Windows Phone 8 Is ‘Reinvented Around You.’ Is That Good Enough?

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO, at an event to unveil Windows Phone 8 software in San Francisco, on Oct. 29, 2012. Photograph by Tony Avelar/Bloomberg

Microsoft officially introduced Windows Phone 8 on Monday in hopes of reviving its mobile software platform, which hasn’t made an impact with many consumers in years. Suggesting that “people are at the center of the experience,” the phones with Microsoft’s new operating system suggest you won’t see one great phone for everyone. Instead, the company says, you get a phone made for you.

This message was evident throughout Microsoft’s launch event, with several key features added to the platform. The old Live Tiles on the phone’s home screen are still there, providing updated and personalized content. But new and related are Live Apps, which can now show customized information at a glance on the lock screen. Facebook, for example, can feed photos to the lock screen.

Kids Corner is another custom feature that will appeal particularly to parents. With it, you can allow certain apps or functions to be excluded from a kid-friendly mode, which essentially turns the handset into one phone with multiple personalities. Enable Kids Corner, hand a Windows Phone 8 to your son or daughter, and they can access only the games and apps you’ve previously specified. All such apps appear on the kids’ home screen, and your work or personal data is walled off from little fingers.

The Windows Phone 8 People Hub is a carryover from the prior version, but with some new tricks. Rooms are custom groups for sharing private messages, locations, calendars, photos, and to-dos. Those calendars can even be shared with iPhone users. Windows Phone 8 also includes Data Sense, a feature to help you manage your monthly data allowance and allow you to use the Web more with a given amount of mobile broadband. Microsoft says it tested Data Sense, and users can use it to surf 45 percent more on the mobile Web with their current mobile broadband plan because the service compresses information at the carrier level. Verizon Wireless will be the first to support this.

As for apps, Microsoft says there are now 120,000 of them for the platform, and 46 of the top 50 apps from other platforms will be on Windows Phone 8, including Temple Run, Twitter, Cut the Rope, Urbanspoon, LivingSocial, and Angry Birds Star Wars. In early 2013 a new version of Pandora arrives for Windows Phone 8 and will include one year of ad-free music, which is odd since Microsoft is pushing its own Xbox Music service across all platforms. Lastly, Skype is optimized and integrated into the phone experience: It’s always on but won’t drain the battery, says Microsoft.

Of course, Microsoft wants to sell Windows Phone by pushing the entire Windows ecosystem, something I said last year that may help boost sales of the phone. Said Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer: “If you’re one of the millions who will use Windows 8 in the next year, there is no better phone for you than a Windows Phone.” Microsoft’s SkyDrive platform—with a free 7 gigabytes of cloud storage—is the synchronization “glue” to keep all of your data accessible between Xbox, Windows 8, and Windows Phone 8. It syncs Office docs, full-resolution photos, and videos.

There were few surprises concerning hardware. Ballmer showed off the Nokia Lumia 920, Samsung ATIV S, and Windows Phone 8X from HTC, noting that a smaller version will arrive as the 8S. Verizon will carry the 8X and Lumia 922, along with the exclusive ATIV Odyssey. T-Mobile has the Lumia 810 and HTC Windows Phone 8X, while AT&T is carrying the Lumia 920, Lumia 820, and HTC 8X. Notably absent was any mention of Sprint. All Microsoft Stores will carry the full range of Windows Phones—from all carriers and in every color option.

Along with the customization theme, I noticed another key selling point: Windows Phone 8 has many useful bits that third parties offer on other platforms built right into the software. For example, I’ve seen a Kids Corner-like function on certain T-Mobile Android phones. And the data compression/usage function of Data Sense is used by the Opera browser and Onavo. But it’s smart of Microsoft to take these types of functions and make them native: Why have people search for such useful solutions when they can be integrated into the platform?

All in all, Windows Phone 8 sounds promising. What it doesn’t sound is revolutionary; it’s more of an evolvement from Windows Phone 7 and 7.5, which haven’t been big sellers. As much as I liked Windows Phone 7.5, I don’t see huge, compelling improvements that will make much difference in consumers’ minds. What was “reinvented”? And wasn’t the last version nearly as customizable?

So part of me wonders: If this new platform is just an improved version of that last one that hasn’t taken off, is there enough here to see a big sales jump? I suspect not. What could help, however, is the common interface between Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8, along with deep SkyDrive integration in the platform as a whole.

Also from GigaOM:

Is Windows Phone Finally Turning the Corner? (subscription required)

From Inside Apple, the Scott Forstall Fallout

The Pinterest-ization of the E-Commerce Experience

What Ebay’s Bet on Fuel Cells Means for the Modern Data Center

Google News Wars Are Here Again: Schmidt vs. France on ‘News Tax’

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.