Where Windows Phone Still Falls Short

Thanks to a year and a half of experience with the platform, I've become convinced that Windows Phone offers a superior overall user experience to competing and better-selling competitors such as Android and the iPhone. (See "Windows Phone 7.5 vs. iOS 5" for a recent comparison, or my separate Windows Phone 7.5 review and Apple iOS 5 review.)

But Windows Phone isn't perfect – far from it. And if Microsoft has any hopes of attracting not just new users but also users of competing platforms to Windows Phone, the company is going to have to step up to the plate and address some niggling concerns.

The first is a topic I've been meaning to address for some time now, which is a serious issue with a facet of Windows Phone that Microsoft has trumpeted, correctly, as its primary advantage over iOS and Android: The integrated experiences that, in many ways, obviate the user's need to find, download, and then use a myriad of different apps to accomplish common tasks. When the Windows Phone–integrated experiences work, they work well. You can very easily share a photo to Facebook or Twitter, without having first installed and configured a dedicated app for either service, for example.

But in many cases, these integrated experiences don't offer as much functionality as do the dedicated apps. So depending on your needs, the existence of an integrated experience might simply be obviated by the fact that it doesn't do what you want.

Case in point: Facebook integration. In Windows Phone 7.5, Microsoft dramatically expanded the Facebook integration features in the platform, so you can now perform a Facebook check-in, which is essentially a post that describes where you are, geographically, and provides an opportunity to describe what you're doing. In the integrated Windows Phone experience, you choose the location from a list of available choices, which are dynamic to your area. And that's it. There's an option to add a location if the place you're at isn't in the list (annoyingly common, as is the situation in which the location is in the list but is misspelled, in all lower case or otherwise misrepresented); but I have never gotten this feature to work. It errors out every time.

What you can't do is associate a photo with the check-in or tag other people who are with you. And these are two capabilities that many people will require. Worse, when you use the dedicated Facebook app to do this check-in – an act that, again, obviates the benefit of an integrated experience – you not only gain these two missing features but Facebook also provides a capsule description of the location you're checking into.

There are holes like this in all of Windows Phone's integrated experiences, from the Twitter integration that doesn't understand hash tags to the photo integration that doesn't understand Flickr and is unable to upload full-sized versions of your photos, automatically, to the service of your choice. The Maps app is particularly lackluster compared with the iOS and Android competition: It can provide driving and walking directions, but not alternative routes. In iOS, Google adds public transportation to the list, and in Android, it gets even better with biking directions and true turn-by-turn navigation.

Although I don't feel that Windows Phone's app selection – a stunning 30,000+ just a year after launch – is problematic, there are still far more apps on iOS and Android. And if Microsoft is going to promote integrated experiences as an advantage, it has to obviate the need to find, download, and use apps. Today, many Windows Phone users will simply need to use apps, meaning that, for them, this platform is no more efficient than the competition.

On a related note, although Microsoft has done a nice job of courting developers with what I know to be the industry-best development platform (seriously, even a cursory look at the Windows Phone developer environment, languages choices, APIs and frameworks, and documentation will make this immediately clear) and has made some interesting platform-level improvements such as App Connect in Windows Phone 7.5, there's still one major issue: The platform's hubs – integrated experiences such as  Pictures, People, Games, and Music + Videos – aren't extensible by third parties.

What this means in the real world is that Yahoo can and did create an excellent app for its market-leading Flicker service. But Yahoo can't integrate Flickr into the Pictures hub in any meaningful way. So you can't view your Flickr photostream, sets, or galleries alongside the albums from the services Microsoft does support (Windows Live, Facebook). You can't use Flickr as your auto share target (though you can share a photo you just took with the device's camera to Flickr, with an extra step). And you can't automatically upload all taken photos to Flickr, as noted above.

For these and similar services to integrate deeply with Windows Phone, Microsoft will need to open up the platform to a mechanism similar to Contracts in Windows 8. (And since Windows Phone 8 will most likely use Windows 8 as its base, that functionality might indeed be coming. But it's not there now.)

Finally, this wouldn't be Windows IT Pro UPDATE if I didn't bang the drum for missing enterprise features. Microsoft shipped the initial Windows Phone version with a conspicuous set of missing policies, and it somewhat made up for that with Windows Phone 7.5. But still among the missing is the very necessary support for encryption, both on the device's file system and via any removable media. (Some Windows phone handsets, such as the Samsung Focus, support memory expansion via micro-SD.) And until the platform does support these features, many enterprises will simply continue ignoring Windows Phone.

None of these items are necessarily deal breakers, depending on your needs. But they show that Windows Phone, for all of the thoughtful, elegant design and meaningful improvements that have occurred over the past year, still has a bit of maturing to do. I'll continue to use and advocate for Windows Phone because I feel that it's the superior platform. But no software is perfect and Windows Phone, like its competitors, has some areas that need improving.
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