Windows Phone 8.1: Microsoft builds the new BlackBerry

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Windows Phone 8.1's new multi-column UI packs information in, even on a standard phone screen.

Credit: Simon Bisson

The developer preview of Windows Phone 8 reveals a updated phone OS, with the features businesses are looking for in a BlackBerry replacement. It's also got Cortana.

Back in the early days of the smartphone, the device to have was a BlackBerry. From C-level down they were the go to device for email and apps. But when the shift to touch and large screens came, RIM's BlackBerry OS was too slow to change and the market shifted away. Everyone and their dog now claims to have the enterprise-friendly smartphone; devices controlled by mobile device management, with secure data, and the tools for building line-of-business applications.

Early this morning Microsoft unleashed the developer preview of its latest contender, Windows Phone 8.1. It's only a developer preview in name only: This is the final code, released to anyone who can sign up to Microsoft's web-based Windows Phone App Studio and download an app that enables access to the company's update server. It's one way of avoiding the delays that come with operator certifications, getting the code in the hands of enthusiasts, as well as the developers building apps.

A whole new Windows Phone

Don't be confused by the point update. Windows Phone 8.1 is a major update, and if Microsoft weren't so intent on showing that it shares much of its internals with the desktop Windows 8.1, it would easily deserve to have been called Windows Phone 9. But then numbering mobile OSes rarely makes sense, with Android getting major updates on point releases and iOS using point releases for bug fixes.

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Windows Phone 8.1's new notification center

In practice, then, this is the fourth major version of Windows Phone in four years, and the second to use the familiar Windows NT kernel.

Initially intended to be an update to a consumer mobile platform, Windows Phone 8.1 has ended up subsuming the features of a planned separate Enterprise Feature Pack, giving the new OS many of the features businesses are looking for in a mobile OS. That's an important change from the original direction Microsoft had chosen: Instead of adding enterprise controls to specific consumer devices, all devices are able to become business devices.

Microsoft has added a notification center to Windows Phone 8, giving you quick access to new mail and other app notifications. There's also quick access to WiFi, Bluetooth and Airplane Mode settings, which used to be buried deep in the Windows Phone settings app.

Windows Phone 8.1, the BYOD release

The enterprise features Microsoft is including with Windows Phone 8.1 are quite comprehensive. Not only can you deliver VPN profiles to devices (and manage third-party VPN software), there's also the option of joining a phone to an Active Directory domain, using a variant of the Workplace join feature introduced in Windows 8.1.

With Microsoft's Enterprise Mobility Suite of cloud-based device management tools encompassing both Intune and Azure Active Directory, there's the prospect of being able to manage Windows Phone devices without connecting them to internal management tooling; managing mobile devices in a mobile fashion, without making them fully part of the network.

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Configure Windows Phone 8.1 to work with a VPN.

Windows Phone 8.1 also gets a significant browser boost with the arrival of IE 11, complete with WebGL. Microsoft's browser has caught up with the rest of the web, and now with IE 11 on mobile, it's leapfrogged some of its competition. There's now tab and password sharing between mobile browser and desktop, as well as support for Live Tiles for pinned sites and private browsing.

It's perhaps best to think of the Windows Phone IE 11 as equivalent to the modern Start screen IE on Windows 8.1, with additional affordances for mobile use, including a low power mode that reduces the size of downloaded images. You can use IE over Windows Phone VPNs, with support for auto-triggered connections, connecting automatically for URLs with your corporate domain.

Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows 8.1 now share around 90% of their APIs -- the main differences are that phones don't support the Windows clipboard, and Windows devices don't support the phone camera APIs. This sharing means developers can develop Universal Apps that have common business logic and different user experiences on different classes of device. This will make it easier to develop and ship new Windows apps, either inside a business's device management platform or through the Windows Store. A single cross-device application model is perhaps Windows Phone's most business friendly feature, as it keeps costs down while ensuring developer skills are as widely applicable as possible.

Microsoft has also started to follow Google's path of separating out apps from the OS, allowing them to be updated much more quickly. Windows Phone 8.1 no longer includes Music and Video apps, and a new Calendar is downloaded from the store as part of the update process. Apps will update automatically, so users don't have to keep checking the Windows Store for new releases.

It's a mullet phone: Business in the front, consumer in the back

There's plenty in Windows Phone 8 for the consumer, above and beyond its Cortana personal assistant. While Cortana adds a mix of Apple's Siri and Google's Now, it's also the heart of Windows Phone's new notification service with the ability to keep you informed of changes to travel plans, to journey times, and to much more. Using the contents of your local email as a source, Cortana starts building a picture of you, your life, and what interests you.

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Cortana, Windows Phone 8.1's personal assistant.

It's also an effective voice control platform. Bing's voice recognition tools let you have a conversation with your device, letting you follow "Set an alarm for 10 tomorrow morning" with "Cancel that alarm." Cortana is able to deal with terms that refer to previous questions and commands, making it appear more flexible than at first. It can also be used to manage your calls outside of normal hours, with an inner circle of friends and family allowed to call you, much like a real personal assistant. You're not limited to voice; Cortana works just as well with a keyboard.

Cortana on the phone is just a start, and it's easy to see future versions of Windows (and even Xbox) adding similar functions. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella talks about "ambient intelligence" as part of his vision of the future, and that's something the Windows Phone and Bing teams are attempting to build here.

The new BlackBerry

Windows Phone 8.1 is an impressive step forward for Microsoft. It's clearly a modern, consumer-focused platform that's competitive with both iOS and Android, but thanks to its new enterprise feature set and a matching combination of cloud management tools, it's quite possibly the BlackBerry replacement IT professionals have been looking for. Users will find features like Cortana attractive, while admins will be pleased to be able to control access to network resources.

Microsoft's mix of light touch administration and deep enterprise features alongside an at-a-glance user experience and, if not the wide range of apps in the Android and iOS stores, then certainly most of the apps you're likely to want, shows a commitment to its Windows Phone platform. The soon-to-close acquisition of Nokia's device business will also bring Windows Phone 8.1 to Microsoft's own hardware in the shape of the budget Lumia 630 and flagship Lumia 930, devices that could conceivably replace BlackBerry Curve and Bold in corporate device fleets, and in lists of approved BYOD devices.

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