The mobile world's whipping post deserves a fresh look, thanks to some compelling new features.
Microsoft has struggled to get the smartphone right, with four widely panned versions of Windows Phone since 2010. But finally, its fifth version -- Windows Phone 8.1, due out later this year -- delivers something people will really want: A simple but capable smartphone that has a slick interface.
Believe me, this is a real change of pace for Windows Phone.
Highlighted here are six capabilities that are breathing new life into Windows Phone -- and that should get you to take a fresh look at Microsoft's revamped smartphone.
1. Pull-out calendar view
One of my favorite Windows Phone 8.1 features is how it displays calendar information for a specific day when in week or month view. Tap a day, and its details pull out from the view, giving you a handy snapshot of the day's events within the greater context of your weekly or monthly calendar.
2. Weather and traffic in your calendar
It's a small thing, but nicely done: You can set Windows Phone to show the weather in your calendar via icons if you let it access your location information.
Likewise, Windows Phone clones one of iOS 7's most useful additions: The ability to receive a head's-up as to when you should leave for an appointment based on traffic conditions.
3. Support for Apple's iCloud
The truth is that even Windows users favour the iPad as their tablets, and many have Macs at home as well. Microsoft now embraces that multiplatform reality and supports Apple's iCloud accounts for email, calendars, and contacts, so you can more easily integrate the Apple part of your technology world with Windows Phone. Even better, changes are updated bidirectionally, so you can really use iCloud without worry.
4. Cortana voice assistant
In 2011, Apple's Siri was the talk of the town, an electronic assistant that could interpret free-form voice queries and respond with relevant information most of the time. Although Android had voice-based search at the time, it was nothing like Siri.
Since then, Android has caught up. And with Windows Phone 8.1, Microsoft introduces Cortana -- a surprisingly good voice response technology, capable of handling free-form requests as accurately as Siri and Google Now. Although technically still in beta, Cortana comes off as a polished final product, not a first try.
5. Notifications centre
Windows Phone's live tiles were intended to be your go-to source for notifications at a glance. The truth is, few apps use them well -- or even at all. With Windows Phone 8.1, Microsoft clones the Notification Center from iOS, adding quick-access controls à la Android for accessing notifications and most networking controls from any app. Just pull down from the top of the screen to open the new Action Center.
Tip: If you want to get your music and video playback controls, you won't find them here. Instead, push on the volume rocker to open a separate control tray for that.
6. Local phone search
Windows Phone also joins iOS and Android in letting you search for information on your smartphone, not just on the Web. Use the labels at the top of the search screen to switch among search targets such as the Web or your phone.
Microsoft is taking its ongoing offensive against iPhone's voice assistant Siri into a somewhat higher realm of satire, with a new "Let the healing begin" video spot set to launch on YouTube next week.