Is Windows Phone 8 the secret to greater Windows success?

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Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 have more than just a numeral in common. Take one look at the two operating systems, and you can tell that Microsoft wants to unify Windows Phone devices, Windows 8 tablets and PCs, and its Xbox game console.

If looks aren't proof enough, consider the words of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who trumpeted the company's newfound synergy at its Build conference this week. “If you want the best experience with your Windows computer, you’ll own a Windows Phone,” he said.

But just how unified are Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8? Is this really a huge step forward in Microsoft's vision for the "three screens," or is the grand Windows ecosystem still an empty promise? Here's a close look at how Windows 8—and by extension, Windows RT—and Windows Phone 8 tie together, and what you can expect when using both.

Two types of Windows, a single aesthetic

In Microsoft's attempt to redefine itself, the company has rolled out a modern visual style across its products, featuring hard-edged rectangles, solid colors, monochromatic icons, and the repeated use of one classy-looking font.

Windows 8 interface

Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 both invoke this modern look—formerly known as Metro—most notably through live tiles on their home screens.

Through these tiles you get a glimpse at photos, text messages, unread email counts, weather forecasts, and other information, all without opening their respective apps.

In both operating systems, you can customize your Start screen by pinning and resizing app tiles, and by deciding which ones should update with live information.

Ross Rubin, principal analyst at Reticle Research, says that the common design elements are an advantage for users of both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8.

“If the question is 'What are the benefits of staying within the ecosystem?' then consistency is a benefit,” Rubin says. “You don't have to relearn how to navigate, you understand the Live Tiles, you understand the notion of pinning.”

Windows Phone 8 start screens

It may be a benefit for Microsoft as well. Although Windows Phone hasn't earned much market share, Windows 8 adoption should be automatic as people buy new PCs. They'll become familiar with the modern interface and its Windows Store apps, and perhaps warm to Windows Phone 8 in the process. (Microsoft is phasing out use of the Metro name, and has now labeled the modern apps as Windows Store apps.)

“The tile user interface is consistent across smartphones, tablets, and PCs now,” says Creative Strategies analyst Tim Bajarin. “That's a very important strategic move by Microsoft, and one that I think could pay off.”

All about files, with SkyDrive

Interface similarities provide a superficial bond between Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, but SkyDrive is part of the glue that holds them together. The online storage service hooks into both operating systems, so users can keep their photos, videos, and documents within reach.

Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 users can keep their photos, videos, and documents within reach via SkyDrive.

Windows Phone 8 can upload photos and video automatically to SkyDrive at full resolution. Although automatic uploads aren't new to SkyDrive on Windows Phone 8, the option was previously buried in a settings menu and didn't allow for uploads of videos or full-resolution photos.

“In Windows Phone 8, we'll make that far more seamless, so that you'll just see a ton more people doing it, because it's a more natural experience,” says Dharmesh Mehta, Microsoft's senior director of SkyDrive.

Those photos and videos then become available instantly in Windows 8 for use in any Windows Store app. So, for instance, if you want to edit a photo you took on your phone, the file chooser allows you to select photos from SkyDrive, right alongside local storage. Of course, the SkyDrive desktop app will also be available for Windows 8, so you can sync photos for offline use and view them in File Explorer.

Load photos and video to your Win 8 phone, and they automatically become available on SkyDrive.

SkyDrive plays a helpful role in Microsoft's Office applications as well. When users save their documents to SkyDrive, the files automatically appear in Windows Phone 8's Office app under a list of recent documents, and Outlook users see any documents they've received by email.

In OneNote, which gets its own app in Windows Phone 8, notes automatically sync to SkyDrive so that they're up-to-date on all your other devices.

Of course, Office isn't just a Windows product—it's available for Mac, and rumors of mobile iOS and Android versions persist—but it's already built into Windows Phone 8 and Windows RT tablets, so it's tied to Microsoft's platforms more than any others. The Windows Phone 8 version of Office is a surprisingly competent tool for quickly reviewing documents, adding annotation, and even making light edits in Word and Excel. We'll provide a deeper look at its features and touch-navigation behaviors in a future article.

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