Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT) Windows 10 will be the first operating system that operates on PCs, tablets, and phones. That means that apps designed for one device will work across all of them, which should dramatically improve the number of programs available for use on phones. That could expand interest in Windows Phone, which ended 2014 with less than 3% market share, according to IDC.
Just because Windows will be the same operating system across PCs, tablets, and phones, however, does not mean it will be the same experience. Microsoft has recently made the Beta version of the OS for phones available to Insiders for testing. It's a raw, unfinished OS. While the company makes every effort to warn users about the risks of using it, it's finished enough to offer some insight as to how the operating system will work.
Maps are integrated
Windows 10 for Phone now has access to Maps, an app that offers everything from the navigation you expect from any smartphone to aerial imagery, deep local search data, and voice-guided navigation -- all integrated with the Cortana digital assistant. The program is not a massive change from how similar apps work on Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) iPhones or phones running Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) (NASDAQ: GOOGL) Android operating system, but the interface offers subtle, and useful improvements.
The ways in which the Maps experience is different on the phone versus a traditional computer highlights how Windows 10 will offer the same apps, but unique experiences depending upon which device you are using. On a desktop or laptop, the app is navigated via a traditional mouse and keyboard interface.
On the phone, touch is the control method, and Microsoft has delivered an intuitive system. Pinch to zoom in or out, or use two fingers to rotate.Tapping on a label launches detailed information about the business or landmark.
"You can also scroll using two fingers to tilt the map for a different perspective," Microsoft's Aaron Butcher wrote in a blog post. "Tap on the Show my Location button to zoom to your current location, or on the Map views button to turn on Bing aerial imagery or live traffic data."
The Maps app also does a better job, in my limited testing, than Apple's comparable app in making it easy to find restaurants, gas stations, and other useful data while traveling. It's not a massive difference, but it's a subtle one that shows that Microsoft has truly considered the difference in experience on a phone as opposed to larger devices.
It doesn't look all that different
With all of the hype surrounding the release of WIndows 10 for Phone, it's actually not radically different in appearance from Windows 8.1. That's because the live tile-based interface, which was largely rejected by desktop and laptop users who demanded the traditional start screen and menu back, works really well on a phone.
Windows 10 continues a feature that was introduced in the 8.1 update, which allows for more tiles on the screen, and a variety of different tile sizes -- though not all apps support this. Other than that, the new OS looks a lot like the old one -- which is surprising, but a good thing because everything that did not work for Windows 8 on traditional computers actually worked as if it had been designed for phones.
Project Spartan works well on a phone
While the version of Spartan, Microsoft's replacement Web browser for Internet Explorer installed with the latest update of Windows 10 for Phones, is still an early-stage Beta, it does a very good job of rendering sites in a fashion that works well on a phone. In some cases, the browser defaults to a website's mobile version; but in others, it delivers a phone-friendly layout that works especially well with content or news sites.
It's not revolutionary
Windows 8 likely failed because it was designed for touch screens that are still not prevalent on desktops and laptops. Phones never had that problem, and the live tile-based OS for Windows phones always worked well. Its biggest problems were lack of apps and surprisingly limited integration with other Windows devices.
The new, one-Windows-for-all-devices model solves both of those problems. Windows 10 for Phone is not a great leap forward because it did not need to be. It's a decent operating system that's elegant and easy to use, which compares favorably to iOS and Android.
Whether it becomes a hit and helps Microsoft grow its mobile market share likely depends more on how people like the new OS on their computers. If they take to it, then the new unified app store, and the ease at which data moves across various Windows devices, may well bring more people to Windows Phone.