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Mailbag: November 20, 2011

In this edition of the mailbag: Windows 8 tablet fragmentation, Visual Voice Mail on AT&T Windows Phones, what happened to the plus sign on the Windows Phone keyboard, why tech companies sue for patent violations, the best-ever email subject line, app availability issues on Windows Phone, Zune Pass sort of goes live in Australia, whether you can keep iTunes Match music, and a Windows Phone Instagram alternative.

Once again, itt's been a while since the last Mailbag, sorry. If you have questions, please email me at mailto:[email protected].

Why won't the Windows 8 tablet market fragment like Android has?

David C. asks:

We all agree that the Android ecosystem is a disaster and that it has flopped on tablets.  Why will the Windows 8 ecosystem be any less of a disaster? Given that Windows 8 tablets will not be "controlled" in any way, there will be different screen resolutions, speeds, CPU cores, amount of RAM etc.  Won't this make it exactly like Android?  Users will not be sure that a Metro app that they purchase and install on their device will actually work (or work well)?  Doesn't that make it much like the complex PC world of today?

So this is a pretty broad topic. But a couple of points that are relevant, I think:

- While the Metro-style UI isn't truly resolution independent, most apps will look identical or at least nearly so regardless of the resolution. Developers won't need to cater to specific resolutions for the most part. This means an app can look and work the same on 7-inch tablets, 10-inch tablets, and 30-inch desktops.

- As with Windows Phone, I expect Microsoft to establish requirements around Windows PCs and/or devices for Windows 8 so that far more uniform hardware minimums are met. This would help create a more uniform experience across devices, as it has with Windows Phone. (Please take this point as the speculation it is. Hopefully, we'll learn more about Microsoft's PC maker expectations and requirements at CES.)

- Ultimately, the fragmentation issue that's dogged Android is caused mostly by different OS versions, each of which has particular capabilities and can run a certain set of apps. Microsoft only updates Windows every three years, not every few months, as with Android. So this type of thing isn't an issue. Windows apps will always run on Windows.

So, we'll see what happens, of course. But I think a lot of the problems you see on the Android side are caused by rapid ongoing growth, tied to the fact that it's a new platform. And that won't happen with Windows. Microsoft just isn't that fast.

Visual Voice Mail on AT&T Windows Phones

Jason Y. asks:

So how do I get Visual Voice Mail on my AT&T Samsung Focus S? This is a feature on my iPhone that I really miss on this Windows Phone 7 handset.

First, some background.

When Apple announced Visual Voice Mail for the original iPhone in 2007, many assumed this was an iPhone-only feature or something that Apple had invented. But even Apple was upfront about this: It was AT&T (then Cingular) that created Visual Voice Mail for the iPhone, and while this is a great feature, there's no technical reason other smart phones can't have similar functionality.

Flash forward to 2011 and very few other phones have Visual Voice Mail. When Microsoft announced the availability of Windows Phone 7.5 back in September, it revealed that carriers would be able to optionally add Visual Voice Mail to the devices they sold or even to previous generation devices. And while I assumed and then was told that AT&T would be among those carriers, it hasn't happened yet.

So the short answer is that AT&T would need to make this feature available, and right now they haven't on any Windows Phones.

Since I love to speculate, I do wonder if AT&T doesn't have some period of exclusivity with the iPhone. But I just don't know.

What happened to the plus sign (+) on Windows Phone 7.5?

Thomas M. asks:

Is it only my [Windows Phone 7.5] update, or has the plus sign disappeared from the Windows Phone virtual keyboard?  If I hold down the period, it's not there anymore. [It was there in previous versions of Windows Phone.]

Windows Phone has a cool feature where you can tap and hold on virtual keyboard buttons and see other characters. So for the minus (-) key, you can tap and hold and get a pop-up menu of other keys, like &,", :, /, and so on.

Confusing matters, there are different keyboard modes in Windows Phone 7.x. So each app can present a different keyboard type. And those pop-up additional keys are different between modes.

On Windows Phone 7.5, the plus key option is gone on most of these modes. But it's actually available on the keyboard in Internet Explorer for some reason. However, if you tap the Symbols key and then Shift on most keyboards, you'll see the + key.

Silly. This should be more consistent, I think.

On Tech Companies and Patent Threats and Litigation

Jared B. writes:

On Windows Weekly you wondered whether Microsoft would go after Amazon [for patent violations]. It seems that every time a new piece of technology comes to the market, everyone has to jump up and yell "SUE!!" Apple has a long history of this, suing as many companies as they can, so it's no surprise to see Microsoft (or Amazon) doing this too.

If Microsoft is suing Barnes & Noble for using Android in its eReader/tablet, it will need to do so again for Amazon, which is also using Android for a similar device. If it doesn't do so, that's something B&N can use in its defense in court: The patent holder needs to defend its ownership or it can lose control of the patented technology. That said, Amazon and Microsoft has some sort of cross-licensing deal already, so it's possible this is already covered.

But I think you're looking at patent protection the wrong way. This isn't about companies having a "history" of suing. It's about some companies having a history of actually owning intellectual property and then protecting it as the asset it is. Credible, leading edge tech companies like Apple and Microsoft create and buy IP. Then they protect it. That doesn't mean they're "bad". It means they're credible.

I'd also add that this is almost certainly a responsibility that shareholders would and should expect of the company. Part of Apple's and Microsoft's overall worth is tied up in this IP. That ownership absolutely should be tested, in court if necessary. But it should also be protected.

Single greatest email subject line I've received all year

This isn't a question per se, but I found this to be funny and wanted to share it with you. I received an email from an anonymous reader with the following subject line recently:

Start menu is a lie

LOL. The email was about people's inability to change when an OS maker comes up with a new interface paradigm. I sort of covered this in the previous Mailbag, which was about the Windows 8 Developer Preview.

Yet another reason why Windows Phone isn't being broadly adopted

I get a lot of email involving requests for a specific app that isn't available on Windows Phone. Audible being the big one. But as time has gone by and the Windows Phone Marketplace keeps expanding (apparently to over 40,000 apps now), these requests are finally starting to dry up. But here's an interesting one that touches on what is certainly an edge case, but also an interesting look at why the broader ecosystem around iOS and Android makes it hard for Microsoft to get a foothold.

Karl C. writes:

Over dinner I was trying to convince a couple of doctor friends of mine that their next phone should be a Windows Phone. They asked if it had the Epocrates app. Never heard of it but I looked. Nope. It turns out this is an old classic app from the early Palm, Blackberry, and Windows Mobile days. They explained that doctors held out switching to iPhone and Android for the longest time until this was available. It's a drug reference guide that's universally used amongst medical professionals. Over a decade ago, med students were issued Palm Pilots just so they could carry around this app. So until Eprocates is ported to Windows Phone it will not be adopted by doctors, nurses, and others in the medical field.

This one was interesting enough that I forwarded it to a friend at Microsoft who handles Windows Phone developer evangelism.

And still yet another reason why Windows Phone ... You get the idea

Back when Zune was still a thing, potential users of the platform who live in countries other than US would complain that Microsoft was ignoring them. And as Windows Phone has grown up to replace Zune for the most part, we see a similar issue, where certain Windows Phone features, including some bizarre ones like over-the-air podcast support, are only available in the US.

With this in mind, Andrew Birch, who maintains an excellent list of which Windows Phone features are available in which markets, writes in with the following information:

I thought I'd be writing to you to announce how happy that I am that Australia finally got the Zune Music Marketplace & Zune Music Pass on Wednesday, but in classic Microsoft fashion, they've managed to rain on their own parade and ruin it for themselves.

Microsoft have enabled the Zune Music Pass & Zune Music Marketplace features here in Australia, but they have NOT turned on Smart DJ, which in my opinion is one of their key selling points, since it is what allows you to discover all the new music that the Zune Music Pass gives you access to! I've contacted support and apparently it's “not supported in your region”. What is there to support? We've got the music & the streaming access, so what's stopping Zune from generating playlists?

They also didn't enable the Social Tab in the Zune PC Software (although they enabled in on the website).

They also didn't enable the Zune Channels even though Zune Channels are available in every Zune Music Pass country (except Canada interestingly). The weird thing is, all of these features are mentioned in the support documents & feature pages of the website for Australia.

o that's all the features which they SHOULD have enabled but didn't, that's on top of the ones we already knew they wouldn't enable: Podcasts (STILL US Only), Mixview in Zune PC Software (US Only) & Artist Bios (also US Only, <sarcasm> I mean, why would people outside the US want to read about stuff </sarcasm>). I had a look, Apple has released podcasts in all 123 countries where they offer products, they haven't missed one, why can't Microsoft do that for the 35 they have ...

It actually keeps going from there, but you get the idea: Microsoft has enough trouble getting people to adopt Windows Phone, so it's unclear why they'd further harm enthusiasm and adoption by behaving in this fashion. It's just too bad.

Can you keep music from iTunes Match?

Andrew Hill asks:

What happens if you stop paying the $25 annual subscription to iTunes Match?  Will all the non-iTunes purchased music disappear from iCloud? Or will it just affect new song matches going into iCloud?

No, they're just regular DRM-free tracks, so they're yours to keep. This assumes, of course, that you've downloaded them. I'm guessing many people will.

My review of iCloud and iTunes Match should be available next week, by the way.

Instagram for Windows Phone?

And finally, an app pick/tip. Kerry H. asks:

Is Instagram available for Windows Phone?

No, but There is a great Instagram type program for Windows Phone. It's called FilterLab, and cost 99 cents. You should take a look.

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