I like Windows Phone 8.1. I mean I really like it. Even more shocking than that is the fact that most of my experience with the Windows Phone 8.1 preview has been on one of the most bare-bones entry-level Nokia handsets available in the U.S.: the $99 no contract/prepaid Lumia 520 on AT&T. Despite the device's humble specs, the OS runs quite smoothly; the support for existing Windows Phone devices, even low-end devices, is a big contrast to Microsoft's decision to require Windows Phone 7 users to trade up to newer handsets if they wanted Windows Phone 8.
I'll even go so far as to say that I could be quite happy with Windows Phone 8.1 as my primary mobile OS. If an employer were to issue me a Windows Phone device or if the platform was strongly favored over Apple's iOS or Android in a bring-your-own-device program, I'd likely accept the phone and use it daily for work and personal use. I doubt I'd see enough value in carrying around a second smartphone under those circumstances.
As someone who's spent more than a decade writing about Apple technology in business, where iOS maintains a significant lead over the competition, that may sound surprising. But the truth is that Microsoft has finally managed to create a smartphone platform that has the potential to be very competitive, particularly in enterprise environments.
Not the same old Microsoft
I actually acknowledged some of the advantages and the innovation Microsoft delivered in Windows Phone 7 when it launched in 2010. The problem was that while there were a lot of positives about the platform -- the then-new concept of live tiles being one of them -- it was clearly half-baked on arrival, largely didn't integrate with enterprise systems (a major shock), and was very Microsoft-centric when it came to services and apps. In the intervening years, that's largely changed.
Microsoft has developed enterprise integration options for Windows Phone and has expanded the management and security capabilities of the platform while also building support into its Enterprise Management Suite (EMS) for other platforms, including iOS and Samsung's KNOX.
One of the most appealing aspects of the platform was the intense effort by Microsoft to support not only its own cloud services like Office 365 and OneDrive, but also cloud and social media accounts from competitors. Nothing illustrates this more than the fact that Windows Phone 8.1 supports syncing of some data -- calendar and contacts -- with Apple's iCloud.
The ability to sync with the dozen or so calendars I have in iCloud, most of them shared with other iOS or Mac users, was my biggest concern about potentially adding a Windows Phone device to my mobile hardware collection. The sync capabilities are also well polished. Events are displayed much as they are on an iOS device (and, quite frankly, I like the Windows Phone calendar better than the iOS 7 calendar app on the iPhone).
Similar levels of integration are offered for other common third-party accounts. The message seems clear: Microsoft would rather you use its services exclusively, and the user experience is weighted to encourage this. But it acknowledges the need to support the ecosystems of its rivals to some degree because it's in a distant third place in both the consumer and business markets.
Windows Phone's competition in the enterprise
Beyond the user experience, Microsoft has some particularly potent advantages in the race for market share in the business world. The biggest is the company's decision to share code across its platforms. This has real significance for enterprise app developers because they can reuse code across Windows 8.x desktop and tablet applications as well as Windows Phone apps and can use the same set of developer tools. That's a powerful incentive for an organization to encourage Windows Phone adoption.
The other advantage is in integration with both new and established Microsoft technology and infrastructure. One of the things that makes the company's EMS proposition so attractive is that it allows IT professionals to use the same tools to manage mobile devices that they use to manage PCs. For organizations that haven't invested in EMS, this could be quite an attractive way to go.