After largely retreating from the smartphone hardware market when Windows Phone failed to catch on, Microsoft has spent the last few years shifting its mobile strategy to focus on breaking down the walls between devices and unifying the Windows experience between PCs and smartphones on competing operating systems.
A centerpiece of that strategy is Microsoft Launcher. Released last year as the descendant of the original Arrow Launcher created in 2015, the app gives Microsoft a bigger presence on an Android smartphone and put many of its products front and center. The Google Play store shows that Launcher has more than 10 million installs.
Microsoft just released an update to Microsoft Launcher with a bunch of new features, including multi-turn text messaging through Cortana, which means users can send several texts within a conversation via voice command without having to invoke the digital assistant each time. The update, Launcher version 4.11, is rolling out gradually and has yet to appear widely in the Google Play store.
Launcher makes the most sense for people who are deep into the Microsoft ecosystem and have to shuttle back and forth between devices often. Launcher includes the ability to jump back into Office documents and other projects right where the user left off. A customized feed collects everything in one place, including documents, social media posts and emails.
As an unrepentant Windows Phone lover, I gave Microsoft Launcher a quick test this week on my Android phone in the hopes of traveling in the wayback machine to the days of my LG Quantum with the slide-out keyboard. The setup doesn’t take long, and it mostly just requires signing in with a Microsoft account and granting a litany of permissions.
It was a bit of a shock at first as the layout of the screen changed, and a more Windows-esque display replaced the usual setup of my phone, but I was able to keep the same wallpaper. The feed is a cool feature, showing me recent texts I’d sent and received with big windows for news stories as well as the photos I took over the last couple days.
One of the biggest drawbacks of the old Windows Phone was the lack of third-party apps. Though Launcher takes over the smartphone to a point, access to previously installed apps remains intact.
Bing becomes the default search with Launcher, and I have the ability to make Cortana my default digital assistant over the Google Assistant. However, I can still easily get to Google search, Chrome and other Google apps that I’ve grown accustomed to over the years.
Microsoft has maintained that it wants to be platform agnostic with its mobile offerings. That seems to be the case with Launcher, creating something of a mini-operating system within Android while not totally sidelining Google apps. That makes the transition pretty smooth.
It took about an hour to get over the initial shock of the changes, but soon after I actually forgot I had installed the app, pretty much the greatest compliment there is for any piece of technology.