Meet Windows Phone 8

Before we talk about Windows Phone 8, let’s just take quick stock of this crazy thing called the smartphone market:

I’m just going to come out and say it — iOS is dull. In the beginning, its simplicity was charming, particularly for people who wanted the ease and utility of using something that “just works” (or at least did, prior to Maps and the pulling of Google Maps and YouTube, etc). But now that once-elegantly clean grid just looks… well, incredibly, stubbornly, aggressively stale — especially in comparison to what Apple’s competitors are doing. (And likely, this is probably partly the reason why some high-level Apple execs just got canned.)

Speaking of competitors, the chief one is Android, a platform that had “huge potential” written all over it from the get-go — even as glitches and fragmentation bewildered mainstream customers. With each new major update, we do see the OS becoming more mature and robust (and its fans — as well as device variations — are becoming legion). There’s no doubt that Android’s evolution of features, not to mention hardware choices, make it a favorite among “geek” types. (That Nexus 4 is certainly shaping up to be a looker.) But is Jelly Bean enough to help Android shake its rep as buggy, scattered and security hole-ridden? Even if it is, it can take a learning curve for the average subscriber to get a handle on what their device can really do.

These aren’t the only smartphone OSes, of course — just the two biggest. There’s still BlackBerry, which hasn’t bitten the dust yet. It may not bode well that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency just dumped this once-glorious “It” smartphone, but until RIM pulls out BlackBerry 10 (and, hopes the fanbase, possibly pulls off a miraculous resurrection) in 2013, there’s really nothing to speak of yet.

Putting BlackBerry aside, the smartphone conversation has really just been about Android vs. iOS. It has been that way for quite a while now. Even Microsoft’s previous incarnation of its smartphone platform, Windows Phone 7, wasn’t really a contender. It was beautiful, yes — with a sleek new interface (previously known as the Metro UI) and Live Tiles — but it was almost like a beta run of sorts. It felt a little unfinished, particularly as it suffered a sad dearth of apps. What it did do, however, was offer a promising beginning that paved the way for what would come later…

Enter Windows Phone 8. This update takes all the beauty of its previous version and gives it more brains and brawn.

Watching Microsoft do its dog-and-pony show in person in San Francisco, I couldn’t help but think of the past, when Apple positioned itself as a hip, savvy trendsetter amid a sea of agonizingly boring Microsoft products. But those tables have firmly turned now. Windows Phone 8 looks gorgeous. Stunning even. Although Windows Phone is still a young upstart that’s late to the game, it’s definitely a looker that defies the convention of existing smartphone platforms (like the staid and static iOS) by doing a few things a little differently. And that difference has everything to do with today’s “lifestyles.”

Some of the highlights from the presser include:

  • Resizable Live Tiles
  • Integration of Microsoft Office and Xbox Live in Windows Phone 8
  • Rooms feature in People Hub, for contacts grouping
  • Kid’s Corner, so parents can “sandbox” what the kiddies do with their phones
  • New lockscreen powered by Live Apps
  • Skype in the background, for always on functionality (without zapping the battery!)
  • Data Sense, to keep data usage in check with statistics, drilled-down app info and automatic Wi-Fi switching
  • Super duper, mega sharing slathered in awesome sauce: SkyDrive, for “pick up where you left off” sharing between devices, plus viewing/storing images with no limit and apps to sync music (even with iTunes on Macs)

Microsoft also directly addressed one of the chief criticisms of the platform — third-party apps. Not only has the company partnered with many developers to deliver some key functionality, but it also outright stated that — of the 50 top mobile apps — 46 of them will be revised to work optimally with Windows Phone 8. And, it promises, that’s just the beginning.

So as a lifestyle editor, I am extremely (and somewhat surprisingly) excited about Microsoft’s latest mobile push. Windows Phone 8 is an eye-catching, streamlined communications hub that doesn’t force users to waste time tinkering with it or adjusting settings ad nauseum. These devices dish up whatever info the user wants at a single glance — without having to launch, push, swipe or tweak things endlessly. From battery and data management to child-friendly features, this new version is a lifestyle editor’s dream — it conforms to the way people live, instead of expecting users to adapt to their smartphone. And if the OS holds up in real life the way it does in the demos, then it embodies the “just works” approach like no other.

What helps the cause are stunning handsets like the Nokia Lumia 920, HTC Windows Phone 8X and — to a lesser extent — the Samsung ATIV S. From a specs perspective, these are extremely worthy handsets, but the real star is a gorgeous, easy-to-use operating system that’s just adaptable enough to fit the way people live and work (without the blight of hundreds of settings) and an app store that is very definitively and purposefully being cultivated. Add the fact that it integrates seamlessly with the computers and tablets in the Microsoft eco-system (as well as a few key others), and you’ve got a very serious alternative in the smartphone space. Finally.

I once thought that WebOS would give iOS and Android a run for their money, but that didn’t exactly pan out. I waited and hoped RIM would do something interesting, but all we got was the Storm and the Torch for our trouble. As much as I liked the looks of WP7 when it came out, I didn’t let myself get too excited. But those doors have blown off now with Windows Phone 8. Maybe it is a little late to the party, but boy is it making an entrance now.

I can’t wait to see where this will go. Microsoft has deep pockets and it knows that the future is in mobile, so it will likely invest in whatever it has to (apps, content, development, etc) to keep WP8  — and indeed, the whole Windows 8 lineup — moving forward. And even if it does lose its way, one thing’s for sure: It will almost assuredly light a fire under the reigning titans of mobile.

What do you think of Windows Phone 8? Tell us what your preferred platform is, and if you think Microsoft’s latest is enough to tempt you away from it.