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Windows Phone 8 new start screen

Currently, when it comes to software and U.S. smartphone market share, Google and Apple control the majority. In May, research firm comScore revealed that Android has grown to an astounding 51 percent market share in the U.S., while Apple holds a respectable 30.7 percent. Next is Research In Motion with 12.3 percent market share, and Symbian is last with a mere 1.9 percent of the share. Microsoft splits 3.9 percent market share between remaining Windows Mobile users and early adopters of the new(ish) Windows Phone platform.

Between the top two, Google and Apple, that's over 81 percent market share. It's a long gap between Apple and RIM, and RIM has faced a nothing but a steady market share decline over the last three years. Essentially, iOS and Android – along with their respective ecosystems – are taking market share and running with it, inadvertently creating a duopoloy at the expense of their competitors.

But there is undoubtedly room for another ecosystem. The question is: which company can offer a user-friendly ecosystem and mobile operating system that is comparable, possibly even better, than either Google's or Apple's?

Months ago, when this question was first brought up, I said it would be a toss-up between Research In Motion or Microsoft, or BlackBerry 10 and Windows Phone 7. And there may have even been a third contender, like MeeGo or webOS. Now things have changed quite a bit. The MeeGo project was killed off and Intel partnered with Samsung, turning all the MeeGo progress into project Tizen. HP's webOS is all but dead and will soon be open-sourced. And BlackBerry and Windows Phone are both on the verge of major OS updates.

Just last month, we got a glimpse into what to expect later this year from BlackBerry 10 – a new interface, some impressive camera software (which is provided by Scalado) and some modern hardware. Don't get me wrong. I'm a long-time BlackBerry fan and I'm slowly learning to trust Thorsten Heins, RIM's new CEO. But I feel BlackBerry may have run its course. It's time to start from scratch and lay the BlackBerry brand to rest. Out with the old (CEOs) and in with the new, right?

And Windows Phone has always had potential. It's unique, refreshing … different. But, even after multiple software updates and using about seven different handsets, it never gets any less boring to use. There are slight idiosyncrasies throughout the operating system that irk me and, due to it still being mostly in its infancy, it lacks some core functions that are commonplace on other mobile operating systems. The interface, while refreshingly different, is drab and boring. And nothing about the software begs me to use it.

Earlier today, however, Microsoft unveiled the Windows Phone 8 update. And it addresses most, if not all, of the outstanding issues with the Windows Phone platform. Once it arrives, Windows Phone will be leaving the diapers and training wheels behind for a swing at the big leagues. Among other things, the major features in the Windows Phone 8 update include:

  • A new Start screen (smaller tiles and fullscreen)
  • Support for multi-core chipsets
  • A third screen resolution (800x480, 1280x768 and 1280x720)
  • Full support for microSD cards
  • The "most complete wallet experience" through Wallet Hub and better NFC support
  • Internet Explorer 10
  • Better enterprise support (encryption, secure boot, device management)
  • Nokia Maps built-in with offline mode and turn-by-turn navigation
  • Improved speech support
  • Built-in VoIP integration

Adoration for Microsoft's new mobile platform has never been an issue. The majority of users or those who have tried the software have either immense love or hope for a bright future. And with over 100,000 applications available in Marketplace, development support is incredibly healthy. The problem, however, has been adoption. And I feel that issue stems from both lackluster hardware, mediocre specifications and a lack of important core features. (Never mind the fact that a Windows Phone device can run just fine on a single-core CPU. But marketing has taught mobile customers that it's multi-core or die.)

Microsoft promises impressive hardware for Windows Phone 8 (and show little remorse for their decision to not make existing hardware eligible for the upgrade once it lands). With support for microSD card slots, 720p display resolution and multi-core architecture, there is next to nothing left to complain about on the hardware front, except for maybe how low Windows Phone devices are on other companies' list of priorities. Specifications will now be on par with devices running other software.

With built-in turn-by-turn navigation on both Android and iOS (once iOS 6 launches this fall) natively, Microsoft's addition of Nokia Drive on all Windows Phone devices is a huge selling point. It may not be a differentiating factor, but it keeps Windows Phone on a level playing field.

Built-in VoIP integration is something every platform should have. And this is something that will make a major difference to me if carriers ever offer data-only plans for smartphones. And then there's Internet Explorer 10. At its core, Windows Phone 8 shares NT kernel and other elements with Windows 8. As such, Internet Explorer 10 borrows some of the code from its desktop brethren, specifically a phishing filter and Microsoft's SmartScreen URL reputation system. In other words, it's more secure and safe. 

Lastly, a new Start screen. At first glance, it's not difficult to see how Microsoft has changed the Windows Phone interface in this update. Instead of the standard medium and large tiles on existing versions of Windows Phone, Microsoft has added a small size tile to help squeeze more information on a single page and to reduce scrolling. Also, they have extended the tiles to full screen, ridding the interface of the blank space to the right of the tiles. Although not confirmed, there have been hints of more color customization and personalization options to be included with the update. As subtle as these changes may be, they are quite welcomed. (Here's to hoping for different background colors and more than just one accent color.)

I'm not 100 percent positive I could ditch iOS and/or Android for Windows Phone 8, but there's no question Microsoft is making leaps in the right direction. They still have a few hurdles yet, but this major update looks and sounds fantastic. This update, along with Windows 8 RT tablets and the Microsoft Surface tablet, could ultimately be the catalyst that turns Windows Phone into the third mobile ecosystem. 

What say you? Do you think Windows Phone 8 is a set in the right direction for Microsoft? Is it enough to make it a contender for the third ecosystem? Or will Windows Phone 8 fall short of your expectations?


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