Windows Phone Users Wait Impatiently For Updates

Jul 25, 2013 (05:07 AM EDT)

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8 Free, Must-Have Windows 8 Apps
8 Free, Must-Have Windows 8 Apps
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With Windows Phone 8, Microsoft is surging past BlackBerry to become the third major smartphone platform.

Customers are growing impatient as they wait for new features, however; whereas Windows 8 will soon receive a substantial overhaul with Windows 8.1, an equivalent upgrade for Windows Phone 8 isn't expected to arrive until 2014.

Last weekend, a user complained in a Microsoft forum that GDR2, a relatively minor Windows Phone update that began rolling out this month, doesn't add any of the features that customers have demanded. The criticism provoked hundreds of responses and even compelled Microsoft VP Joe Belfiore to chime in.

"We're listening to you folks," he wrote, promising there is "more coming later this year, and still more after that."

[ Are there enough mobile apps to make Microsoft's smartphone worthwhile? Read Windows Phone Scores More Key Apps. ]

GDR2 enables Data Sense, which tracks data usage. It also adds FM radio support, the ability to set third-party apps as the default camera controls, and better synching between Windows Phone 8 devices and Google services.

A more substantial, Windows 8.1-like update is rumored to include a notification center and multi-tasking improvements. Similar functions will feature prominently also in Apple's iOS 7, which is slated to reach iPhone users later this year.

There have also been indications that Microsoft is readying a personal assistant app in the vein of Apple's Siri, though details have been scant.

In the meantime, Microsoft hopes that improved Nokia hardware will deter users from jumping to iOS or Android. By most accounts, the new Nokia Lumia 1020 sets a new standard in smartphone cameras. Microsoft has pushed compatibility with its Office software as one of the prime advantages of both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, but because neither platform can compete with iOS and Android when it comes to mobile apps, consumers have been largely indifferent to Microsoft's pitch.

The Lumia 1020's camera, though, offers a different sort of appeal. It's a potentially killer feature that mass market users might actually care about, and that no Android or iOS device can replicate.

At first glance, the 1020's 41-megapixel sensor is more than most people need; the world's most-pixel-rich DSLR, the Nokia D800, has only 36 megapixels. But Nokia's implementation is clever, driven less by pixel-peeping than by versatility.

The camera zooms by cropping the image, for example. Unlike the digital zoom found in most smartphones, this strategy preserves fine details and color gradations. The camera also creates 5-megapixel JPEGS by oversampling the original image. This should lead to noise-free images, even in low light, and better tonal ranges throughout the image.

Time will tell if non-photographers are tempted, but early images suggest the camera delivers.

The 1010 faces at least one potential roadblock: At $299.99, its premium price could dissuade many casual shoppers. Nokia is also producing budget Windows Phone 8 devices, though, such as the recently announced Lumia 625, which packs a 4.7-inch display and LTE support.

These models are still more expensive than the entry-level Android options, however. Many of them also suffer from compromises. The 625's big screen is somewhat subverted by its modest 800-pixel-by-480-pixel resolution, for example.

Still, important as the hardware is, the platform's future still comes back to software.

Steve Ballmer's reorganized Microsoft is dedicated to a rapid software release cycle, with updates pushed out at regular intervals, rather than in huge chunks every three or so years. This goal could help Microsoft compete with Google, Samsung and Apple for consumers and BYOD workers. But it's easier said than done.

Belfiore emphasized that it will take time to develop the Windows Phone platform, a comment that echoes CFO Amy Hood's remarks following last week's disappointing earnings report.

Building a quality product takes time, no doubt. But given that Microsoft is trying to catch up in the smartphone race, the company doesn't have much time to lose.