The conventional wisdom among Windows Phone fans is that theirs is the only truly innovative mobile platform, and that Apple in particular is behind the times, releasing years-old features in its new iPhones and iOS to a compliant audience. But the iPhone 6 and iOS 8 in particular have a lot to offer, including some things I'd really like to see in Windows Phone.
To be clear, this isn't a one-sided debate. There are as many, if not more, Windows Phone features I'd love to see in iOS and iPhone, starting with live tiles and dedicated Back and Camera buttons. But I'm not as interested in helping Apple as I am in selfishly seeing my favorite mobile platform catch up in ways that are meaningful. And this list is intended to be constructive.
1. Family Sharing
This is quite possibly the iOS 8 feature I'm most excited about. Stung by lawsuits and complaints about children buying apps and making in-app purchases on its devices, Apple has slowly but surely plugged the holes and made iOS more secure. Now in iOS 8, it has also added a neat Family Sharing feature that lets you share your Tunes (music, movies, TV shows), iBooks, and the App Store purchases with up to six family members, and do so securely. Your kids don't get your Apple ID and password. When they want to make any purchases, you can configure it so that they have to get explicit permission from you. You can share photos and calendars, and you can find your kids—courtesy of their phone's GPS—on a map at any time. Bravo. We need this. Badly.
2. Health platform
With Sensor Core, Nokia added some very interesting health-related capabilities to certain Nokia handsets only. But Windows Phone lacks an integrated, core health infrastructure like the new Health Kit functionality that Apple has added to iOS 8. The first app to use this underlying functionality, called Health, ships with iOS and provides a health and fitness dashboard so you can monitor your Heart rate, calories burned, blood sugar, cholesterol, weight, fitness, and other categories. It provides an emergency card that can appear on the lock screen for health care responders in the event of an emergency. And it integrates, of course, with third party apps, and will be compatible with the Apple Watch, which will include health sensors of its own.
Microsoft has long offered the HealthVault service, and combined with its own apps (MSN Fitness & Health), third party apps and, on some devices, Sensor Core, it provides a reasonable but scattered health and fitness story. But Apple just leapt ahead.
3. Notification actions
Windows Phone's notifications have always lagged behind the competition. We just got a basic notification center—called "Action Center," of course—in Windows Phone 8, for example. But now Apple is racing ahead, again, with a neat new feature called notification actions. Here's how it works: You get a new email message, text message, or other notification, and the app pops up a standard notification slice at the top of the screen. You can tap this screen to launch the underlying app, of course, but maybe you're in the middle of something. So now in iOS 8, you can optionally work with the notification in place, without leaving whatever app you're using. You can answer an email. Respond to a text. Accept or decline a calendar invite. Snooze and alarm. On and on it goes. Truly useful.
This one is a bit vague, but iOS 8 offers new and unique cross-platform capabilities that work with the latest version of Mac OS X, called Yosemite. Looking beyond also-useful features like cross-platform settings sync (which we do have with Windows and Windows Phone), Continuity provides the ability to continue actions (an email message, a web page you're reading, a document you're editing, a reminder you're, um, being reminded of, and so on) on a different device. So you can start on a Mac and pick it up on your iPhone. Or vice versa. It provides the ability to integrate your iPhone's phone calling, text messaging, and Internet connectivity with your Mac, so you can answer a phone call, listen to voice mail, send a text message, and more on your Mac, invisibly through your iPhone.
This kind of "better together" story was always the hallmark of Microsoft's solutions, and it's interesting to see Apple pick up the baton and run with it.
I just described this truly useful and usable feature in Apple iPhone 6 Plus Second Impressions, but here's the short version: Reachability makes it possible to use a large handset like the iPhone 6 or 6 Plus with one hand, something that is just not possible on Windows Phone. Yes, we do have a hardware Back button, which does somewhat mitigate the need for this feature. (Flipside: On a device like the Lumia 1520, it is next to impossible to actually hit that Back button if you're holding the phone with just one hand.) But Reachability's real aim is to help you hit onscreen UI controls that are in the upper and left parts of the screen, beyond the reach of your thumb. It really works.
6. Landscape view
All modern mobile platforms support a landscape mode, but now Windows Phone is the only one that doesn't support this mode on its Start screen, and the only one that doesn't offer specially tailored built-in apps that display differently on larger-screen devices while in landscape mode. What this means is that the iOS Mail app displays in a normal single-column view in portrait mode, but that when you switch to landscape mode—on an iPad or, now, on iPhone 6/6 Plus—you get a more useful, desktop-like two-column mode. We need this.
Mail app, portrait mode
Mail app, landscape mode
7. A camera that is both fast and high-quality
As I recently noted in Apple iPhone 6 Plus Second Impressions, while the camera in high-end Nokia handsets like the Lumia 1020 remains technically superior to that in the iPhone 6/6 Plus, Apple's handsets offer excellent photo quality too. And they have some major advantages over the Lumias, including first and foremost their sheer performance, but also built-in modes for panorama, square photos (for you Instagrammers), slow-motion video, and time-lapse, all of which are missing or require separate apps on Windows Phone. Put simply, the iPhone 6 camera is both high-quality and fast. And we just don't have such a thing on the Windows Phone side of the fence.
8. Touch ID
I declined to review the iPhone 5S last year because it was just more of the same, but as I noted in Through the Cracks: Tech Products I'm Not Reviewing, there was one iPhone 5S feature that was truly excellent: Touch ID. In that initial implementation, Touch ID—basically a new sensor that takes the place of the iPhone Home button—offered only a single, useful time saver: You could use it to sign-in to your phone—and make Apple store purchases—with the soft press of a finger.
With iPhone 6/6 Plus, Touch ID gets even better. As before, you can use it to securely and conveniently sign in to your phone and approve purchases from the app store, iTunes Store and iBooks Store. But starting in October, you'll be able to use it with the new Apple Pay system (see below) to make mobile payments while out in the world. And it now integrates with third party apps too. Nice.
Touch ID is to a PIN code as the PIN code is to the complex password: A simpler and more human-friendly way of getting into your device.
9. A wallet that actually works
Two years ago, Microsoft introduced Windows Phone 8, which included a then-new feature called Wallet, based on NFC electronic payments. At the time, I wrote that "the Wallet experience is mobile operator friendly: It can be branded and customized by your operator and can work with a secure element on the SIM or in the device itself." Put another way, "the Wallet experience requires your mobile operator, who will never provide you with the Secure Element-based SIM that is required to make this feature work." Wallet was originally going to work with just Orange in France, and then would head out to other carriers throughout 2013 and beyond. That never happened.
This year, Apple is finally taking on mobile payments in a meaningful way with Apple Pay. (It had previously offered a lukewarm Passbook feature that consolidated membership and gift cards but not general payment methods that worked everywhere.) This is the real deal. It will work with all major credit cards, with many major retailers and banks, and will all existing mobile payment kiosks.
The good news? Apple Pay could have a positive effect on rival systems for Google Android (which has actually supported this technology since 2011) and Windows Phone. In other words, by opening up to mobile payments, credit card companies, banks and retailers will implicitly support Windows Phone. Now if we could just get the wireless carriers to give us Secure Element-based SIMs, we'd be all set. He says to crickets chirping.
10. That one app
This is a nebulous goal, and something that is quite frankly not achievable. If you're interested in converting iPhone users (or Android users) to Windows Phone for whatever reason, the one stumbling block is always going to be that one app that the person needs/wants, the one app they simply can't live without. In some cases, there are alternatives, third-party apps that fill important gaps. But in other cases, nothing but the real app will do.
We don't have a JetBlue app on Windows Phone, for example, and I had to sheepishly pull out my iPhone 5S on my trip home from Las Vegas last week to check-in to my flight. (The alternative? Paper.) For my wife, it's the app for our local, three-branch bank, an app that will literally never appear on Windows Phone. Everyone who uses iOS or Android has at least one of these apps. And while we can sit here and pontificate about how apps don't matter, that's an argument only the app-less would make.
Bonus: Actual, regular software updates
OK, this list goes to 11.
With the understanding that this issue dogs Android, which is about six times a popular as iOS, only Apple—inexplicably—is able to deliver software updates to all of its users across every wireless carrier on earth at the exact same time. This means that Apple's devices are pretty much always up to date and, more important, always have access to the latest features, functionality and security. We need this on Windows Phone, and while the Developer Preview program helps, it has thus far proven useless at getting firmware updates out to users. (And has in fact made that process even worse.) This, plus the apps gap, is what constitutes Windows Phone's Achilles Heel.