Windows 10 on Windows Phone: Not bad!

After five years, Microsoft finally has a reasonable smartphone platform, but it still trails the competition

Windows Phone, Microsoft's 2010 answer to the iPhone and Android, was a classic case of the bad Microsoft. Prerelease reviews of the first Windows Phone OS were very negative, yet Microsoft released it anyway, with the same suicidal stubbornness it later showed in the Windows 8 disaster. The obstinacy continued with Windows 7.5. Eventually, Windows Phone 8 and 8.1 started to show a glimmer of rational thinking at Microsoft, but felt like halfway efforts.

Soon, Microsoft will release Windows Phone 10, which it calls Windows 10 for Phones to remove some of the sting of the previous versions and take some cred from the well-received Windows 10.

This time, Microsoft need not be embarrassed. Based on my testing of a late beta version, Windows Phone 10 is a decent smartphone operating system, one that I wish it had released in 2010. Windows Phone 10 and the included apps are not as good as what iOS or Android offer today, but they are reasonably capable and offer sufficient capabilities for many users.

The user interface is more polished, and apps like Outlook Mail, Outlook Calendar, Office, People, MSN Weather, and Edge feel more baked. Windows Phone 10 liberally borrows notions like Find My Phone, cloud backup (to OneDrive), and home-screen pulldown from iOS, and the Sharing sheet from Android -- but borrowing good ideas is the right move. In fact, iOS and Android regularly lift concepts from each other.

Windows Phone 10 has its own innovations as well, of course, such as map downloads for offline navigation use and the Hub in the Edge browser for unified access to bookmarks, history, and reading list. The rich formatting controls for emails in Outlook Mail (and available in other apps, such as the Office suite) is one example of where Windows Phone beats iOS and Android.

Windows Phone 10's rich formatting for email

Windows Phone offers very rich formatting controls for emails in Outlook Mail.

IT will like the integration with Azure Active Directory mobile management. It will also like the fact encryption is now built in and can be set or required via Exchange ActiveSync or mobile-management policies. But I was surprised that in the beta at least no password is required to enable encryption, which also means no password is required to disable it. If that stands, any managed Windows Phones must require both encryption and a password to ensure encryption is in place.

As you dig deep, you start to find the flaws and holes in Windows Phone. For example, there's no unified inbox in Outlook Mail (though the iOS and Android versions have it), which adds effort to check mail. Outlook Calendar can't check invitees' availability as Apple's iOS Calendar can; then again, Outlook can't check availability in iOS or Android either. The Outlook apps in Windows Phone 10 aren't the showcases for Microsoft's "Office everywhere" strategy that they should be.

Other apps show more serious deficits. For example, File Explorer doesn't integrate with OneDrive, which it should given the centrality of Office 365 to Microsoft's Windows strategy and the fact that Windows 10 for PCs is designed to favor OneDrive storage.

Cortana is a nice clone of Google Now and Apple Siri, but it's no more than that. I also found it laggier than Siri or Google Now. And I didn't like that I had to press the microphone button for it to listen to me after launching Cortana; both Siri and Google Now are ready to listen when launched.

Of course, apps -- or the lack thereof -- have long been Windows Phone's biggest weakness. The hugely better Office apps and nice third-party apps like the beta Slack show that real apps can run on Windows Phone. But developers won't create them without a market, and serious mobile users won't buy a smartphone without real apps -- ask BlackBerry.

At the OS level, Windows Phone is solid, but it lacks the layers of control and nuance that iOS and Android have built over their many generations. As a major example, Windows Phone doesn't allow per-app permissions and privacy management. As a minor example, when the timer is active, Windows Phone doesn't show your current countdown in the lock screen.

Microsoft Word on Windows Phone 10 and Android Marshmallow

Although they have the same capabilities, Microsoft Word for Windows Phone (at left) doesn't expose the formatting controls, unlike the versions for Android (shown at right) and iOS. That can lead users to believe that the formatting controls aren't even available in Windows Phone. (You have to tap the More [...] button to get these controls.)

Some issues are not so much flaws as artifacts of Microsoft's UI design, which likes to bury options to make the initial interface simple. For example, Mail has very sophisticated text formatting capabilities -- once you find them. The Office apps hide the ribbon, unlike the iOS and Android versions of Office, so chances are most users won't find the many capabilities the suite now offers. That's too bad, because it's a major step up from the old, barely functional Office Mobile app. Office is even more capable in iOS and Android, of course.

Windows Phone 10's home screen

The home screen in Windows Phone 10 is essentially unchanged from previous versions, including the tedium of scrolling when you have lots of tiles.

Fortunately, Microsoft's UI is consistent. Once you figure out that much is hidden below the surface, you'll know where to look.

Although the UI feels smoother, better thought-out, and visually more sophisticated, it doesn't overcome the reality of Windows Phone's scrolling home screen: Scrolling gets very tedious as you have more tiles for your apps and data. The multiple-size tiles help, but scrolling the home screen and the All Apps screen gets more annoying as you have more apps and tiles.

Yes, you can long-tap the Back button to see only tiles for running apps and more quickly navigate among them, similar to what OS and Android do, but when dealing with the home screen, the pages approach of iOS and Android is easier to work with the more apps you have. Perversely, the small library of apps for Windows Phone helps reduce that frustration.

None of these issues is a showstopper. That's the point: Windows Phone may not be as advanced or capable as iOS or Android, but it now provides a reasonable set of tools for many users. It's became a solid, middling platform, not an embarrassment. That's critical progress for Microsoft.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.