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How Microsoft Can Fix Windows Phone In 2012

Last year, I wrote about how Microsoft could fix Windows Phone in 2011. This year, I'd like to look back on my recommendations and see which the software giant took me up on. And then I'd like to examine the ways in which Microsoft can further improve Windows Phone in the coming year. Microsoft's mobile OS is a wonder of usability, clarity, and design, but few consumers seem to understand it even exists. It's time to fix that.

Last year's recommendations

First, let's take a look at the recommendations I made last year and see how many Microsoft implemented.

Copy and paste, multitasking for third-party app. "Let's just get rid of the obvious complaint bait and fix that stuff, so we can shut up the haters of the world for good," I wrote. And Microsoft did just that: Its first update for Windows Phone, called NoDo, added copy and paste, and its first major update, Mango (or Windows Phone 7.5) added multitasking to third party apps. Done and done.

Embrace more third party services. One of the key differentiators of Windows Phone is that the system integrates deeply with popular online services, providing a seamless experience for users with little need to download third party apps to get things done. But it could go further: The first version of Windows Phone didn't integrate with Flickr, or Google Picasaweb, SmugMug, or any other photo sharing service, for example. And Facebook integration wasn't granular enough, I noted.

In 2011, Microsoft fixed the Facebook issue nicely by dramatically improving how that service works. And it added support for Twitter and LinkedIn. It did not, however, add any integration with Flickr, Google Picasaweb, SmugMug, or any other photo sharing service. And that needs to change in 2012. That, or Microsoft needs to finally open up its Windows Phone SDK/APIs to allow third parties to add that support themselves.

Support higher resolutions. In 2010, the iPhone 4 sported the first-ever 960 x 640 resolution screen, and I recommended bumping up Windows Phone's 800 x 480 resolution to an HD quality 1280 x 720. Android handsets makers have since taken me up on this offer, but not Microsoft: Heading into 2012, 800 x 480 is still the only resolution available on Windows Phones.

Tablets and media players. Like many readers, I've begged Microsoft to extend Windows Phone to two critical markets: Tablets and media players. Microsoft has shown no inclination to do either, but there is some hope here: Windows 8 OS for PCs is very much like Windows Phone and will be made available on tablets, including those that run on the same ARM chips that power Windows Phone. I don't see a Windows Phone OS-based Zune device appearing, however. And that's a shame, though I admit that the market for such a device is small.

CDMA, LTE, 4G. When Windows Phone launched in late 2010, it was available only on GSM-style wireless networks. Today, CDMA compatibility is available, as is "pseudo 4G" courtesy of HPSA+ support.  But 4G is still in the future. The good news? Microsoft says its coming.

Take back software updates from the carriers. Last year, I complained that Microsoft would work with the wireless carriers and actually allow them to block updates from being delivered to their customers. And that's exactly what happened throughout early 2011: Its wireless carrier partners blocked Windows Phone updates, sometimes for several months. Fortunately, Microsoft wised up and overhauled its updating process. And while wireless carriers can technically still block updates, my guess is we'll see a lot less of that going forward. The amazingly quick rollout of Windows Phone 7.5--a major update--suggests that the problem is fixed for good.

Rebrand it. Last year, I wrote that the name Windows Phone was holding back this platform and that there was nothing about Windows Phone that made it similar in any way to desktop Windows. With the Windows 8 announcement, however, this is no longer the case, and that next desktop Windows will use a very Windows Phone-like user interface. And it will drive users to Windows Phone, I bet. So I rescind this request, slightly: Maybe they should simply rename the next version of Windows Phone to... Windows.

New issues to consider for 2012

Looking back on my 2011 recommendations, there are only three key losses: Not enough of the right online services integration, no higher resolution display support, and no standalone media player. Armed with this information, how else would I change Windows Phone in 2012? 

Windows everywhere. If you accept the current rumor that Windows 8 will be the basis for Windows Phone 8, then things are about to change and dramatically. Despite the seismic shift that such a strategy would entail, I support this move. It would instantly make Windows the most easily managed and well understood mobile OS on earth, and a boon and obvious choice for businesses.

Open it up. Android is popular because Android is free. Do you see where this is going? If Microsoft is serious about making Windows Phone successful, it needs to license it for free. It's that simple.

Sell it. Since my previous recommendation is never going to happen, Microsoft needs work with the wireless carriers to ensure that their in-store employees are not ignoring Windows Phone and driving consumers away. As they are now, according to reports.

It's about the integration, stupid. This is my online services argument from last year, again: Microsoft needs to open up its mobile OS so that third parties like Flickr, SmugMug, and many others can deeply integrate into the system. Imagine being able to automatically upload full resolution copies of every picture you take to the service of your choice: That's what this kind of integration can bring to the table.

Many key apps are still missing. I asked people on Twitter which key Windows Phone apps were still missing and was instantly met by a deluge of answers that is both embarrassing and unexpected. Key, tier-1 apps are still missing and need to be added to the Windows Phone Marketplace as soon as possible. Some include Audible, Pandora, Logmein, Roboform and 1Password, Skype, DropBox, Photosynth, Cut the Rope, Hulu, Google+ and many other Google apps, Instagram, PayPal, a real RDP client, Flipboard, Mint, Nook, and many, many more. Microsoft says that the most popular Android and iOS apps are available already on Windows Phone and certainly the company has done a great job so far. But there is a lot more work to be done here. 2012 should be the year this gets ironed out.

Update Microsoft's apps more frequently, and before other plattforms. By bundling apps like Bing and Microsoft Office into Windows Phone, Microsoft is ensuring that they will only be updated very infrequently. This needs to change. Microsoft's mobile apps should appear first on Windows Phone, be updated first on Windows Phone, and be better on Windows Phone. It's that simple.

Update the specs. Microsoft maintains a minimum spec for Windows Phone hardware, and it hasn't changed much since the initial 2010 version. For Windows Phone 8, this needs to change, and should include an 8 megapixel or better camera with HD video, higher resolution screen options (again, something like 1280 x 720 makes sense), and other changes that will keep this platform on the top of the technology curve. Today, Windows Phone sits firmly in the middle, and that's not the right positioning for a system that is otherwise superior to everything else out there.

So there you go. Will Microsoft do right by Windows Phone in 2012? My hopes are high, my expectations low. But this OS deserves to succeed. I'd like to see it happen next year. 

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