Windows Phone 8.1 is a very good mobile operating system.
Good or not good, most people have already chosen something else — either an iPhone or some variety of Android smartphone. Neither platform is perfect, but they are familiar. How do you persuade people to get out of the comfortable bed they've already made and move to another one?
I spent the last week or so with the recently released Windows Phone 8.1, and let me put it this way: I wouldn't give up my iPhone for Windows Phone, but I might give up my Android.
Windows Phone is now — to use what may sound like faint praise — good enough. It's good enough to replace Android, especially since the operating system is a lot more upfront about how it's going to use my information, where and when it's gathering it, and why.
It's good enough to tempt people who are tired of the same old thing (an oddly rebellious position for Microsoft), and also those who have Windows PCs, Office at work, Xboxes at home and little investment in iTunes or Google Play apps and music. That is to say, it's good enough for quite a lot of people.
At this point in smartphone development, a good interface, intuitive navigation, useful notifications, a good keyboard, speed and attractive design are table stakes for a mobile operating system. Microsoft mostly delivers here.
The phone's animations slow down the interface more than I'd like, but the customisable layout, searchable app list, excellent keyboard swipe and auto-complete, and full-featured notification list meet the bill. I tried the new version of the operating system on the Nokia Lumia Icon, which is nicely designed and shows off the software well.
Fans of personalising their phones will love Windows Phone. You can add or remove home screen tiles to suit your own style (three rows across mixing big and small or one simple list, for example), and change colours, background images and styles for days. The animated live tiles are, as they have always been, appealing if not overly useful.
The interface takes getting used to if you're coming from Android or iOS, but both operating systems also have plenty of features that would be stupendously unintuitive to new users.
The big headline on Windows Phone is the "personal assistant" called Cortana. (If you're a "Halo" fan like me, you're delighted by the name, which refers to the artificial intelligence that guides the games' hero; if you're not, don't worry about it.)
Cortana combines simple voice- or text-controlled instructions like search, web search, weather information, traffic and navigation requests with contextual and predictive features like Google Now.
It's not quite as personal as similar services like Apple's Siri and not quite as predictive as Google Now, but the combination has a lot of promise.
It helps to fill in what's called "Cortana's Notebook." In other words, settings. Here, you establish home and work addresses, key contacts, favorite sports teams, flight itinerary monitoring (accomplished by scanning your email for new itineraries) and other preferences.
Then, when you ask, "How's the traffic on the way home?" Cortana responds specifically with things like: "Traffic is crawling. It'll take you about 45 minutes to get home." Thanks, Cortana. Google Now will navigate to a specific address called home or work and show traffic information without comment, while Siri will respond with, "Here's the traffic around Molly Wood, home" and then show the distance. Point to Cortana.
Google Now, Siri
And the assistant has neat person- and place-based capabilities,
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