For the past three years, Windows Phone's inclusion of integrated experiences was ostensibly one of the platform's biggest strengths. But with standalone Xbox Music and Xbox Video apps coming to the platform, we can see a clearer view of the advantages of decoupling these experiences, both from each other and from the operating system. Have the integrated experiences in Windows Phone run their course? And if so, what does this mean to the platform?
I've extolled the virtues of the integrated experiences in Windows Phone so much I've kind of lost track of it. But you will recall the basic argument: While other platforms—notable iOS and Android—offer only a "whack a mole" approach to apps, where the user must remember which app does what and where that app can be found in their many home screens, Windows Phone offers something more sophisticated: Integrated experiences.
Most (but not all) of these integrated experiences are presented to the user in the form of hubs. For example, on Windows Phone, you don't need to remember "where" a photo is—the device's camera roll, SkyDrive, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever other service and related app—you simply need to think "photos," because all of your photos are in one place, the Photos hub. Similarly, all of your music and video experiences—Audible, Nokia MixRadio, whatever—should be available through the Music + Videos hub.
That's the theory: That integrated experiences put the onus of work on the system—and on the developers writing whatever apps you use—and not on the user. It works great. In theory.
The truth, however, is that Windows Phone's integrated experiences fall apart in real world use. Developers rarely integrate with the relevant hubs. Microsoft doesn't offer a way for cloud storage-based services like Flickr, Google+ Photos, or whatever to integrate in the Photos hub. And as services change, integrated experiences like native Facebook and Twitter support fall behind, and aren't as full-featured as the standalone apps that can be updated more frequently.
Indeed, integration with the OS has a serious downside when Microsoft can't really update the core OS very frequently. As I noted in Xbox Music for Windows Phone 8 and Another Early Look at "Paul Thurrott's Xbox Music" 2.0 recently, in preparing the second edition of Paul Thurrott's Xbox Music, I was struck by how far behind the Windows Phone client for Xbox Music—that Music + Videos hub—was compared to modern clients like Xbox Music for Windows 8.1, Xbox One, iOS and Android. This is a big problem.
In releasing separate standalone apps for Xbox Music and Xbox Video, Microsoft has given us a peek, perhaps, at the future. A future where Windows Phone works much like Android and iOS. A future where we perhaps access standalone apps—putting that onus on users, not the system—and not integrated experiences.
Some will argue that the loss of integrated experiences is a bad thing. I'm in this group, currently, and I don't see why Microsoft can't treat in-box apps like Music + Videos and the Photos hub like any other apps and just update them regularly. Heck, Nokia updates the HERE apps so frequently, my head is spinning just keeping track of it.
But some will also argue that separating these things out into separate apps is a good thing. On the one hand, that's what users of iOS and Android—i.e. most mobile devices users—are already used to. So moving to Windows Phone might in some ways now be easier, since the system will work more like iOS or Android. This could negate the downside of Microsoft removing what some feel is a key advantage for the platform.
Too, by decoupling Xbox Music and Xbox Video from the system—and perhaps in the future other parts of other integrated experiences—Microsoft is offering users a more powerful system in which every single experience on the device isn't permanently attached to the first Microsoft account you used when you first configured the phone. This means you could sign into Xbox Music with one account, say, and Xbox Games with another.
It's perhaps telling that Windows 8.1 doesn't include any Windows Phone-style integrated experiences. Indeed, the few that were available in Windows 8.0 have been scattered to the wind, most notably the Photos app, which was previously integrated with several useful services but is now very lackluster and limited. Perhaps this is the model that Windows Phone will follow in the future, all the more so because Windows RT and Phone are being merged in some way.
I don't really know what's happening and am simply looking at the implications of separate Xbox Music and Xbox Video apps with open eyes. I'm questioning what a future Windows Phone would look like sans integrated experiences, and whether such a platforms offers more, or less, differentiation from the iOS and Android competition. And whether less differentiation—which is how I see it at the moment—is a good thing. Or a bad thing.
And I don't know. I've been knee-jerk defending integrated experiences—and belittling the simpleton whack and mole" approach—for so long, I'm just not sure. It's fair to say that I have little trouble using iOS or Android for the most part, but then I'm not rotating between dozens of different apps like many people do. It's also fair to say that I very much prefer Windows Phone to those platforms.
So I'm not sure whether to mourn or celebrate.