If you haven’t heard by now, Microsoft is making wholesale changes to Windows Phone 8 and the forthcoming 8.1 update will bring it largely on par with the competition i.e. Android and iOS, as well as BlackBerry 10 to a certain extent. Even if Android and iOS continue their domination, the update sounds like it will finally give Redmond’s mobile OS the right feature set to take on the duopoly. Here’s how your next Nokia Lumia might look.

On-screen buttons
As is usually the case with any mobile OS revamp, there will be a smattering of features that have been borrowed from rivals. On-screen buttons are a stock Android hallmark and looks like Windows Phone 8.1 will bring these to the Live Tiles UI. On-screen buttons could potentially have been included for devices such as the Lumia 1520, which with its large display does pose some problems for users in terms of one-handed usage. With the navigation buttons right on the display, it will be an easier task for users to use these buttons. Microsoft's reasoning behind the inclusion of on-screen buttons is that more manufacturers could be enticed to make Windows Phone devices by relaxing some hardware restrictions. The same was seen in the case of the hardware camera shutter, which is no longer a neccessity for manufacturers to include in their phone.

On-screen buttons (Image courtesy: The Verge)

On-screen buttons (Image courtesy: The Verge)

Notification centre
First, it was Android, then iOS and now Windows Phone. If you have switched from an Android or iOS phone to a Windows Phone device, you would know how painful it is to manage notifications. Since there is no notification centre presently, users have to respond to notifications immediately or risk missing them altogether. Along with the notification centre, which will bring you a consolidated list of all alerts from various apps, Redmond is also adding a dedicated quick settings panel, which would be accessible by a short swipe downwards from the top; a longer swipe dumps you into the notification centre. This is not unlike the two-finger swipe down on Android which brings up with the Quick Settings toggle. The Windows Phone version will let you toggle frequently-used settings such as Wi-Fi and brightness. The concept below (courtesy The Verge forums) looks bang on the money and we would love to see this clean notification centre design replicated in the final build.

A fan concept of the notification centre

A fan concept of the notification centre

Cortana
Apple may have got the first shot in with Siri, but Microsoft’s Cortana promises just as much functionality and even deeper integration with Bing (which already powers Apple’s voice assistant). Bing Search will be replaced by Cortana in a move that also smacks of Android inspiration (Google integrated Now into the Search app). But lets look at how it might change things in Windows Phone. Firstly, the name sounds much cooler than Siri and thanks to the Halo association, there’s an immediate feeling that this is an all-seeing entity. The deep search and Microsoft account integration make it Microsoft’s Google Now and it will supposedly bring contextual information based on location and your calendar. Reportedly it will alert users if it looks like they might be late for appointments, besides delivering weather updates and routine reminders.

Cortana, the character from Halo

Cortana, the character from Halo

3D Touch
Windows Phone 8.1 is also expected to bring support for something called 3D Touch. This supposedly extends the interaction area for the user and allows them to make gestures above the display and on the edges to interact with on-screen elements. We can certainly see the appeal in this for activities such as gaming or graphic design, but we are not sure how this would improve app experience. On a lighter note, it would give fussy users one less smudge to complain about.

We also expect a number of UI changes in Windows Phone 8.1. With the GDR3 update, Microsoft added an extra column of Live Tiles for HD (720p and above) displays. With 8.1 we expect more changes to let users interact with a lot more elements on the screen. Live Tile behaviour has remained unchanged over the versions and this could be in for an overhaul. Reportedly, Microsoft will be stripping down some core apps from the system level and publish them on the Windows Phone store for better control over updates. Xbox Music and Video apps, which were combined so far, will be split up into two separate apps. This treatment will also be meted out to some other Microsoft core apps. The excellent People hub is expected to get even more social network integration, with deeper Facebook and Twitter sync.

All in all, it looks like Microsoft is addressing some key concerns. The addition of the notification drawer, the voice-based assistant will serve to improve not just the native experience but could improve the third-party app experience greatly. Whether it brings Windows Phone on par with the competition is another matter and won’t just be decided by this update, but Microsoft is taking away some ammunition away from the critics and that’s always a good thing.

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