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Does Windows Phone 8.1 file manager suggest an Android-like future?

Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore recently held an AMA (ask me anything) about Windows phone on reddit, where he fielded questions about upcoming updates to Windows Phone 8 platform. It appears that Windows Phone users can not only look forward to wider availability of the Cortana personal assistant, but also a file manager.

When Windows Phone was originally launched, its abilities were much more reflective of the early iPhone rather than Android phones. Multitasking was severely limited, there was no copy and paste, and media had to be transcoded and synchronised via the Zune desktop software (the then equivalent of iTunes).

As Windows Phone has developed, it has tried to catch up with the functionality offered by both iOS and Android. As of Windows Phone 8, the Zune desktop software was done away with and WP8 devices connected to a Windows PC were seen as “mass transport” (MTP) devices. In non-geek speak, this is almost as good as being a removable USB drive and is the same as in Android. In comparison, when connecting an iOS device to a Windows PC, only the camera folder is available in the file explorer window.

One way in which Windows Phone 7 and 8 (until now) has remained more iOS-like than Android is with its on-device access to the file system. That’s all set to change now, based on what Belfiore said during his AMA:

Korangadevs: “Hi Mr joe…are there any plans for file managers on Windows Phone?”

Joe “WOO HOO! SOMEONE ASKED THIS QUESTION!! I’ve been waiting in fact, I’ve avoided tweeting on this very topic just for all you redditors. Seriously…

YES! We are doing a File Manager for WP8.1! I know a LOT of you are looking for this (thanks for the tweets, I’ve read them all). In fact, I’ve been running a build of it on two of my phones for the last week or so and it’s getting to pretty good shape. We are expecting to get it into the store HOPEFULLY by the end of May.

Here’s what it looks like…”

JoebelfioresAMA1.

Until now, the level of file management on Windows Phone was limited to cloud storage applications, such as Microsoft’s own OneDrive application. Hopefully the inclusion of an actual file manager for accessing local files is an indication of the way Windows Phone 8 will head.

Of course, a file manager is something of a power user tool, and you’re certainly not going to get just anybody using one. However, as pointed out on All About Windows Phone:

“File managers are curious entities. Day to day, they should never be needed, since all applications will find their data where they expect. Yet, every once in a while, you need document A in location B – or you need to find something that you know is on your phone somewhere. And that’s when a file manager proves its worth.”

Windows Phone is desperately trying to catch up with the competition and gain more market share. Even so, the expectations on this operating system have always been low, with even Microsoft (plus Nokia’s Stephen Elop) itself stating the aspiration of being “the third ecosystem”. Wanting to be third place may be realistic, but it’s hardly inspiring.

In trying to find the right path for Windows Phone, Microsoft has needed to decide where to position Windows Phone between Android and iOS, and which of those platforms it would, inevitably, most resemble.

Given Android and iOS are worlds apart in regard to what users can and can’t do with their devices, there’s been lot of room for Microsoft to experiment with Windows Phone, which is exactly what it has done.

Windows Phone 7 much more closely resembled iOS. Apple’s platform still prevents file-level access, with only some apps supporting the loading of local files via iTunes, as was the case with Zune Desktop. Meanwhile, Android is much more like a PC, with its plethora of file management apps and USB (MTP) drive functionality for desktop PCs. With the update to 8.1, Windows Phone seems to be drifting much closer to the Android way of doing things.

Unfortunately, the user experience of Windows Phone still lags behind the other platforms, mostly because of the quality of third party apps. In some cases this is due to limitations in the system, but it’s also due to poor implementations by developers too.

By now, one would have expected Windows Phone to have gained more traction. Is the local file manager a forerunner of things to come – will Microsoft start opening up its platform more in order to give users and developers greater freedom? Doing so would afford developers a greater degree of creativity and flexibility, which could in turn improve user experience and increase sales of Windows Phones.

About the author

David Gilson is a UK based freelance technology journalist. His most recent work has with CoinDesk reporting on the bleeding edge of digital currencies like Bitcoin. Prior to this, he has been featured on CNET UK, All About Windows Phone (and its sister sites), Android Authority and iPhone Hacks, among others. You’ll never find him without at least one device from each mobile platform.

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