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8 things Windows Phone 8.1 needs for Microsoft to stay afloat

Windows Phone has been around since the early days of Windows Mobile, and since then the OS has progressed by leaps and bounds, from Windows Phone 7 to 7.5 Mango, and finally to Windows Phone 8. But while Windows Phone 8 was a huge achievement for Microsoft, sharing the same kernel with Windows 8, making it easier for developers to develop apps for both operating systems, it has been a long time since the previous major overhaul of the OS.

And the arrival of Windows Phone 8.1 is overdue.

Windows Phone 8 may have addressed some of the basic issues in Windows Phone 7, but there are still many things that need to be improved. The OS is 3 years behind iOS and Android, but has managed to secure its third spot in the smartphone race. Even so, fans are starting to become more and more frustrated with the idiosyncrasies of the OS.

Windows Phone 8.1 needs to be good – really good – if Microsoft wants to stay afloat. So here’s what we think it needs to secure their spot.

1. A new way to handle notifications

Currently, notifications pop up at the top of the screen as “toast notifications”. There are a couple of issues with this, the first being that the notifications take a long time to go away. You can swipe them away, but if you’re being spammed with tons of notifications, it takes forever to swipe all of them away, and it becomes frustrating.

Annoying Toast Notifications
Annoying Toast Notifications

Secondly, there is no way to view missed notifications. Sure, the live tiles and lock screen notifs work fine, but the latter is limited to only 5 apps. There has to be a centralised area where missed notifications can be seen and acted on.

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Fortunately, from the leaks on WP8.1, it seems that Microsoft is working on an “Action Centre”, where apps can intelligently display notifications (see the picture). There isn’t much information on how exactly the action centre works so we’ll just have to wait and see.

2. Quicker access to settings

It is frustrating to navigate through the settings menu everytime you wish to switch the WiFi or mobile data on and off. Yes, granted there are many third party shortcut tiles that do this, but they are third party apps. Such a simple thing should be left to the OS itself and shouldn’t have to rely on third party apps. Plus, they are live tiles that take up valuable space on your start screen. For some, it can be quite an eyesore.

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It seems that the “Action Centre” coming in WP8.1 will allow for 4 different toggles to be accessed at any time, which is convenient. It’ll be even better if these 4 toggles are customizable (they supposedly are).

3. More customisability

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One of the big new features in WP8 was its added customizability over WP7. Live tiles could be resized to the user’s liking, and there are now 20 accent colours to choose from. However, users still want added cusomisabilty.

From simple things such as the background colour of the Start Screen and apps, and perhaps a colour palette for users to choose the theme colour (seen in Windows 8.1), to other things such as the arrangement of apps in the app menu (currently it’s just alphabetical), WP8.1 definitely needs added customizability for users to want to switch and stick to Windows Phone.

Who knows, maybe Microsoft will even add some simple backgrounds for the start screen, a la Windows 8.1, custom keyboard and app colours, and custom toggles and shortcuts. The possibilities are endless, really.

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It’s good to see through the leaks, that MS is focusing a lot on customizability, as colour of the software keys can be customized to match the app, theme colour, or remain black.

4. Better (and more) Apps

Apps are actually the main reason why people refuse to switch to Windows Phone. Lack of support from big developers such as Google and Facebook means that MS has to make the apps on their own, and this almost definitely means that they will be behind their Android and iOS counterparts.

MS also needs to work hard in bringing popular titles to WP fast, and not just in the beta stage, but full-fledged versions, with all the features of their iOS and Android counterparts. Failing which, WP will always be second to iOS and Android.

MS is already trying hard to get developers on board its Windows and Windows Phone operating systems, by making it easier for developers to develop apps for both platforms.

There has been a leak of a unified Store for the two OSes, and if true, will be a major step for Microsoft.

5. Better UI/UX redesign

WP8.1 will bring with it several design tweaks. While the metro design of WP8 is generally a joy to use, there are certain annoyances in the design.

For one, there is a lot of wasted space in many of the apps. The People Hub is a great example of this. The huge metro banner at the top of apps is nothing but wasted space. MS is doing something about that in WP8.1 though, as seen from the leaks.

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A good design doesn’t just mean that it looks good, it also has to serve a purpose. Thankfully, MS recognises this and there will be a better UI design in the future.

As our iOS editor Shiv has expressed in his article An iOS User’s Windows Phone experience, Live tiles should serve a bigger purpose other than just display (a little) more information. There should be actions that can be taken within the tiles, for example, a “+” icon to add a new message or email, or “<” to reply to a message. Tiles should be more “live” and display scrolling information, not just the top headlines. Live tiles are a great idea, but they’re not being utilised to their fullest potential.

6. Cortana

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Many may not think that this is a great deal, but Microsoft needs Cortana. And they have to name it “Cortana”. Android has Google Now. iOS has Siri. Windows Phone will always be inferior until it gets a worthy enough voice assistant.

But Cortana can’t just be an ordinary voice assistant. Microsoft has to take it to the next level. Frankly I’m not sure how they’re going to do it, but if they get something as good as Google Now and Siri, that would be amazing. And it would attract Halo lovers from all over the world to Windows Phone.

Surprise us, Microsoft.

7. Some insane hardware

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WP8 GDR3 brought with it support for the latest quad core processors and 1080p screens. With WP8.1, we expect more innovative hardware from manufacturers. This is primarily due to the addition of on screen keys, which eliminates the need for physical or capacitive keys foe the back, start and search buttons.

This means that you’ll be able to expect crazy hardware with almost borderless displays. Coupled with the latest processors and massive 1080p support, hardware is no longer a problem for Windows Phone, and is only limited to the imagination of OEMs such as Nokia (now Microsoft themselves), HTC, and Samsung.

8. Squash those bugs

WP8 does have some annoying bugs. Battery drainage issues, “other” storage issues, Facebook messaging not working, icons not appearing in the multitasking window.

Conclusion

New, refreshing, ground-breaking designs inspired by the Windows Phone UI. Better customizations, powerful hardware, and great apps. These are the things that Microsoft needs to not only keep people on the platform, but also to turn a few heads and get people to make the switch. This is what Windows Phone 8.1 has to be, or else Windows Phone growth will remain stagnant, and before Microsoft knows it, the market will be swarmed with a bunch of new OSes (tizen, Firefox, Sailfish, Ubuntu Touch), leaving them struggling for a spot.

From the leaks so far, it seems that Microsoft is putting in the effort, and hopefully WP8.1 will be the major overhaul that Windows Phone users have been waiting for. It’s the only reason why I haven’t chucked my Lumia 820 out for a Nexus 5.

Who knows, we might even see a Surface phone this year. Fingers crossed.

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