In the mobile OS landscape, Windows Phone wasn’t around for very long (2010-2017). It was never very popular, but Microsoft infused it with some new, interesting ideas. A few of those ideas ended up being ahead of their time.
Windows Phone 7 eventually became Windows Phone 8 and then Windows 10 Mobile, but the same problems followed it through each iteration—like where were the third-party apps? It still had a serious impact on the mobile industry.
If there’s one area where Microsoft was unquestionably ahead of the curve—maybe even responsible for starting the trend—it’s the minimalist design of Windows Phone.
The first version of Windows Phone was released in 2010 and it looked like what you see in the image at the top of this page: Very minimal and flat; white icons on solid color tiles. Meanwhile, Android 2.3 Gingerbread looked like this and iOS 4 looked like this.
It doesn’t take a degree in software design to see that those Android and iPhone designs have not aged well, while the Windows Phone UI could easily still pass as a modern operating system. Apple and many Android device makers have adopted more minimal, flat designs in the years since.
Apps as Widgets
Speaking of minimal design, one of the stars of that design was the Live Tiles. Android had already been doing widgets for a while and the iPhone was a few years away from adding its own. Live Tiles existed somewhere between.
Live Tiles were a melding of the typical home screen app icons and widgets. Rather than having separate app icons and widgets, Windows Phone Live Tiles were both. A Live Tile could be a small, static icon or expanded into a large widget with dynamic information.
Apple has sorta adopted a similar idea with its widgets, which were introduced in iOS 14. They are still separate from the home screen app icons, but visually they look like expanded app icons. The app name label is even still displayed underneath. It wouldn’t be crazy to see Apple eventually adopt Windows Phone’s implementation.
Light and Dark Mode
Android and the iPhone both have full-featured dark and light modes now, but it wasn’t always that way. In fact, they both added it in 2019, while it was included as a day one feature of Windows Phone all the way back in 2010.
The system-wide dark and light themes we see nowadays in Android and the iPhone work very similarly to Windows Phone. Many elements of the UI and even apps that support the feature would adjust to the system theme. Microsoft nailed this nearly a decade before Apple and Google.
Adaptive Color Themes
Android 12 introduced a new theming system called “Material You.” It uses your wallpaper to create a color palette that is applied to many areas of your phone. The accent colors can be found in the Quick Settings panel, system apps, and even third-party apps that support it.
This is another feature that Windows Phone had from day one. The color you chose for the Live Tiles would be used in many other areas as well. It wasn’t just an accent color for the home screen, it was the accent color for system settings and any third-party app that chose to support it as well.
Okay, this isn’t a huge feature, but Microsoft did beat the iPhone and Android to native song identification. Both platforms had third-party apps such as Shazam, but Windows Phone could do it directly from the Bing app.
Nowadays, Google Assistant can quickly identify songs—and Pixel phones can do it without you even asking. The iPhone also has a Shazam button built right in that can be added to the Control Center—plus Siri can do it. This may be a small thing, but Microsoft did it first.
Just like its fellow fallen mobile operating systems WebOS and BlackBerry OS, Windows Phone had a lot to offer the industry. Android and the iPhone are better today because of Microsoft’s ideas. Competition pushes companies to innovate and adapt, but competition also means someone will lose.