Nokia buy can't fix Windows Phone's biggest hurdle: Itself

Nokia is Microsoft's best chance at selling phones, but what it really needs is a more sophisticated OS.

Jessica Dolcourt Senior Director, Commerce & Content Operations
Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Commerce & Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Commerce, How-To and Performance Optimization. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds. Jessica began leading CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
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Jessica Dolcourt
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Nokia Lumia 1520
Even the best Nokia phones are slave to Windows Phone's capabilities and constraints. James Martin/CNET

Microsoft's buyout of Nokia's cell phone branch will benefit everyone, the two companies' CEOs say. The direct reach into Microsoft's deep pockets will give Nokia phones the financial backing they need to make an even firmer marketing push. What's more, integrated hardware and software teams spell faster releases.

Making Nokia's celebrated design aesthetic the vanguard of a new hardware-focused Microsoft brand may give Redmond all sorts of cachet. But that hardware cred won't mean much so long as Microsoft's Windows Phone OS trails behind Android and iOS.

That's a chasm Microsoft won't be able to close until the company can successfully turn Windows Phone into a truly competitive operating system -- something that has nothing to do with Nokia's hardware or software assets.

The newest (and least mature) of these three operating systems, Windows Phone arguably has the freshest, cleanest design, but it also has the least dazzling feature set.

And for all that Microsoft does to woo developers to program Windows Phone apps, the majority often codes those apps after launching with Android and iOS, which makes its app Marketplace seem more spartan when it comes to the hottest titles. Other times, official versions of popular titles are on board, but they're highly underdeveloped, like the Google Search app, for instance, and Netflix.

Among the 190,000 apps that Microsoft currently lists in the Windows Phone marketplace are familiar titles like Pandora, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, and YouTube. Yet others, like Candy Crush, Snapchat, and Dropbox miss the roll call. (Nokia did announce new additions such as Vine, Instagram, and Flipboard are imminent.)

In addition, Microsoft's mobile OS lacks official support for the majority of Google's ecosystem of online apps and services. You can read your Gmail through the main e-mail app, and set the phone to search Google instead of Bing. However, you can't download the official Chrome browser, and Web apps and third-party programs are the only way to access popular tools like Google Drive and Google+. A public saga between Microsoft and Google could account for much of this missing -- though common -- cooperation among rivals.

Nokia Lumia 925
Nokia can help Microsoft create a more cohesive camera experience in the future. James Martin/CNET

What else Windows Phone needs
There isn't a single silver bullet that can catch Windows Phone 8 (reviewed) up to its competitors, but here are a few common suggestions from Windows Phone users that could help even the score:

  • Notification center: A central area for alerts would augment badges associated with each app.
  • Start screen folders: Grouping apps into folders would help users keep more important icons available without having to scroll down or to the app list.
  • Contextual search: Pressing the Search icon should search within the app, not just launch Bing search.
  • Voice assistant: Round out the current voice search functionality to understand natural language and launch device actions.
  • Native video store: You can download videos through third-party and partner apps, but can't buy or rent TV shows or movies.
  • Support for multiple Gmail accounts: Expanding support would allow users with multiple accounts to switch inboxes.
  • Improve local search: Local search results are limited, hard to sort, and not always very accurate.
  • More-graphical interface: The text-heavy OS can be hard to read quickly without distinct icons, and flat, monochromatic squares of the same color make it hard to differentiate apps at a glance.
  • Smoother app installation: When you install multiple apps in a row, the OS takes you to the Start screen. You have to press the Back button to return to your place in the store, which can be annoying.

There are countless other little quirks, too, like HD photos that don't always render correctly on the Web, and then turn into blurry images when saved on your phone (this has happened to me when trying to compare HD images from a Google image search among Windows Phones with Android phones and the iPhone). Likewise, I'd like it if the OS suggested digital ways to get music and videos if you don't have any loaded on, not just to go ahead and load them on. In another oddity, the live tile for photos cycles through pictures even after you've deleted unwanted snaps, an unfortunate oversight.

Yet it isn't all doom and gloom on the Windows Phone front. We know that Microsoft has been hard at work on Cortana, its own personal assistant, to debut years after Apple's Siri and Google's Voice Actions (commonly called Google Now).

Microsoft's OS also excels at keeping the experience uniform across devices, and at integrating the Microsoft Office suite and Xbox. It's known for a highly accurate typing experience on its virtual keyboard. Users also enjoy the dynamic live tiles and the OS' overall responsiveness; and you can use the voice command tool to identify a song and open apps. A recent Windows Phone 8 update supports quad-core chipsets, like Nokia's new 6-inch Lumia 1520.

How Nokia can further bolster Windows Phone
From where I sit, the major way Nokia's current team of talent can help Windows Phone more effectively as a subsidiary than it could do as a close partner is with its people. If Microsoft allows Nokia's transplants to have a crack at developing the OS into its next stages, Microsoft could add some freshness and missing features to the smartphone experience.

A guide to all the Nokia Lumia Windows phones (pictures)

See all photos

In the sense of specific software, Nokia has invested considerable time in exclusive camera apps for its Windows phones. Today, most of those effects and settings appear in separate programs you have to open or switch to from the native camera. With this acquisition, Windows Phone OS could get a single, more robust photo experience right out of the gate.

For its part, Nokia's music app is also a little redundant with Microsoft's own OS offering, but there may be some behind-the-scenes expertise that Nokia can lend Microsoft's OS.

Since Nokia will be keeping its Here maps division as part of the deal, Microsoft will have to continue integrating that software through a partner relationship.

Beyond Nokia
From the first bold Nokia Lumia 800 to the first metal-bearing Lumia, Nokia's handsets already made Windows Phone appealing.

Now it's up to Microsoft's leaders and engineers to advance the platform itself, and to get flagship Nokia phones selling across all major carriers in mature markets like the US.

Hopefully, increasing Windows Phone's software capabilities and public image will become the major mobile priority of Microsoft's next CEO, whomever he or she is. When it comes to selling software, there's only so much that buying up a hardware arm can do.