Operating Systems

Windows Phone 8.1 Becomes Available to Devs and Risk Takers

After an 18-month lull, Windows Phone took a step closer to an upgrade on Monday as Microsoft released version 8.1 of the operating system to developers.

Unlike most developer versions of software, however, consumers can download and run the latest edition of Windows Phone on their mobile device — as long as they’re willing to void its warranty until their carrier OKs the upgrade.

Although developers and brave consumers can get their hands on Windows Phone 8.1 this week, it will be a few months before its fortunes in the market can be determined.

Catching Up

“It’s a little too early to judge it,” Yankee Group Research Director Carl Howe told TechNewsWorld.

“Is it going to take the world by storm?” he mused. “Only when people can get it. Most people aren’t going to void the warranty on their phone to get Windows 8.1.”

Consumers familiar with the major mobile operating systems, Android and iOS, will find many of the new features in Windows Phone familiar.

“A number of the features seem like catch-up features,” said Ross Rubin, principal analyst with Reticle Research, told TechNewsWorld.

Features like a “shade” that can be pulled down to view recent notifications sent to the phone and a speaking digital assistant are already in Android and iOS, he noted. Word Flow is similar to the Android app Swype, a method for using a virtual keyboard by swiping keys instead of poking them.

Nevertheless, the new version will help keep Windows Phone in parity with its competition in the market, Rubin said.

New Digital Assistant

With WP 8.1, Microsoft has improved the software’s distinctive home screen, increasing the number of columns available for live tiles, adding transparency to the tiles, and allowing them to be sized to taste. In addition, a user can choose a favorite photo as a background for the tiles.

Connecting to free wireless hotspots should be easier with Wi-Fi Sense, a feature that automatically connects to free hotspots and networks previously logged into.

The new version of Windows Phone offers tools for managing data, storage and power. Data Sense provides a picture of data use and offer solutions for conserving it. Storage Sense helps manage storage on a phone, including making recommendations when data should be shipped to an SD card in order to conserve on-board storage. Battery Saver can extend battery life by shutting down all but essential features as the battery’s juice supply dwindles.

Microsoft has added its own digital assistant, Cortana, to the new Windows Phone OS.

“It’s the most exciting thing about Windows Phone 8.1 from a user’s perspective,” said Van L. Baker, a Gartner research vice president for mobility.

“We’ll have to see how well it performs, but it does appear to be a step up from some of the other virtual assistant technologies like Google and Siri,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Deeper Intergration

While taking its cues from Siri, Cortana adds depth to the technology.

“I see Cortana as a more advanced personal assistant than Siri — at least it promises to be,” said Rob Sanfilippo, an analyst with Directions On Microsoft.

“It can call in the functionality of apps on a phone,” he told TechNewsWorld. “As long as the developer of an app allows Cortana to access an app, Cortana can perform functions within an app. Siri can’t do that.”

With WP 8.1, Microsoft also is making an attempt to return to the good graces of enterprise managers. It has included VPN support, secure WiFi support, and S/MIME support for email.

“That makes Windows Phone a stronger player in the enterprise, which is where Microsoft has traditionally been strong,” Sanfilippo said.

“It’s a play by Microsoft to show that Windows Phone is an enterprise-capable phone OS,” he added.

“Microsoft changed strategy when it went from Windows Mobile to Windows Phone,” noted Sanfilippo. “Windows Mobile was very much directed at enterprise use. Windows Phone was very much geared toward consumers. Now they’re filling in the gap between the consumer features of Windows Phone and the needs of the enterprise.”

John Mello is a freelance technology writer and contributor to Chief Security Officer magazine. You can connect with him on Google+.

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