Windows Mobile gets good just as Microsoft stops caring

Finally, Microsoft's smartphone OS comes together as a viable platform for basic needs

Windows Mobile gets good just as Microsoft stops caring
Credit: Reuters/Thomas Mukoya

Windows Mobile is Microsoft's version of the "boy who cried wolf" -- after years of broken promises, customers, manufacturers, and carriers have moved on. Even Microsoft has moved on, demoting Windows Mobile to a "maybe later" priority while redirecting its mobile focus to iOS and Android.

Yet today Windows 10 Mobile is finally -- after Windows Mobile 6.5 and the Windows Phone 7, 7.5, 7.8, 8, and 8.1 versions -- the smartphone operating system that Microsoft should have provided as its response to the iPhone so many years ago.

Windows 10 Mobile is not as good as iOS or Android, but it is finally a workable platform, with a coherent, polished interface and the minimal core capabilities that will satisfy many users seeking basic Microsoft app compatibility and core features like Web access, music play, and navigation.

Windows 10 Mobile has been in excruciatingly slow release since November 2015, when it debuted on Microsoft's own Lumia 550, 950, and 950XL smartphones. About a month ago, Microsoft announced Windows 10 Mobile would finally appear on older smartphones (mainly Lumia models).

But that rollout is slower than molasses, with smartphone makers and carriers moving at a snail's pace, if at all, to provide Windows 10 Mobile upgrades. The truth is, the only immediate way to get Windows 10 Mobile on most compatible smartphones is to join Microsoft's Windows Insider beta program and install it outside the carrier update route.

Now that the operating system is finally officially released on some existing devices, I've been using Windows 10 Mobile on my corporate smartphone for a few weeks. The late beta last fall showed promise, and the production version delivers on that potential. It's a solid mobile platform, especially if your computing is Microsoft-centered and you don't consider a smartphone as a pocket-sized computer.

What's to like about Windows 10 Mobile

Mirroring the sad journey of Windows itself in the Windows Vista and Windows 8 eras, Windows Mobile (then called Windows Phone) got all gummed up with a haystack of options littered through it. The Settings app was a treasure hunt, and its designers seemed determined to show how much Windows Mobile could do by slicing up the features as much as possible to increase the number of options. It was an incoherent mess.

Windows 10 Mobile ends that sin, consolidating the options into digestible groups and a rational organization. That rationalization makes it easier to customize Windows 10 Mobile.

Windows 10 Mobile Start screen

Windows 10 Mobile's Start screen has become a bit more sophisticated in appearance, making its signature live tiles more engaging.

The Start screen is a bit more sophisticated and more visually appealing in Windows 10 Mobile. Of course, most of the heavy lifting to the Start screen usable occurred in Windows Phone 8.1, such as the introduction of folders. The changes in Windows 10 Mobile's Start screen are mainly stylistic, such as the ability to put an image behind the tiles. As a result, the live tiles -- long a key strength of Windows Mobile's UI -- feel much more compelling. I only wish that the tiles weren't all so similar, as it can be hard to find the tile whose information you want to glance at or whose app you want to open.

The Action Center -- the pull-down tray of widgets -- in Windows 10 Mobile has become a true center for actions, with access to all sorts of settings, notifications, and applets. You can finally respond to a notification from the notification itself, not launch its app first. These UI adjustments combine to make Windows 10 Mobile feel like an adult platform, finally comfortable in its own skin.

But the biggest advancements in Windows 10 Mobile relate to security and apps.

Windows 10 Mobile finally lets users enable device encryption for local contents; Windows Phone 8 supported encryption only if enabled by IT through an Exchange or mobile management server. The user-enabled encryption key in Windows 10 Mobile is also stored locally, so Microsoft or your company can't give the FBI the key to access your device, as they can with the server-enabled encryption.

On the app front, the biggest advancement is that the real Office suite, not that abomination known as Office Mobile, is now available for Windows smartphones. That brings Windows smartphones up to parity with iPhones and Android smartphones for office productivity -- and nearly as capable as the desktop Windows and Mac versions. Microsoft's mobile communications tools, such as Outlook and Skype for Business, are also available for Windows 10 Mobile, where they are basically at parity with their iOS and Android equivalents, though not as capable as their desktop versions.

What's not to like about Windows 10 Mobile

Although Windows 10 Mobile is now a comfortably useful platform, it has nowhere the rich functionality of iOS or Android, so the more you use a smartphone as a portable computer, the less you'll like Windows 10 Mobile. It's still aimed at basic usage.

For example, the list of business-class apps available for Windows 10 Mobile remains very short, though it boasts Adobe Acrobat Reader, Cisco AnyConnect, Cisco WebEx Meetings, Concur, Evernote, GoToMeeting, Slack (in beta), TripIt, and Amtrak and a few airline apps. As you can see, they're not much. Worse, many of these apps crow about being the "new" Windows 8 or 8.1 versions at the Microsoft Store. Ahem.

Interestingly, Google has none of its apps -- even Gmail, Google Maps, or Google Search -- available for Windows Mobile. If you use Google services, you won't want Windows 10 Mobile.

If you use a Mac, you no longer have an app available to sync files such as music to your Windows phone; Microsoft discontinued that Mac app with Windows 10 Mobile. There's no simple way to load your Windows phone with contents from iTunes; it's evermore difficult than doing so from Android. (However, you can connect Windows 10 Mobile to your Apple iCloud email, calendars, and contacts.)

By contrast, you get the same clients and connections to Microsoft's various services as you do on a  Windows 10 PC. Clearly, Windows 10 Mobile assumes -- nay, requires -- you be a Windows PC user who relies mainly on Microsoft's own ecosystem.

The basic installed apps like Alarms & Clock, Outlook Calendar, Outlook Mail, and People are serviceable, but nothing to write home about. They're nearly at parity with Google's default apps on Android, but not as capable as Samsung's, and nowhere close to Apple's. 

Windows 10 Mobile also has a lot of junkware, and not only from the carrier. Microsoft has a lot of filler apps pre-installed in Windows 10 Mobile, including Contact Support, Device Help, Food and Drink, Get Started, Help+Tips, Lumia Help+Tips, Lumia Moments, Lumia Selfie, Lumia Storyteller, Money, Movies & TV, Sports, and Storage (which really should be in Settings). Clearly, the folks that use to clog up Settings with stuff are now developing the help and information apps that litter Windows Mobile. I'm not even counting low-value apps like News, FM Radio (which should be part of Groove Music), Health & Fitness, Podcasts, Skype Video, and Voice Recorder.

From a UI perspective, Windows Mobile's scrollable tiles continue to be a weakness the more apps you have. iOS and Android use pages to organize apps, in addition to folders, and those pages are an easier way to navigate your phone when you have lots of apps installed. Windows Mobile needs a similar feature -- putting everything in one very long scrollable window is very tiresome to navigate. The tiles are great, though, when you have only a few apps installed -- which is probably the case for most users.

Finally, although I could get AnyConnect to the corporate VPN, I could not get Windows Mobile's Edge browser to successful load our content management system, though the CMS works fine over AnyConnect on iOS, Android, Windows, and OS X. Our CMS does not support Internet Explorer, due to its many nonstandard attributes, but it runs on Edge on the desktop. It's unclear if this issue is related to AnyConnect or Edge, but with Chrome and Firefox not available for Windows Mobile, I can't tell what the issue is. It's a reminder once again that Windows Mobile doesn't have the platform or application maturity of the other operating systems.

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