead of swiping up, you just swipe to the side and hand the phone to the kids. Of course, it works best if you pin protect your side of the phone. Joe brought his kids on stage to help demo this feature – brave kids, and brave of Joe to attempt a feature demo using children. In the end, the demo went pretty smooth with just a minor hiccup when his daughter forgot to swipe to the side on the lock screen to access Kids Corner.
In the past, Windows Phone had a Group feature, where you could create a group of friends, family, or even co-workers. The group would provide you an easy way to send a mass email or text message. The group would also bubble up all the new status updates, so you can easily stay up to date on your friends and family. Building upon Groups, Windows Phone 8 brings in a new feature called Rooms. Rooms have a similar concept as groups, but it steps things up a little by making it a more interactive group. When you add people to a Room, they can then see a shared calendar, chat, pictures, and notes. And depending on the level of access you grant them, they can even participate or just be a viewer. If you’re adding people that don’t have a Windows Phone, that’s ok too. They will still get some functionality. It won’t be as much or as rich as others with Windows Phones, but it will still let them see calendar and pictures for example.
Wait, there’s more…
Those may be the big large flashy enhancements, but there is still lots more of changes in Windows Phone 8. Small things, but still cool and awesome. With Windows Phone 8 pictures can be automatically uploaded to SkyDrive at full resolution in the background. The addition of Xbox Music means you can stream 30 million songs directly to your phone for free, with automatic playlist sync’ing across devices. And little things like after you take a picture you now swipe from the side instead of the top to see the picture, or the ability to take screen captures by pressing the power button and the start flag at the same time. There’s so many more enhancements.
But it’s not all roses. Customers have been asking for a central notification system. Some place to go and see all your missed notifications. It’s happened to me, where I hear the notification fire off, but by the time I get to and unlock my phone, I can’t seem to figure out which app pinged me. It would be great to have a central and easy way to see notifications. Customers have also been looking to pin WiFi, Bluetooth, Flight Mode, or other specific settings to their home Start screen. This would allow them a quick and easy way access those features that they use on a regular basis. Unfortunately, both of those features are not in Windows Phone 8. Of course, there’s only so much time and only so many features that can get built in that time frame. It’s unfortunate that relatively simple features like these, that would greatly improve the usability of Windows Phone, didn’t make it in. We can only hope that they will show up in a future release.
Microsoft has put a lot into Windows Phone 8. There’s some really awesome new features for consumers, and combined with the SDK, developers can continue to create some amazing new experiences. It’s worth stopping at your carrier and getting some hands on time with a phone. You may be more than just a little surprised at what you see.