Last week, I went hunting for people using Windows Phones in Times Square. Two hours in one of the busiest spots on Earth—zero sightings. Instead, there were thousands of people, from Iowa, Italy and India, holding up their glowing iPhones or Android phones to take photos of Great White Way. One kind lady from London did tell me she was fairly certain her great uncle owned a Windows Phone.
While my method wasn't scientific, the straw poll represents the reality of the global smartphone market. Google's Android has close to 85 per cent of the market share while Apple's iPhone is at 12 per cent, according to IDC's latest numbers. Microsoft’s Windows Phone holds a measly 2.5 per cent and it isn't growing.
So what's wrong with the "third" smartphone platform? Until now, the assumption was that Windows Phones just weren't as good as the others. And for the first number of years of the platform's life that was true because of middling hardware and nascent software.
But now, thanks to various software updates released throughout the summer, that once-trailing platform has as much or more functionality than Android or iOS—that is, if you don't consider third-party apps.
And the hardware has caught up, too. This week, the best-designed Android phone—the HTC One—is being released with Windows Phone 8.1, for now exclusively at Verizon.
So, why don't more people give Windows Phone a go? At this point it has very little to do with how good of a smartphone platform it has become, and everything to do with the rule of the masses: It's hard to go one way when everybody else is going another.
The HTC One (M8) allows you to tap on photos to change the focus. Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal
If there was any doubt that Windows Phone devices were as attractive or well made as the iPhone or the best Android phones, the striking HTC One (M8) for Windows immediately dispels that myth.
A carbon copy of the Android model I've loved since its debut in March, the One's bright and crisp 5-inch 1080p screen is enclosed in a solid piece of aluminum, giving it a weight that suggests higher quality than the plastic wares from LG, Samsung and Nokia. And despite its thinner dimensions, it can last all day long on a charge, even with the screen brightness cranked up.
Like on the Android model, my biggest complaint is about its ultrapixel camera—along with a second camera that strictly captures depth information to allow you to refocus photos after you take them. Despite the gimmicks, the photos just don't turn out as sharp and well balanced as the ones you'd take with the priciest Nokia Lumia Windows Phones.
That said, it does capture photos faster than any smartphone I've tested and if you're vying to be a better selfie-snapper than Kim Kardashian herself, the 5-megapixel front-facing camera is what you need.
The latecomer catches up
So if all things are now equal in hardware, software must be Windows Phone's big problem, right? That used to be the case for the late-to-the-party platform, but it certainly isn't anymore.
Windows Phone is now as good an operating system as the others. I find it easier to navigate than Android, yet more customisable than iOS. Live tiles show core information without you having to open an app and a new notification centre puts new messages and important system settings in closer reach. Customising app notifications, creating folders, organising apps right on the tile screen—even toggling between open apps—are all simple moves.
The core apps are more fully baked now, too. With the email and calendar apps, I can manage my work and Gmail messages and schedules as easily as I do on an iPhone or Moto X Android phone. Better yet, opening attached documents and saving revisions in Office doesn't require a coffee break like on the other platforms, and Internet Explorer is just as snappy as mobile Safari and Chrome.
Believe it or not, I didn't even miss Google Maps during my week on Windows Phone. Bing Maps, which is powered in part by Nokia's massive map database, consistently provided really good transit directions, and Waze, a Google-owned, third-party app, helped me fight traffic and road closures while driving into New York City.
Cortana pipes up
How about Cortana, Microsoft's answer to Siri and Google Now? Without a prompt, she told me what traffic would be like on my way to work and even gathered top news stories based on my interests.
I repeatedly used her location-aware reminder feature to remember to do things when I got to the office, relied on her for the weather and enjoyed her humorous answers to my snarky questions.
I was starting to think she was the world's smartest digital assistant—right up to the point when she recommended, out of the thousands of great and affordable restaurants in New York City, dinner at Applebee's.
The App gap
Instagram for Windows Phone lacks some of the new editing tools available in the iPhone and Android apps. Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal
Apps are still where Windows Phone struggles to keep up with the Joneses.
It isn't in the quantity of apps anymore. There are more than 320,000 apps in the Microsoft Store and you'll find most of the big names—everything from Facebook to Netflix to Spotify to Uber to Instagram. But because there aren't as many Windows Phone users, app makers don't pay attention to their Windows Phone apps as much as iOS or Android.
For instance, Instagram has all the usual filters on Windows Phone, but it lacks the editing tools that were recently added to iPhone and Android. Similarly, in Rdio, I spent a good five minutes looking for the top playlists chart before realising it wasn't there.
As for the newest iPhone and Android apps—buzzy ones like Lyft, VSCOcam, Secret and Tinder—they aren't available yet on Windows Phone. And Google doesn't offer its core apps for the platform, including YouTube, Hangouts, Maps or Google Drive.
You'll be hard pressed to find the apps that work with your connected accessories, too. Without Windows Phone companion apps, I couldn't pair my Jawbone Up fitness tracker or the Bluetooth tag I use to track my keys.
Microsoft says it is trying to make it easier for developers to create apps that work across Windows, Windows Phone and Xbox. But even then, it's hard to imagine that being as good as the competition will change the tide. People don't use Windows Phones because … people don't use Windows Phones.
In the smartphone market, people tend to join in the biggest crowds. By the time Microsoft got its act together, the masses had chosen sides between iPhones and Android phones. For most, a switch would be like moving from a comfortable home to a comfortable home across the street—it just isn't worth it.
But stranger things have happened than a solid platform from a fiscally sound and committed tech giant gaining in popularity. If you're tired of the current options and can live without the apps and services that set the internet abuzz, the HTC One (M8) for Windows is a great device and it's just $US100 with a two-year contract at Verizon. That or just stick with the crowd.
Write to Joanna Stern at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her @JoannaStern