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October 16, 2013

New Windows Phone 8 Update is Headed Our Way - Just in Time for the Holiday Season?

Finally Microsoft's third update to Windows Phone 8 - officially dubbed Windows Phone 8 Update 3 - will be in user hands in the very near future. Is this a big deal or should we simply yawn our approval and move on? Are there any big surprises or a big wow factor coming that might drive possibly significant new sales between the imminent release of the upgrade and Christmas?

Something exciting that might move the needle a bit on overall market share? Hmm… probably nothing quite that big.

In its latest market report IDC claims that WP8 had a worldwide market share of 3.7 percent in Q2 2013. It is well worth noting that simply to get to a 3.7 percent share Windows Phone device shipments had to grow a rather whopping 78 percent for the quarter year over year and reached 8.7 million units for the in the April to June 2013 time frame. Regardless of total market size there is discernible growth.

As hard as it might be to believe, it is now officially three years since Windows Phone 7 made its debut in October 2010 (with WP8 following in October of last year). As much as we were impressed with what was then a new tile-based interface in 2007, and as much as we like the Live Tiles implementation that is now an intimate part of the look and feel and user experience of WP8, we are perhaps starting to feel just a little tired by it. Obviously there isn't a whole lot to be done about such a thing - the tile interface is what sets Windows Phone apart from Android and iOS and those folks who've adopted it certainly love it.

Perhaps we cannot get rid of the tiles, nor would we want to, but how about this for a change: even more tiles on large display phones! More options for how they are laid out, with an entirely new third column of tile possibilities and configurations. Would that make things more interesting? It should, and Microsoft certainly agrees. The first thing that Update 3 will deliver that is of real consequence will be native support for larger display screen resolutions.

What this means is that users that already have larger display smartphones will see a real improvement in image quality. And we should see true high quality, very large smartphones (let's call it five inches and greater) emerge as a result. Think for example of a Nokia tablet built on WP8 instead of Win RT or Win Pro. We specifically mean here something much more akin to how iPhones and iPads are related to each other. Higher resolution of course isn't only about the WP8 UI. There is true HD video (full 1080p) to consider as well as WP8 apps and what they might be able to deliver with true higher resolution capability.

The image below points to what an enhanced three column WP8 UI will deliver. Visually speaking that is pretty much all we will really see from a look and feel perspective.

But the additional tiles will no doubt be welcomed by WP8 users. Some of those tiny tiles do sort of begin to look like, well, icons, but in those cases that is all that is necessary. Having the flexibility to manipulate the tiles relative to a user's personal importance preferences is a key benefit of the UI design, and it works. Finally, as part of that new screen experience, you will also at last be able to lock down and prevent auto rotation of the screen - hard to believe it took so long!

Less obvious to a casual user or even sophisticated users that simply don't care about this sort of thing is support for faster processors - read that to mean support for the Qualcomm 8974 quad-core chip. There is also better Internet sharing - if you have a Windows 8.1 device you will be able to share Internet access using Bluetooth without the need for a password. That is, it becomes easier to use your smartphone to create a hotspot. And you will now be able to close apps when you are in multitasking view - and that is something a few users definitely want in hand.

There will also be a group of "quality of life" updates (how about being able to assign specific ringtones to specific users? - we know what you are thinking, didn't feature phones have this ability) and "accessibility" updates (e.g. added assistance for those who have vision problems or may be blind or near blind) that users may or may not end up caring about. There will also be a new "Driving Mode" that will silence incoming calls and text messages. We're not sure it's that big a feature.

There will also be a new developer program that specifically targets providing developers with operating system updates much more quickly than has been the norm for Microsoft. Dubbed the Windows Phone Preview for Developers program, it has already launched. Over 300,000 developers will now be able to more easily verify that their apps work as expected significantly ahead of the launch of new OS versions or updates. To participate and download Windows Phone 8 Update 3 as a developer, one of three conditions need to be met: the smartphone must be “developer-unlocked," the developer is a registered Windows Phone Store developer, or the developer is a registered Windows Phone App Studio developer.

In truth, based on what the update is being called we can hardly think of the release as a big deal. At least from a technical perspective. But sometimes a little tweak or fix is all it takes to jumpstart a sales cycle. Those larger smartphones and tablet possibilities qualify here.

The only real open question is whether or not Microsoft has timed the release well or if it is likely to slide well beyond the full holiday shopping period. There are carrier-related testing and deployment issues that have to be resolved of course, and the mobile device manufactures - including Nokia, have to ensure their own ducks are all in a row to get the products out the door in time for a holiday bonanza.

We surely hope so!

Edited by Alisen Downey

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