Windows Phone 8.1 Review, Part I: The OS that Lived


Dear readers,

Do journalists and computer software designers share anything in common ?

Before any journalist begins writing his or her article, they spent a few minutes mapping out a target audience for the piece. This helps place focus not only on style and form, but also the structure and sections that make an article feel whole. Each writer has their own preference as to how they go about accomplishing this task. Some draw up an entire outline, while others do the outlining in their mind. Some take a day or a week, while others can draw up schematics in an hour.

When I write my pieces, there are primarily two factors I focus on. "How can I make this be an article every person can understand regardless of their background?" and "How can I make the article be an inclusive creation, one which can bridge the gaps which socially exist between disabilities and people?" There are multiple ways in which I attempt to go about this, and it is not every time that I succeed entirely.

When a computer programmer — or better yet company — design an operating system and platform which will presumably have a market share, they must also ask similar questions. Draw up a target audience, and find the right tools which allow them to develop with ease and the most outreach.

Unfortunately, neither journalists nor programmers perform this essential step of their trade. Companies will often develop Operating Systems which cannot be used by certain groups of people. Be it blind/visually impaired, deaf/hard of hearing, or people with dexterity challenges, the road is never easy. When a journalist writes, they will often fail to look beyond the scope of who they are writing for. Be it non-technical users of a product, researchers, or even super technical users, the road is always confusing when it comes to choosing the "best" and most effective piece.

Instead of focusing on a range of journalists or companies,, this article aims to focus on Microsoft alone. Narrow that scope down to their Windows Phone platform, as it becomes a topic which is received with much criticism and reaction by everyone in the world. Technology users wonder what advantage Windows Phone can bring to the table, while consumers who just want it to "work" want to see why switching over to something that only has 3-4% of market is worth it for them. Those with disabilities want to know if they can even consider it a viable choice at the moment. These are factors which I as a writer cannot decide for you, as I am not here to make judgments. If I did my job right though, a wide range of audiences will be able to do this by themselves, perhaps after further consulting. I may not have all the answers, but I do have information.

A Brief Background and history of Windows Phone

As it is custom with any product, I must give you a slight understanding to how we got here today. Windows Phone as a concept has been around since the mid 1990s. "What? Tomi, I've never seen smartphones around that time?" Of course. In the 90s, Windows Mobile as it was called was only around for PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) devices, which were in a way forerunners to the modern tablet as well. They had basic functionality such as a calendar and contacts book, and could even connect to the internet with externally attached hardware. Primarily used by business men and the professional market, these never even came close to the consumer world.

Eventually, Windows Mobile became more sophisticated, and in 2003 / 2004 was re-imagined for smartphones and smaller screen sizes with soft keys. Incidentally, this created another hybrid category, at the time called "Smartphone professional", which combined the standard keyboard phone with a touch screen with a cost. The touch sensitivity of the screens were terrible, and one had to use a stylus to even activate an item, similar to cash registers. This is because the phones used a resistive screen which combined two layers of film that made contact. Today, every phone comes with a capacitive panel that senses a finger or anything with an electrical charge. (No, they do not use heat. Try using your phone with a pealed orange.)

During the reign of Windows Mobile, several tools became available that gave aid to disabilities. Mobile Speak and later on Talks all existed and provided both magnification and a screen reader. They were able to work on both smart and "nonsmart" devices, meaning as long as the device ran the right version of Windows Mobile, chances were that it could work. These took advantage of the touch screen by mapping it to a 4-cornered system, where tapping on each corner would activate a different command such as reading the current line or word. The downside to this was that the blind could not use the touch screen to explore what was actually on the screen easily. To combat this, these screen readers would use a virtual d-pad, allowing a flick action to move as though the arrows on a keyboard were being pushed.

Windows Mobile gets discontinued

By 2010, Windows Mobile became severely outdated. The iPhone came along, providing a much better touch screen and hardware, + a system which was much easier to use and less antiquated in design. It could be used by your grandmother to your most tech-savvy brother, and took off immediately everywhere. Microsoft did not see them as a threat, so they kept improving the dinosaur which was Windows Mobile.

By Mid 2010, they built an entirely new system called Windows Phone 7. It was nothing like Windows Mobile, sporting a grid-based home page and hubs which would organize content. Programs that were built for Windows Mobile no longer could be run on Windows Phone. Furthermore, the ones that were created had to be placed into a Windows Store, and could not be installed from a card or computer. Consequently those who needed a magnifier or screen reader were left out of the loop entirely.

Windows Phone vanquished

This created a huge monopoly which caused the disabled community to gravitate towards only the iPhone. In 2010 Apple came at the right time to provide a screen reader called VoiceOver, just as Windows Mobile phones were phased out entirely. Android shipped with no accessibility features, so it was very easy for Apple to cause a huge migration to iOS. In 2011, Google was second to jump on the game and included Talkback, a screen reader providing accessibility to phones only sporting a keyboard. Today, Android is quite usable, and has an array of touch gestures.

Microsoft's failure to create something which could be exclusively used by all people caused them to partially lose the war in mobile computing, becoming almost non-existent prior to Windows Phone 8. No magnifier, no reader and very few voice command features were included in Windows Phone 7. Third-parties tried to create magnification tools without success – these utilized the LED flash of the phone's screen and were limited.

The light returns

When Windows Phone 8 came, Microsoft again dropped compatibility with all Windows Phone 7 devices. This was because unlike Windows phone 7, 8 was based off an actual copy of Windows rather than using Windows Mobile as the underlying code atop a new redesigned interface. The move made Windows phone more stable and for the first time opened up the option for accessibility features to be included. There was another visual redesign, and one feature which did not make the cut initially was a notification center where all device notifications could be shown. This later made it back in Windows Phone 8.1, as many users did not want to scroll to apps and see what the badge showed.

There was just one problem. The "accessibility" I spoke of came in the form of a boxed in, roped off solution. Although limited accessibility existed in version 7, 8 brought along a screen magnifier and reader. The magnifier was not super powerful (zooming web pages caused problems for some), and the screen reader was an even larger concern. Instead of something which would provide equal access to the device, a person had to download an accessibility application from the Windows Store which would then provide an alternative range of apps designed only to be made for blind users. In a way, you were roped in, only being able to use a limited suite of tools, thus making your smartphone become almost completely worthless.

Where we are today

Late July, Microsoft Released Windows Phone 8.1 to a number of devices. The problem is that not every Windows Phone received the update, because wireless companies such as Verizon and AT&T can delay the updating process. In theory every device WILL be updated, however only a select few can currently run 8.1. If you have a disability which requires specific needs, T-mobiles Lumia 635 is the first handset to ship with 8.1 by default. The 1520 on most carriers has also received the update.

Those with a developer account can manually update their phones, however beware that this will require a process of registering and adding your phone to a development account. Registration is free, and installing a "windows Phone developers" app from the store is all that is needed to have your phone opt into updates not tied to your carrier. Those who cannot see the screen will find it impossible to do this without sighted help.

Narrator can be turned on with the accessibility shortcut of Volume up + Windows. Since Windows 8 and phone 8.1 use similar underpinnings, the sounds and gestures you are used to on Windows 8 will also work there. Even the voice is similar, named Zira on the desktop.

Coming up

The next section, I will examine the core interface of Windows phone. This includes the set-up and out of box experience, similarities to Windows 8, notifications, tiles, settings, and included apps.

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