While Windows Phone is perhaps unique among its smart phone peers in that it emphasizes integrated experiences over individual apps, Microsoft's mobile platform still offers a first-rate apps experience as well. And with over 60,000 apps to choose from today, Windows Phone users have a cornucopia of apps from which to choose.
This embarrassment of riches comes at a price, of course. As you download and install more and more apps, organizing them becomes problematic. But you may not be surprised to discover that the methods Windows Phone uses to aid in that organization is unique and true to the platform.
It may be useful to momentarily consider how other smart phone platforms allow users to organize their apps first, however.
On the iPhone, or iOS in general, Apple provides the most basic user experience of all: A grid of icons that allows some customization via icon positioning, over several screens and a dock area that persists between screens, and through a folder feature.
Both features, however, are limited. Apple iOS does not allow the user to place icons anywhere on the screen they'd like. Instead, they can only position icons from the top left corner of the screen, in order. So if you'd like to place an icon in the middle of the screen, you cannot, unless you've filled in all the available slots before and above that area.
Apple introduced folders to the iPhone in iOS 4 (the current version is iOS 5). This features lets you organize several app icons inside of a single icon, called a folder, saving on-screen real estate. But these folders can store up to 12 icons only. And some built-in icons, like Newsstand (part of iOS 5) cannot even be placed in a folder.
In Android, Google removes some of the limits of iOS and introduces some unique features, including the ability to mix and match both app icons and more expressive widgets on any of the device's home screens (of which there are 5 on modern Android versions). Like iOS, Android offers a folder feature so you can collect related app icons into a single location, and there's a dock-like area on the bottom of the display that persists between the various home screens.
Unlike iOS, however, Android allows the user to place icons (or widgets) anywhere on the screen they like. This can create a messy display, as it can on PC desktops, but it provides the user with better customization and personalization capabilities.
So how does Windows Phone compare?
As a more recent mobile OS, Windows Phone has more basic app organization capabilities. This system offers a single, vertically scrolling Start screen of live tiles, each of which can be very expressive with live information. Put simply, live tiles are vastly superior to the dull, blank icons you see in iOS, but they also cut the difference, functionality-wise, between widgets and app icons in Android. That is, they provide the features of both in a single user interface.
Like the Android home screens, Windows Phone's single Start screen is designed to be highly customized by the user. You can place live tiles for your favorite apps in whatever order you'd like, though as with iOS, you're not allowed to leave (vertical) spaces between tiles; instead, they must start at the top of the scrollable screen and move down from there.
Windows Phone live tiles are curiously uncustomizable in two key ways. While most live tiles are square tiles, some built-in tiles are larger, double-sized rectangles, like Calendar and Pictures. There's no way to configure these tiles to be other sizes. And live tiles are always colored to match the system theme's accent color. You can't have different tiles with different colors, unless it's a third party app that sets this explicitly.
Also like Android, Windows Phone also offers a separate screen that displays all the apps that are available on the device. This screen, called the App List, can be reached by swiping to the left while viewing the Start screen. Or, you can tap the small Right Arrow icon in the top right corner of the Start screen.
Windows Phone 7.5 Start screen
Since the original Windows Phone version, the App List has offered a very basic, alphabetical list of all of the apps available on your phone. You can launch any (non-game) apps from this screen, of course, which scrolls vertically like the Start screen. But you can also tap and hold on an individual app icon to see additional per-app options, including:
Pin to Start. This option pins a live tile for the currently-selected app to the bottom of the Start screen. If the app is already pinned to the Start screen, this option will be grayed out.
Rate and Review. For third party apps only, you can navigate to the app's page in the Windows Phone Marketplace and rate and review it if you'd like.
Uninstall. For third party apps only, you can uninstall the app, which will remove it from the device. This action will also remove a pinned live tile, if present.
Note that games are managed through the Games hub, which is sometimes and incorrectly referred to as the Xbox LIVE hub. In this user experience, you'll find a similar games list called Collection that is divided into sections called Recent, Xbox LIVE and Other. Tapping and holding on any of these games will provide the same options described above.
New to Windows Phone 7.5, the App List has been improved to make using many apps more manageable. Once you have 45 or more apps in the App List, it will be segregated alphabetically using the same list picker control that's used in the People hub.
Once you have over 45 apps on the phone, the App List will be segregated by letter
In this new UI, you'll see headings for the letters of that start the name of each app (like "A", "B", and so on). To quickly jump down the list to a letter further down the alphabet (like "T") simply tap any letter heading and you'll be presented with a grid of letters. From here, tap the letter you want and you're off.
To jump further down the App List, tap a letter
Furthermore, Windows Phone 7.5 adds a new Search icon on the left side of the screen. Tap this icon and you can search for an installed app using a live results list that will trim off apps as you type.
Windows Phone 7.5 also adds a live download progress indicator. So if you download an app from the Marketplace, you'll navigate to the App List screen and see the progress of that app's download as it happens. This change helps you find the app you just downloaded, providing you with an opportunity to launch it immediately or, perhaps, pin it to the Start screen. (And yes, game downloads will navigate you to the Collection list in the Games hub and work similarly.)
App installs provide live progress indication
Overall, while Windows Phone's app navigation capabilities are still more limited than what's available in iOS or Android, they've improved very nicely in Windows Phone 7.5. And looking ahead to the next major Windows Phone version, which will be based on Windows 8, I think it's clear that these features will be improved fairly dramatically then as well.