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 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.”
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 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.
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.
Music, video, and the Xbox equation
Music and video have traditionally been a weak point for Microsoft, but the company is looking to change that as it buries the Zune for good and combines all of its entertainment under the Xbox brand.
Xbox Music combines on-demand subscription streaming (similar to Spotify) and a store for à la carte music downloads. Also in the works, but not yet available, is a scan-and-match service (akin to iTunes Match) that will allow users to stream music they already own.
The idea is to create a seamless experience across Windows Phone 8, Windows 8, and the Xbox 360 by automatically syncing music collections and playlists. Although the service won’t be exclusive to Microsoft’s platforms forever—apps for Android, iOS, and the Web are on the way—Windows 8 users do have one big perk: They can stream unlimited music for six months at no charge. (After that, they’ll be limited to 10 hours per month.)
Xbox Video, meanwhile, is Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s iCloud for movies and TV shows. On PCs and the Xbox 360, users can buy a video once and play it on either device. But the experience won’t be so seamless for Windows Phone 8; according to Microsoft’s website, users will have to sync videos from a compatible PC to watch them on their phones.
The open question of third-party apps
If there’s one area where Microsoft is decidedly behind its top rival Apple, it’s in the lack of a unified app marketplace for Windows Phones and tablet PCs. Although Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 have a “shared core,” which means less work for developers who want to target both platforms, their respective app stores are separate.
As a result, users of Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 will have to purchase and maintain one set of apps for PCs and another set for phones.
In fairness, Apple has separate stores for Mac and iOS; but even then, developers can tie their apps together via iCloud. For instance, the task manager Clear uses iCloud to keep its iOS and Mac apps in sync; even though the stores are separate, the experience carries across platforms.
Microsoft’s Dharmesh Mehta says that app developers can use SkyDrive to store content across Windows Phone and Windows Phone 8, but that’s more for personal content such as documents, photos, and notes, not data that apps rely on for core functionality.
The company also has mentioned cross-platform Xbox games on occasion, but it has yet to issue a long list of games that run across consoles, phones, and tablets. The idea of a single-app experience across all devices is something that Microsoft hasn’t realized in Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8.
“I bet that it’s not all the way there yet,” says Russ Whitman, chief strategy officer for Ratio Interactive, a contract developer of apps for Windows 8, Windows Phone 8, and other platforms. He thinks that Microsoft will eventually enable some sort of cross-platform syncing for phone and PC apps, but he isn’t sure how it would work.
As for having separate app stores for phones and PCs, Whitman believes Microsoft is missing an opportunity. “I would love to see them do a single binary solution,” he says.
Ross Rubin of Reticle Research thinks it wouldn’t be too difficult for Microsoft to tie its phone and PC app stores together so that users can have one place to find apps for both platforms, but he notes that Microsoft’s first priority is to accumulate a large number of apps for each that are optimized for their respective screen sizes.
“Once that’s in place, everything else is just business model,” Rubin says.
The big picture
We’ve dissected all the main ways that Microsoft is (and isn’t) creating a unified experience across Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, from the interface to personal documents, media, and apps. But there is a bigger picture to keep in mind.
A Microsoft Account (formerly Live ID) now acts as a master key. It connects to SkyDrive, Xbox entertainment, and Microsoft’s app stores, but it also ties in to other online accounts, such as Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
All of these services then become integrated with Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. You can view your Facebook photos in the People app (which Microsoft calls a complete, cloud-powered address book for Windows 8) or upload them to other apps. People you follow on LinkedIn and Twitter appear in your contacts list. A connected Google account can sync your contacts, calendars, and Gmail.
No other platform is as well integrated with other online services. Even Apple’s iOS, which now has Facebook integration, won’t let you grab photos from the social network as if it were just another album in your camera roll.
Once you’ve connected all those accounts through a Microsoft ID, they’ll be tied to any Windows 8 tablet or Windows Phone 8 handset you buy in the future, along with Microsoft’s own services. No extra work is required to get everything in sync.
“When you sign in to either of these devices, they both light up with all your services,” Microsoft’s Dharmesh Mehta says.
Think of it this way: In the past, you could use Windows without ever creating a Microsoft ID, and be perfectly happy.
With Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, you’d lose a huge chunk of the experience without a login, because that’s where the unification of the two platforms becomes more than skin deep.
Of course, that means the newest Windows is different from the desktop-bound version that PC veterans have grown to love. But that’s the point: Microsoft’s vision for Windows Phones and PCs calls for a different type of user—one with phone and tablet in hand, always in the cloud.
Finally, Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 provide some reasons for users to go all-in.
Jared Newman has been helping folks make sense of technology for over a decade, writing for PCWorld, TechHive, and elsewhere. He also publishes two newsletters, Advisorator for straightforward tech advice and Cord Cutter Weekly for saving money on TV service.