Nokia buy can't fix Windows Phone biggest hurdle: Itself

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Nokia buy can't fix Windows Phone biggest hurdle: Itself

Nokia is Microsoft's best chance at selling phones, but what it really needs is a more sophisticated OS.

Microsoft's buyout of Nokia's cell phone branch will benefit everyone, the two companies' CEOs say. The direct reach into Microsoft's deep pockets will give Nokia phones the financial backing they need to make an even firmer marketing push. What's more, integrated hardware and software teams spell faster releases.

Nokia Lumia 925
Even the best Nokia phones are slave to Windows Phone's capabilities and constraints.

(Credit: James Martin/CNET)

Making Nokia's celebrated design aesthetic the vanguard of a new hardware-focused Microsoft brand may give Redmond all sorts of cachet. But that hardware cred won't mean much so long as Microsoft's Windows Phone OS trails behind Android and iOS.

That's a chasm Microsoft won't be able to close until the company can successfully turn Windows Phone into a truly competitive operating system -- something that has nothing to do with Nokia's hardware or software assets.

The newest (and least mature) of these three operating systems, Windows Phone arguably has the freshest, cleanest design, but there are also major gaps in its support.

For instance, developers tend to program Windows Phone apps after launching with Android and iOS, which makes its app Marketplace seem more spartan when it comes to the hottest titles.

Among the 170,000 apps that Microsoft currently lists in the Windows Phone marketplace are familiar titles like Pandora, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, and YouTube. Yet others, like Candy Crush, Instagram, and Dropbox, miss the roll call.

In addition, Microsoft's mobile OS lacks official support for the majority of Google's ecosystem of online apps and services. You can read your Gmail through the main e-mail app, and set the phone to search Google instead of Bing. There's also a bare-bones Google search app.

However, you can't download the official Chrome browser, and Web apps and third-party programs are the only way to access popular tools like Google Drive and Google+. A public saga between Microsoft and Google could account for much of this missing, but common, cooperation among rivals.

Nokia Lumia 925
Nokia can help Microsoft with a more cohesive camera experience in the future.

(Credit: James Martin/CNET)

What else Windows Phone needs

There isn't a single silver bullet that can catch Windows Phone 8 (reviewed) up to its competitors, but here are a few common suggestions from Windows Phone users that could help even the score:

  • Notification center: A central area for alerts would augment badges associated with each app.
  • Start screen folders: Grouping apps into folders would help users keep more important icons available without having to scroll down or to the app list.
  • Contextual search: Pressing the Search icon should search within the app, not just launch Bing search.
  • Voice assistant: Round out the voice search functionality to understand natural language and launch device actions.
  • Support for multiple Gmail accounts: Expanding support would allow users with multiple accounts to switch inboxes.
  • Improve local search: Local search options are limited, hard to sort, and not always very accurate.
  • More-graphical interface: The text-heavy OS can be hard to read quickly, and flat, monochromatic squares of the same color make it hard to differentiate apps at a glance.
It isn't all doom and gloom. Windows Phone excels at keeping the operating system uniform across devices, and at integrating the Microsoft Office suite and Xbox. It's known for a highly accurate typing experience on its virtual keyboard. Users also enjoy the dynamic live tiles and the OS' overall responsiveness.
How Nokia can further bolster Windows Phone

From where I sit, the major way Nokia's current team of talent can help Windows phone more effectively as a subsidiary than it could do as a close partner is with its people. If Microsoft allows Nokia's transplants to have a crack at developing the OS into its next stages, Microsoft could add some freshness and missing features to the smartphone experience.

In the sense of specific software, Nokia has invested considerable time in exclusive camera apps for its Windows phones. Today, most of those effects and settings appear in separate programs you have to open or switch to from the native camera. With this acquisition, Windows Phone OS could get a single, more robust photo experience right out of the gate.
For its part, Nokia's music app is also a little redundant with Microsoft's own OS offering, but there may be some behind-the-scenes expertise that Nokia can lend Microsoft's OS.
Since Nokia will be keeping its Here maps division as part of the deal, Microsoft will have to continue integrating that software through a partner relationship.
Beyond Nokia
From the first bold Nokia Lumia 800 to the first metal-bearing Lumia, Nokia's handsets already made Windows Phone appealing.

Now it's up to Microsoft's leaders and engineers to advance the platform itself, and to get flagship Nokia phones selling across all major carriers in mature markets like the US.
Hopefully, increasing Windows Phone's software capabilities and public image will become the major mobile priority of Microsoft's next CEO, whomever he or she is. When it comes to selling software, there's only so much that buying up a hardware arm can do.