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What's the point of Windows Phone 8?

Four in to two doesn't go in the smartphone world

Android and iPhone can co-exist happily, but Windows Phone 8 has no real place in the smartphone market. UPDATE: we've published a story with the best reader comments from this piece - see: '3 reasons Windows Phone 8 will succeed'.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that Windows Phones are bad devices. We've reviewed the few that are available in the UK right now, and smartphones such as the Nokia Lumia 820 and HTC Windows Phone 8X are solid four-star products. If you buy one, you won't be disappointed. But Microsoft has a problem with Windows Phone, and it's not only the lack of apps and handsets.

It seems unlikely to me that more than two platforms can thrive in the consumer mobile world. Right now Android, iOS and BlackBerry (remember them?) have the market sewn up, top to bottom, with BlackBerry feeling the pain. Android handsets shift in great volume, Apple is the premium player, and BlackBerry's future if it has one is rooted in business use. Even with the huge cash reserves with which Microsoft can play, and the billion or so Windows users in the world, it seems unlikely that Windows Phone 8 can squeeze its way in to any significant level.

For one thing, it's not that good. Those who use it tend to love it more than the average Android user, but WP8 isn't so much better than Android or iOS that it would make people want to swap. It's quite restrictive, and the lack of apps is a problem. The much vaunted cross-platform compatibility with Windows 8 is more imagined than real, and the only genuine advantage to Windows Phone 8 is Kids Corner - expect to see similar features in other mobile OSes very soon indeed. (It is a great feature.)

Android has volume because it is open software any hardware manufacturer can use. This, of course, means the quality of hardware and software varies wildly. But in its mature state Android allows manufacturers such as Samsung and LG to make phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S3 and Nexus 4 that are genuine competitors to the iPhone. Android also offers phone makers the potential to make cheap handsets that offer an entry level to the smartphone market for people who would never pony up for an iPhone.

At the other end of the spectrum Apple is both hardware and software maker. This means limited choice for the purchaser, but a guaranteed great, premium experience. To an extent, then, Android and iOS complement each other. They offer a modicum of choice, and a range of price points. App makers know that Android has more users and is an easier platform to which to gain access, but iPhone users spend a lot more cash. So it makes sense for most to go iPhone first, and then port to Android. Either way, virtually all significant app makers are on both platforms. Persuading them, and users, to move to Windows Phone seems like a choice too far.

Windows Phone 8 has the worst of all worlds. It's locked into Microsoft's world, with very strict hardware specs that mean little choice for users and handset makers. It's very difficult for hardware makers to differentiate their products: trust me - a Windows Phone 8 phone is a Windows Phone 8 phone. The quality varies only in style, storage capacity and camera quality. It's the negative aspects of iPhone, without all the positives.

And with hardware not made nor supported by Microsoft, and a distinct lack of users, Windows Phone 8 is less of a premium option for consumers, which in turn saddles it with a rubbish app store. See also: the negative aspects of Android. (If WP8 ever gets sufficient volume, it's my guess that it will be targeted by hackers, too - but that's another story.)

I hate to be negative about Windows Phone 8. I like Windows 8 Pro, and I'm excited about the possibilities for tablets and hybrids running Windows 8. I'm strangely compelled by the idea of a Windows life comprising PC, laptop, tablet, phone and TV (via the Xbox). But it is very difficult to cram in to the popular consciousness another mobile platform - ask HP. WebOS *was* better than Android, by a long chalk. But lack of hardware support meant it never had enough users to attract enough app makers to in turn generate more users. It died.

Microsoft will stick with Windows Phone for much longer than HP did with the Palm OS, of course. It can financially afford to for one thing, and it can't afford not to from a PR perspective. And I suspect that the rump of hardcore Windows Phone users will expand a little. But I don't see it ever becoming a truly major player because, well, what's the point of Windows Phone 8?

Windows Phone 8

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