So long, Windows Phone: Microsoft shows off Windows 10 for phones and small tablets

Almost five years ago, Microsoft unveiled Windows Phone 7 Series, a completely new smartphone platform that finally banished its outdated Windows Mobile efforts to the past. For Microsoft, it was one of its most significant operating system launches ever, laying down many foundations that would be built upon further in developing its new desktop operating system, Windows 8.

But limitations in Windows Phone 7 - and with the phones that ran it - led Microsoft to effectively reboot the platform in 2012. While Windows Phone 8 was recognizably similar to its predecessor, it was effectively a fresh start, as the company offered no upgrade path to the new OS from any WP7-era handsets.

Since then, the Windows Phone OS has just got better and better, although the pace of its development has consistently lagged behind that of its rivals. But today marks the beginning of another massive change in Microsoft's mobile efforts - one that signals the end for two of its operating systems: Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows RT.

Today, Microsoft showed off Windows 10 for devices with screen sizes of eight-inches or smaller. Microsoft confirmed today that all Windows Phone 8.1 devices will be upgraded to Windows 10 free of charge, along with Windows 7, 8 and 8.1 users, in the first year of availability.

The lockscreen may look more or less identical to the WP8 version, but the Start screen is a little bit different, with background image support for the first time.

The All Apps menu looks familiar too, but there's one notable change - recently installed apps are more clearly signposted at the top of the list.

There are welcome improvements in the Action Center too. For the first time, you'll be able to add more than one row of customizable controls along the top of the Action Center. Notifications are synchronized with your other Windows 10 devices, so if you dismiss a notification on your handset, it will be cleared from your tablet, notebook or PC as well.

Similarly useful is the addition of interactive notification overlays. When you receive a text message, for example, you can simply tap on the toast notification and send an inline reply without having to open up the Messaging app.

You can also grab the entire keyboard and move it around the display, so that you can find the most comfortable position. This will be particularly useful for those who favour one-handed typing on their handset, but who struggle to do so with larger devices.

Those who have been using Windows Phone since the early days will no doubt appreciate one very significant change that Windows 10 introduces: a completely redesigned Settings hub, with more logical organization of options into categories.

Another long-awaited improvement for Windows Phone users is a new version of Office. The new touch-friendly Office suite is a collection of Universal apps for phones, tablets and touch PCs. For the first time, it includes a full Outlook app on Windows Phone. You can find out more about the new Office apps here.

Indeed, with Windows 10, we're seeing the continuation of Microsoft's long and gradually-unfolding strategy of better integrating all of its products, services and devices, and Office is just one example of this.

Another is Skype integration directly into the Messaging hub, making it much easier to switch between text messages and Skype IMs without having to open up a second app.

Other highlights from the announcement include:

  • Confirmation that Microsoft will offer users cloud storage for their music collections on OneDrive, as we exclusively revealed before Christmas
  • New Universal apps, including redeveloped People, Photos and Music apps, across all Windows 10 devices
  • New Project Spartan browser will also be a Universal app, available on Windows 10 phones as well as PCs
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