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Rumor: Windows Phone 8.1 to ditch back button, increase screen size support past 7-inches

Microsoft guru Paul Thurrott is reporting on some new information regarding the upcoming Windows Phone 8.1 update aka ‘Blue’. He notes that the info comes from a single source, though he has confidence in the information revealed.

What’s discussed isn’t so much the superficial UI changes or new features but rather core user experience deviations that should cause a stir amongst the Windows Phone faithful.

We won’t recapitulate all of Thurrott’s revelations, but we will highlight a few of the more interesting ones.

  • Universal Binaries – Windows Phone 8.1 looks to have 77% overlap with Windows RT, up from the current 33%.  That will allow developers to more easily (and still optionally) write apps for both platforms going forward. That could have profound implications in the long run for Windows 8 and Windows Phone.
  • Multitasking – Though vague it notes that currently Windows Phone “notifications and background processes are a mess” and this will be fixed in 8.1.
  • Back button is going – Probably the biggest surprise is that the Back button will be eliminated from the hardware requirements. Metrics have revealed that users don’t “get” the logic behind it and that they just use the Windows key most of the time.

Other changes mentioned in the article include Microsoft pushing high-end hardware to get those higher profit margins and bigger displays heading into the 7-10 inch range. Right now, the focus is on low end devices including the Lumia 520, but Microsoft is now evidently going to try for that luxury, boundary pushing gear.

Obviously that’s a lot to chew on and it certainly raises some interesting questions. For instance, if Windows Phone runs into the 7-10 inch display range, what does that mean for RT devices? There has been a lot of talk that RT and Windows Phone would merge and those display resolution changes may be the first move into that category.

Old concept for Windows Phone 8.1 Notification tile

We’re not sure how we feel about the back button being phased out—we’re actually big users of it, but we’re very likely in the minority. If accurate, we’ll have to defer to Microsoft’s metrics on this one, much like how they changed the Search key from context-aware to universal for Bing in Windows Phone 7.5.

Windows Phone 8.1 is expected to be announced early in 2014 with a co-launch of new devices from their OEM partners. Details remain mum on all the changes, but a new Notification Center, ‘Cortana’ voice assistant, app-list sorting, actionable-notifications and other new features are reportedly on the list of major new additions.

Head to Paul Thurrott’s Supersite for Windows for the full scoop then come back here to discuss. 

Daniel Rubino
Executive Editor

Daniel Rubino is the Executive Editor of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft here since 2007, back when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and arguing with people on the internet.

574 Comments
  • NNNNNOOOOOooooOOoooOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!
     
    DARTHVADER.JPG
  • Ditching the back button. Now THATS moving forward!
  • Ahhhhh nice!
  • This sounds completely awful. First why put Windows Phone OS on large screen devices when you have a much more powerful and capable OS in Windows RT that shares an app store with Windows 8. Windows RT has amassed almost as many apps as Windows Phone in a third of the time. It has far more compatibility with Windows 8 than Windows Phone does.
     
    Second why make the back button optional forcing developers to put back buttons in all of their apps and waste on-screen display space on devices with tiny screens. The people who use the start button to go back are noobs who have been trained over the years by iOS. The fact that they haven't learned how to use Windows properly is not a good reason to change something that works well for experienced users.
     
     
     
  • Stole the words right out of my mouth...
  • To be honest, I believe the search button is rather unused not the back button. MS get their facts wrong when some big-shot narrow minded boss forces his own view on things regardless common sense.
    I didn't like their call the 1st time I saw WP7 specifications. Back, Home, Search. Apple's approach with 1 button was smarter and more consistent. Zero hardware buttons had been nice also.
    If the 3 buttons were having customizable functions, having for instance a usefulness with the phone dialing application, used as gaming controller, etc ...it had been something, this way they were just crippling an otherwise nice OS.
    Also for the start screen, tiles are nice, but scrolling through countless tiles with no concept of page or group or anything is becoming an handicap. Tiles are nice as I said, but MS must forget the vertical scrolling and invent pages so the user doesnt swipe once and get completly lost. If they dont, people will get bored quite soon regardless other nice features the OS has.
     
  • I agree, most apps are designed to work using the back button. Indeed they enforced strict guidelines for apps certification regarding the back usage. And apps design was affected by this.
    Search button is the one being useless.
  • Totally agree..
  • I love the back button. I cannot stand iOS because of it's lack of a back button. When anything on-screen is accidently pressed, a quick tap on the back button and you're right back where you were.  This is VERY helpful for my 70 year old mother. WP is the only OS she can figure out, and this is one of the reasons for it.
  • I also like the back button.
  • We don't know all the details yet, but there's a few things we can suspect:
     
    1. They've mentioned merging RT and Windows Phone, so allowing 7+ inch devices is probably related to that.
    2. If the back button is going, we can be sure they will have a fallback in place. There are many apps that don't function well without it (e.g. Foursquare). I imagine something like an extension of the global taskbar might be used. Also don't forget that sources say they're removing the requirement, so it's not clear yet if that means hardware providers can still include it.
  • They had to have considered that a lot of apps rely on the back button and will have some sort of work around that hopefullt doesn't involve everyone recompling their apps. 
    I'm guessing they're going to use the back button to open some sort of charms menu. Swiping from the sides wouldn't work very well on a lot phones with a cases.
  • Don't ignore the possibility that their intent would be to replace the softkey with a software solution that would appear the same to apps, to make sure none of them break. I'd guess this has to do with Windows Phone 9 anyway, and is merely transitional in nature.
  • Yes yes yes yes. I'm actually frightened. I have no idea how reliable this information could be but lets hope very unreliable... What a ridiculous notion "users don't get it" I bet they use it all the time to hide the keyboard and to go backwards a step within an app or with an "oops" moment. Grr this is ridiculous I really hope this doesn't happen. I use the back button as a selling point for my friends!!
  • My wife and I both have Lumia 822s and when I have to use her phone, I find myself backing up through all of the functions and apps that she has used through the last few days. Closing background apps with the "X" will simply this.
  • The article says they might be merging wp8 and RT. So, the new os should be just as powerful as RT and will be able to run the wp apps. This will raise the number of apps available significantly. I don't know about the back button. Maybe they will use a double tap like ios for the multitasking and introduce a swipe motion to go back like on ie11.
  • Agree!!
  • > The fact that they haven't learned how to use Windows properly is not a good reason to change something that works well for experienced users. As a software developer, I would completely disagree. The fact that most users cannot figure it out is exactly why it should change. We have all learned it from experience, but it's clearly not intuitive enough to figure out. If the reasoning is true, then Microsoft will simplify the phones by removing the button. After all, how many people know that to close an application, you must hold down back? And, short of it closing, particularly with GPS, it's killing your battery.
  • As another software developer, unless it's doing something (like GPS or music) in the background, it isn't touching your battery. (http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windowsphone/develop/ff817008%28...)
  • Agreed 10000000%
  • This Back button thing will generate another uproar like what MS did to W8 by removing the Start button.  Millions WP users who are just getting used to the WP navigation now will have to be retrained.  The 170K apps would have to be updated with a Back button inside the apps, like WMpoweruser.com, starting from WPC.  It would be easier to add a Back button on the RT tablets to enhance the navigation for RT.
  • Swipe from left border to the right sounds great as a replacement to back button. It works nicely in Blackeberry 10 and I missed it when I came to WP
  • Actually, my guess is they are trying to bring RT and WP together.  Windows devices have only a start button.  That's all we should have, too.  Bring on the charms!
  • Also the fact that they're adding "X to close" to the multitasking screen in GDR3 pretty much ends the need for a back button.
  • You do realize that you have to use the back button to get to the multitasking screen. Currently anyway.
  • Also going back a page in IE guess WP IE11 will get a redo also
  • Taking bad design cues from Windows 8. How are hidden menus that require two steps to activate a command better than a visible dedicated button that works in one step? Hidden menus like the charms are a terrible idea because many users forget they are there or never discover them. Instead of tapping a button to search or change apps I now have to slide and tap. That is not a user experience improvement of any kind.
  • I agree... the charms are horrible, because you never know if there is anything app-specific in there without sliding it open to look.  The WP ... menu is so clever.
  • If they move to charms (which I could see them doing), that would be a way to get to that screen.
  • The problem I have with charms is that they seem to create competing gestures. For example, sometimes I just want to swipe to the right in an app but I accidentally bring up the charms bar. This seems to against their own design guidelines. Watch the YouTube video "from lazy to metro" by lazyworm.
  • Happens all of the time to me, too. I'd like to see more of WP's UI moving to Win, but it seems like we're heading in the other direction instead.
  • Wat are serious wp on tablet ?? Go away android fanboy
  • Do you even own a Win tablet?
  • Please Vote with me
    http://windowsphone.uservoice.com/forums/101801-feature-suggestions/suggestions/4559384-don-t-remove-the-back-button-
  • A charm bar would be awesome.
  •  Very true. I hope that this report about the back button is wrong. I use it all the time and would really miss it... unless they do something like a double-tap of the home button for multi-tasking and a long press to bring up Cortana.
  • Well, tap-and-hold the windows logo button should be configured to do that trick. That would be more intuitive.
  • If they're going to use tap & hold on the logo to call up Cortana (since it calls up TellMe right now), i don't think that would work. Double tapping the logo isn't intuitive either, as demonstrated by using my wife's iphone.
     
    I don't think charms would be the best idea, I just think that's what they'll do.
  • tap & hold on search can bring up Cortana.
  • Unless they are planning on more swipe gestures in order WP 8.1 to be a more unified experience. I wouldn't mind they getting rid of all the buttons except the windows button as long as its done correctly.
  • And rename it iWindows.
  • Go play with a HTC One. You tape a button it does one thing, double tap it does something elsewhere, hold it and something else. So you get 3 options out of one button. Very smoothly I'll add.
  • double click like on ios would work.
  • I was about to say the same thing. For a tablet, a back button doesn't make a whole lot of sense but on a phone it clearly has a place.  However, I do see Microsoft's point.  When I pick up my wife's phone, I'm hitting the back button forever it seems like.  She's definitely one that hits the 'Start' button.
  • I love the back button! I use it all the time. :(
  • Your wife and my wife would be good friends. I'm still trying to figure out how she has 3 or 4 different instances of Mail or SMS open at the same time.
  • LMAO.... I know righ!! The multiple instances of messaging just floors me.
  • If you open messaging via a banner it opens up a new instance, so it isn't your wives' fault, rather its the fault of the OS.
  • But I like the back button for going back.
  • How are we going to get to the multi-tasking screen if long pressing the Windows button brings up voice commands?
     
    Looks like MS might finally be forced to add a "swipe left" screen...
  • No it doesn't, how do you get to the list of open apps without the back button?
    Also if the requirement is not there the user experience will be different for what was a common function. Now some phones will have it some won't? What a poor decision! What problem are they trying to solve here and couldn't they be better spending their efforts on higher value items? If this is to help bring WP and Windows RT together how does RT provide the open apps list? Would that even be workable on WP?
  • It was ridiculous that RT did not share the same eco-system in the first place! As for the back button didn't make much sense without a forward button I am sure it was on everyones minds to put a forward button in IE, but that would conflict the very existence of a hardware back button and the exclusion of a forward one. Browsing a webpage without a forward button is just crazy, because there has always been one even crazier on WP how the back button works with IE you have to get used to opening always opening new tabs.. It is those errogant decisions that users have to suffer for. That said I heavily use the back button going back and forth through apps and ending unwanted task, it's ashame that many can't wrap their heads around that. ^^
  • You don't need a forward button in apps. The browser is the only legitimate scenario, and it's not all THAT common in everyday use, at least when compared to the Back button.
  • Page or flip ahead, back like in Windows8 IE metro.
  • I'd really rather avoid that altogether. Of all of the things I like about Windows 8, I care nothing for the Charms, though that likely has something to do with the fact that I use it on a mouse-and-keyboard desktop. Windows Phone already uses the swipe-left to get to the apps list anyway, and I'd abhor having to do that to open Bing (they didn't mention removal of the Search button, so we'll see on that).
  • Yes but on larger devices there is enough screen real estate for digital back buttons within apps. Phones are small.
  • Not only that....PLEASE MS, BRING MIRACAST (or WiDi if ever on intel) AND WIFI DIRECT PLEASE.....Y u no bring wifi direct?!
  • Lol let's all just press the back button continuously for the next 30 min to show our support for the back button
  • My thumb is sore, but I got'r done.
  • Awesome
  • Hold back" + double tap back" to close open pages
  • Or press the back button
  • Wow, never knew about double-back to close... My new favorite feature! Too bad it will be short lived... Errrr!
  • How is that a move forward. It is a pretty usefull button since the start button won't close an app and you have to use the back button for multitasking too. Can't imagine a windows phone with only a start and search button. And if they really want to eliminate a button, why don't they ditch the search button? I hardly ever used it since you can dieectly search in the IE adress bar...
  • I agree; the seach button is the most pointless button which I only ever press by mistake & it is so annoying!
    I hope Microsoft can release a software update to disable it lol.
  • Fingers crossed for a way to disable the search button... I hate it! I'm always pressing it with my palm and never use it for searching. If it searched inside the app i was using Id use it all the time. But it doesn't... Ditch it.
  • +1, I always press the search button by accident, and I hate it.
  • I think he's trolling.
    The back button is one of the strongest point of WP that makes it able to compete with iOS.
  • Stop it, silly! lol
  • Hahaha
  • Making a system for an elephant or to put a man on the moon with a commodore driven rocket? I like and would like to choose Microsoft for the last option. After I updated the ipad 2 with the latest ios it became laggy and pretty much less instead of more useful.
  • Then, they'll ask us to use the phone horizontically because that's how the w8 works.
  • I don't know what's more epic. Your comment itself or the fact that the "O's" are running off the page into the ads! lolol!
  • I had the exact same reaction.  Long live the back button!
  • I like the back button. Use it all the time rather than the windows button. Im guessing that its people switching from ios who are used to pressing the central button who maybe dont understand the back button. Another thing im wondering is what happens to existing devices which have the back button- what happens to them in WP 8.1.... assuming they get that update
  • To me the lack of a back button is one of the things that's annoying about iOS. Sure since iOS 7 they have a back gesture now that works in some places, but otherwise apps mostly seem to have an on screen back button in the top left hand corner. Which in my opinion is a waste of space and frustrating because it's actually the furtherest point from your thumb if you're using your phone in your right hand. 
    I guess in the end it depends on what they intend to replace it with... Honestly can't see a gesture like the iOS 7 one working because so many apps rely on side swiping for navigation already.
  • I actually like the idea of on-screen buttons only, maybe with a hard (not capacitive) Start button somewhere, but not on the front wasting space.
  • Opposite here - I prefer having tue hardware buttons on the front. This is a step towards it though I bet.
  • Totally agree. I had to use an iOS device yesterday and was blown away by how poorly designed it is. I use the back button in Windows Phone all the time, especially within apps. For instance, in he WPcentral app I tap on an article, read it, the tap back to get back to the front page of the app. In iOS you'd have to hit the home button and reopen the app. Stupid. Sometimes some apps have digital back buttons, but it is inconsistent and not near your thumb. I seriously don't understand why anyone would buy an Apple product. They're overpriced, incredibly restrictive, and not user friendly. I use the back, Windows, and search buttons on Windows Phone all the time. I would like to see WP adopt Windows 8 gesture controls (especially app switching and app closing swipes), but still want the capacitive buttons. They should make the search button even more useful by adding a long press option like the Windows button, one where a short press allows you to search within an app and a long one takes you to Bing. I've actually never opened IE on my phone by tapping on it. I always just tap search quickly get somewhere online.
  • I agee with you there. I use both the search and back buttons all the time. It's how the OS is designed. I don't really understand why people are so upset about the search button anyway. I do a lot of searching on the net and I find it very convenient to just have to press one button go get to Bing. If it was possible I would like to have a search tile on the start screen.
  • IMO, they won't ditch it right away. They ditch the requirement, but not the implementation, yet. After devices with back buttons became obsolete, then they will removed the implementation altogether.
  • Hope they will use gestures to close an app when we are inside an app. Scroll top to bottom like the windows 8, and that will remove the use of back button and that will even very close to RT 77%
  • Like Windows 8, they removed the start button On WP 8.1, they removed the back button..... WTF IS THE DEAL WITH MICROSOFT REMOVING USEFUL BUTTONS?!?!?!?!?
  • Start button was so Vista.
  • Isn't this just a way to make HTC happy so that they can use the One's hardware? Android dropped the 3 button requirement last year for a contextual / on screen button, and this is pretty much the same thing.
     
    Really this is Microsoft's way of making it very hard for Android phone makers to not make Windows Phones. They get to leverage their existing manufacturing to achieve much better scale.
  • Then how do we go to a previous page in IE, or shuffle between apps as we can with a long press? There must be some change to how these functions are handled on the touch screen.
  • I love the back button!!! Everytime I need to do something else (sometimes several different things) with the intention of returning to my main task, I hit the windows button and do my other task/s and simply hit back a few times to close the current task and return to my previous task with ease! How can people 'not get' that!
  • Ditto =[ I USE THE BACK BUTTON ALL THE TIME O_O
  • I like the back button so much that i just hit the back button frm the article just to feel its vibration. Ha!
    So this is what happens. History repeatin itself. Windows 8 removed on-screen start button, people went retarded. Micrsft comes out of lala land, returned the start button in 8.1. WP 8.1 without back button, and again the (may) scream wich makes micrsft bring it back uhm...maybe WP 8 point next?
  • I use the back button all of the time. I use the search button and the windows button. I use the back button the most.
  • The search button is what's useless!
  • NO LUKE! I'm using the back arrow RIGHT NOW!
  • I think they just need to add more gestures a la WebOS...now THAT was intuitive!
  • I use 95% of the time back button 4.5% start and only 0.1 search... Back is useful
  • So what will the back button on my 920 do when AT&T releases this in March 2015?
  • It'll work, it just won't be required to be there and the OS won't be dependent on it.
  • To me it sounds like they are moving towards gestures. At least that's what I'm hoping for.
  • My thoughts exactly. Definitely sounds like navigating apps will be similar to Windows 8/RT, swiping from the left bezel to access running apps and such.
  • Gestures are too confusing IMO
  • And I think it'll complicate one-handed user experience (i.e. having to hit that edge just right)
  • Good point.One of the many reasons I was never interested in the blackberry z10.
  • That is the start of fragmentation as far as user experience is concerned, no?
  • Which begs the question how multitasking is going to work with all new 8.1 devices. Also, most apps use the back button to navigate.  Pretty much all apps need to be updated. 
     
    If this is true it has to be one of the dummest things MS has ever done.
  • Wont be the first dumbest thing though..
  • certainly not ;)
  • My first thoughts exactly
  • iOS gets on OK without an actual hardware back button - why not WP?
  • Because iOS never had one. (Nearly) all WP apps are designed with the back button in mind. 
  • iOS "gets on OK" without a back button just because iOS users just don't know better. The user experience on iOS is actually quite frustrating in general, missing back button being part of the problem. If the app needs the back button, it provides it on screen, you have to search for it, memorize its position app to app because it's just all over the place and usually in the hardest reachable spot, top left corner...
  • Well said. Totally agree.
  • So saying its going isnt quite right then.
    Just because it's not a requirement anymore doesnt mean that it will be dropped. 
  • yeah, and devs would LOVE to see that they have to support different interaction methods for different devices.
  • Daniel - any idea if this is just because RT and WP will be merging? It would make sense for RT devices to not have a back button, but only because of how they multitask - with WP the way it is, the back button is obviously still incredibly important for daily use...
     
    Do you think WP will be that much closer to RT with 8.1, hence this potential change?
  • Back button is always helpful. It will be a great 'miss' if MS drops, I use back button on android to kill the "apps" with mods. Back button is always handy.
  • Hey, Daniel, how about having a wpcentral poll on the back button so that Microsoft can see actual consumer response before they do something stupid?