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Windows Phone's Soaring Highs and Crushing Lows
With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft is starting over from scratch with a deeply innovative new mobile platform that makes Apple's iPhone and Google's Android look tired by comparison. But in its rush to get Windows Phone to market quickly, is Microsoft releasing an unfinished product? And how fast will the software giant fill in the gaps?
This October or so, depending on whom you ask, Microsoft and several of its hardware partners will ship the first smart phones based on Windows Phone 7 via a variety of wireless carriers in locales around the globe. The system represents a mulligan of sorts for the software giant, which vanquished Palm and other competitors in the early phase of this market only to watch the quicker and more innovative Apple swoop in with its unexpectedly strong iPhone, raising the bar, and raising expectations of what's possible in the mobile space.
So after a couple of half-hearted pseudo-responses--Windows Mobile 6.5 anyone?--and some soul searching, Microsoft did the right thing. They've started over from scratch and created a new mobile platform that, in its own way, is as innovative and different when compared to today's competition as the iPhone was three short years ago. In fact, with Windows Phone, Microsoft has reversed the usual trends, so now it is Apple pushing a tired retread of its previously established platform and protecting a market that has become too lucrative for anything other than maintenance releases.
And yet. Comparisons have been made between this year's release of Windows Phone and the original, 2007 version of the iPhone. You may recall that, at the time, I described the iPhone as amazing but flawed, and in January 2008, I published a list of ways Apple could "fix" the iPhone. Apple implemented only about half of the fixes I recommended over the next two years, but it at least tackled the important ones--copy and paste, battery life, and networking capabilities--and the result is a polished, mature platform. (Maybe too mature.)
Meanwhile, Windows Phone arrives, full of promise, with new ideas, good ones in many cases, and the kinds of innovation we haven't seen on the iPhone since, well, the first version. But just like that first iPhone, Windows Phone will arrive with flaws, functional gaps that Microsoft-hating critics will use to bludgeon those who have the temerity to describe this platform, accurately, as a breath of fresh air in an industry that had quickly grown quite creatively stifled. (Google Android? Do you really think that platform is anything other than a free version of iPhone? Really?)
These critics will have a point, unfortunately. And during my in-depth examination of Windows Phone over the past three months, I've uncovered far more missing features than I'm comfortable with. I don't feel that these lapses will doom the product, not at all. In fact, I think the success of the big picture stuff far outweighs the mostly small missing features that will be present in Windows Phone on day one. But it's also clear that the long-term success of this platform lies not in the v1 release but rather in Microsoft's ability to constantly and aggressively update the OS with new capabilities.
This makes me nervous. At no time has Microsoft ever proven that it can move at anything other than a snail's pace, and it will need to do much better with Windows Phone. Today, looking across the company's many product lines--too many, really--you have to really try hard to find anything that's updated more frequently than once a year. Windows Live, once the bellwether for Microsoft's ability to innovative, releases new Essentials suites and Live services on a leisurely 18 month schedule. The best I can find, perhaps, is Bing, which seems to add new features every six months or so.
If Microsoft can update Windows Phone as quickly as it does Bing, it will fail--utterly fail--in this market. It needs to move more quickly than that.
Can it do so? I don't know. But in the meantime, I'd like to offer a point/counterpoint look at some of Windows Phone's biggest and best new features. And then explain why they often fall apart in the details on closer examination.
The gorgeous Windows Phone lock screen can be customized with your personal photo and relays a stunning amount of glanceable information, including the number of missed calls, whether there are any voice mails waiting, the number of unread text (and MMS) messages, the number of unread emails, and more. It can even tell you if the phone is in vibrate mode and whether its connected to a Wi-Fi network. It's so chock-full of information, in fact it makes the iPhone lock screen look like the frivolous do-dad it is.
The lock screen: Gorgeous but read-only
Too bad none of it is actionable. In the innovative Windows Mobile 6.5 lock screen, you could optionally unlock the screen and head directly into an application with pending notifications. For example, if it told you that there was one unread text message, you could unlock that portion of the screen and go right into the messaging app. With Windows Phone, like the iPhone, you just go right to the Start screen (what iPhone calls the home screen). There's no way to go from glanceable information to the activity in question. It's read-only.
The Windows Phone Start screen is another area where this platform makes the iPhone look silly by comparison. Instead of static rows of icons that can offer up only a number badge for notifications, the stock live tiles on the Windows Phone Start screen relay a ton of information, often in dynamic and animated ways. The Phone, Messaging, and Mail tiles all tell you how many new missed calls, messages, and emails you've received, which is very iPhone-like. But the Calendar tile shows you the next appointment, without requiring you to open the app. The Pictures tile is customized with your favorite photo. The Music + Videos tile dynamically displays imagery of the last musical artist you listened to. And the Me tile animates between different views of your own photo and a clip of your last social networking post. Taken as a whole, the Windows Phone Start screen is a living place, full of movement and up-to-the-second updates.
The Windows Phone Start screen.
And unlike the iPhone, you can customize it with virtually anything, not just app and web shortcuts. If you have a person you contact regularly, you can add a tile representing that person, for one tap access to phone, messaging, email and even address mapping. Try that with an iPhone.
All that said, some have complained that the Windows Phone Start screen is somehow too boring because of its big, opaque and rectangular tiles. And there's only one screen-worth of tiles. You can't scroll left or right to more Start screens, or organize tiles in different ways. Some tiles are square, and others are doubled-sized rectangles, but these sizes are determined by Microsoft, not you, so the reason some are more prominent is open to conjecture. And the awful All Programs screen, which lists all of your applications, not just ones that are pinned to the Start screen, is ugly and inefficiently laid out in a single column with ugly, small tiles. It looks unfinished.
Social networking integration
One of Windows Phone's strongest selling points is its deeply integrated presentation the information and photos that your family, friends, and other contacts post to social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace and to dozens of supported online services like Flickr and Windows Live. The key to this integration is the Windows Live "Messenger social" feed--which used to more logically be called the "What's new" feed--which lets you connect your Windows Live ID to other services and access them all from a central location. Using this functionality, you can logon to a Windows Live ID and gain access to the posts your contacts make all over the web, no matter the source. And these show up all over the phone, in the Pictures hub (graphically) and in the People hub, which includes its own What's new feed. If you properly configure your Windows Live account to access this information, you're going to have a killer Windows Phone experience.
Social networking updates appear in the What's New section.
And that's the problem? Who the heck is going to take the time to properly configure a Windows Live account? More important, perhaps, you can't even use a Windows Phone effectively without a Live ID, and that single ID is used as the source for a ton of information on the device, including your primary email (and contacts and calendar) account, your feeds, Zune Pass, Xbox Live gamertag, various Marketplaces, and much more. Yes, you can configure other accounts--including, explicitly, a non-configurable Facebook account--but everything else goes through Windows Live. And as for the number one social network service on earth, Twitter, well, too bad. It's not included.
Another huge selling point of Windows Phone is its stellar digital media functionality, especially the digital picture functionality in the Pictures hub. From here, you can seamlessly access your phone's camera and pictures you've taken with that camera, photos you've saved from the web, photos you've synced from the PC, photos stored in your Windows Live account online (SkyDrive, Spaces, Photos, etc.), and even photos you've published to Facebook. More interesting, perhaps, you can also view photos that your contacts are posting to Facebook, Flickr, and other online photo services. And it's all presented in front of a sweeping panoramic wallpaper of your choice. It's the ultimate mobile photo experience and there's nothing like it on the iPhone.
The Pictures hub.
Sadly, there's a dark side to this functionality as well. Because Microsoft has locked down Windows Phone in bizarre and inexplicable ways, you cannot interact with the device as you would other digital cameras or phones. So when you connect it to the PC, the only way to import photos is through the otherwise excellent Zune software. (That is, you can't use any photo acquisition software, and the phone doesn't show up in Windows Explorer.) Zune works great for syncing content to the phone, but it's lacking when it comes to acquiring photos. All Windows Phone pictures are copied to a single folder ("From Paul's Phone/Camera Roll" or whatever) and use whatever file names were in use on the device (WP_000001.jpg, WP_000002.jpg, and so on). You've gotta be kidding me.
Music + Videos
Many people have mistakenly described the Windows Phone music and video experience as "Zune," when in fact the Zune software is just part of a wider Music + Videos experience that will be extended by third party software and services. No matter the name, it's excellent, and the Zune-based media player and music, video, and podcast management solution that is included is first-rate, for the most part. There's also wireless, over the air access to the Zune Marketplace, and your Zune Pass subscription. You have one right?
The Music + Videos hub.
Of course you don't. No one has a Zune Pass subscription. And that Zune Marketplace access is only for music, so you can't wireless download podcasts on the go, let alone TV shows or movies. You can't sync audiobooks, not yet anyway, either through the Zune software or "side-loaded" with Audible. There's an FM radio, but no HD radio like on the Zune HD.
Critics have unfairly lambasted the mobile IE version in Windows Phone because it is "based" in some way on Internet Explorer 7 for the PC which, as they turn out, is a few years old. Yawn. In the real world, Mobile IE works just fine with real web sites, and it offers some decent functionality like support for tabs, the ability to pin favorite pages to the Start screen, downloading, viewing, and saving a rich set of file types (including ZIP files, go figure), and all the pinch and double-tap zooming your heart can stand. It's actually a decent little mobile browser.
Internet Explorer supports tabs ... But only 6 of them.
Alas, it also doesn't support RSS feeds. Or Flash. Or Silverlight. Thank to the lack of system-wide copy and paste, you can't copy a section of text from a web page and save it to that excellent OneNote app. And the web content management stuff is just broken: You can delete temporary files, history, cookies, and saved passwords all in one whack, but not individually. And you can allow or disallow cookies universally, but not disallow them only from secondary sites, which would be preferable. I don't care what version of IE this thing is "based" on. It just needs some more expected functionality.
If you've seen the Bing app on the iPhone or Windows Mobile, you know how cool it can be. On Windows Phone, Bing supports voice commands, integrates deeply across the phone and works in expected ways in different apps, and offers a nice, pivot-based UI for web, local, and news searches. And if you need to get directions or find a place, the integrated Bing Maps functionality is top notch and, in my opinion, much more attractive than the Google Maps mess you see on other phones. Case in point: On Bing Maps, real-time traffic reporting (in the form of red, yellow and green lines over roads) doesn't cover up the route numbers like it does on Google Maps. Google, you've been served.
Bing provides web, local, and news search, plus maps ... but not shopping or image search.
On the other hand, if you've seen the Bing app on the iPhone or Windows Mobile, then you're used to functionality that simply isn't present on Windows Phone. There's no image search on Windows Phone. No Shopping. No Social search (because it's integrated elsewhere). No weather (at least not directly). No private searches. Wait, did I just say that Microsoft's search app works better on the competition? Yeah. I did.
Windows Phone's Mail application is the nicest looking mobile mail app I've ever seen. Presented almost purely with text, Mail allows you to focus on the task at hand: Triaging, responding to, and writing email. It's efficient, fast, and gorgeous.
Mail, in Select mode.
It's also functionally retarded if you have more than one email account: It offers no unified inbox at all, and no way to access two or more email accounts from the same app. Instead, when you configure multiple email accounts, Windows Phone actually creates a unique instance of the Mail app for each and every account. Right now, for testing purposes, I have five different email accounts configured on my phone. That means I have five different email apps. And five different places to check for mail. Come on, it's 2010, Microsoft.
The Windows Phone Calendar app, like Mail, is efficient, fast, and gorgeous, and utilizes a Spartan (and curiously color reversed white on black) interface. Unlike Mail, it lets you combine multiple calendar accounts into a single, color-coded view. So when you create new appointments, you get to specify which calendar it will be part of. Nice!
Until you realize that Calendar can only sync with a given service's primary calendar. And that there's no tasks/to-do support at all.
The Office hub on Windows Phone is inarguably the nicest-looking looking implementation of Mobile Office anywhere, and it offers decent versions of OneNote Mobile (with SkyDrive-based notes sync), Word Mobile, Excel Mobile, and PowerPoint Mobile, and even SharePoint Workspace Mobile, the latter of which makes synchronizing with corporate document repositories easier than ever.
The Office hub.
Too bad it's more limited than the version Microsoft provides to Windows Mobile users today. You can't run individual Office Mobile applications (or pin them to the Start screen); instead, you must always go through the document-centric Office hub. SharePoint integration is great, but who uses SharePoint? The more popular SkyDrive is barely supported, and there's no way to set up SharePoint-style syncing with Microsoft's consumer cloud storage service. OneNote, Word, and Excel Mobile all work only in portrait mode, but not in landscape, while PowerPoint "works" only in landscape mode but is almost unusable regardless, and it offers none of the best PowerPoint Mobile features from Windows Mobile, including the ability to use your device as a remote control during PC-based presentations. The sheer number of missing features in each of the Office Mobile apps, but only on this platform, is staggering.
The Captain Obvious bloggers of the world will harp on missing Windows Phone features like copy and paste and multitasking, but I prefer to think in terms of what real people will really need in the real world. And while the issues I note above are only the tip of the iceberg, they are the issues that real people will indeed really run into. Whether these issues will dull the excitement over truly innovative Windows Phone features like the integrated panoramic experiences is unclear, but I don't think so. I do, however, think it's important that people understand what they're getting into with Windows Phone and that, as with the iPhone of 2007, this level of innovation and change is going to bring with it some functional holes.
Don't take this the wrong way: Windows Phone is a stunning do-over from Microsoft, and it's one I'm excited to use going forward. But the success of this platform is very much tied up in Microsoft's ability to aggressively update it, especially over the first year. There's a lot to do.