When Windows Phone 7 made it’s debut at MWC 2010, one could imagine the slack jaws of not only the press in the audience, but the millions of phone enthusiasts reading and watching vicariously from afar. It proved that Microsoft was going to play for keeps in the mobile space and wasn’t afraid to make big changes from their old practices to do so.
And changes they did make. From settling on three types of devices (you wont find a HTC flip phone running Windows Phone 7) to becoming more forceful with the carriers, Microsoft was willing to do whatever it felt necessary to succeed. However, many of these changes, like how app installation was handled, a seeming inability to do deep customization of the OS, the decision to not proceed with a rumored Windows Phone 7 upgrade to the venerable HTC HD 2, and a lack of “true” multitasking (or any multitasking at all at launch) were enough to turn off many Windows Mobile (now referred to as “Windows Phone Classic”) diehards. Myself included.
After all, Microsoft said they would keep supporting the old platform. There was (and to an extent is) still a thriving ROM community around most devices. Finally, Microsoft had finally launched Windows Marketplace for Mobile, a centralized store for Windows Phone Classic apps. Although the store wasn’t perfect, or necessarily filled with a great selection, it was still something and besides, one could simply sideload apps the usual way. For a while things were ok, a few new handsets shipped with 6.5.3 (which many were already running via custom ROM on existing hardware) but then things just changed. I noticed first hand: we weren’t getting the “cool” top tier apps that even Android was getting. Apps that were promised like Slacker were halted mid development or testing, only to be rewritten for Windows Phone 7. Slowly, custom ROM devs for my particular handset at the time (Verizon’s Samsung Omnia i910) began to move on to various other devices running other operating systems, mainly Android.
I saw the writing on the wall and bought a used Droid 1 on eBay in October 2010, and have remained an Android user to this day. I, like many others, chose this over other options like iOS and WebOS because it was the closest thing to Windows Phone Classic around. It feels like your carrying a computer in your pocket unlike iOS or even WebOS. The customization possibilities are endless and there is just as much variety in form factors as Windows Phone Classic. I was in heaven.
Fast forward to now and I own the Droid 3. While I like the phone and love the keyboard, I notice some things that irritate about Android and how Windows Phone seemingly does things better.
Windows Phone looks and feels better
Android 2.3 Gingerbread looks pretty decent, and Android 4.0 is a vast improvement but only iOS can hold a candle to the smoothness and polish that is Windows Phone’s user interface. The Metro UI is easily the freshest visuals in mobile at the moment, even beating out Android 4.0 in terms of visual punch. Fonts are clean, the UI is color coordinated, iconography is refreshingly simple and easy to see at a glance. The virtual keyboard looks simple enough visually but remains perched next to iOS’s software QWERTY as the industry benchmark. It all comes together to provide a very consistent experience, even within apps and hubs. Even the animations on screen don’t feel overwrought like some Android device makers create. Microsoft could improve on some aspects: I’d personally like to be able to set the battery and wireless indicators to “always show” on screen, but there’s no denying here that they’ve done something different.
Windows Phone retains a variety of form factors
When Windows Phone 7 was announced to the world, it was revealed that there will be a set of 3 form factors for devices. While the 3rd isn’t widely known, we’ve seen 2 so far: slate style phones with just a touchscreen, and slide out qwerty devices. The latter is important to me as I simply work better with a hardware keyboard. Decent Android sliders are becoming rarer and rarer, one’s lucky that Verizon has 3 decent LTE sliders with one being high end. The android trend for high end devices is slate, and while signs point toward Windows Phone heading in that trajectory, there’s still hope that Microsoft will push the hardware qwerty chassis spec to try to court business customers back into using Windows Phone.
Windows Phone controls fragmentation
Windows Phone Classic was ahead of the curve in some respects when it comes to phone updates. Nearly every phone had a “Windows Update” app in the control panel, and while this never worked 99% of the time due to the carriers, it foreshadowed what many now expect to be standard smartphone behavior: Updates performed over the air sans computer.
Android was the first smartphone OS to really put OTA updating to work. With the tap of a notification users can get updated quickly and easily. However, the way those updates are done has resulted in an installed base that can only be described as fragmented. Google leaves it up to the carriers and phone manufacturers to decide what gets an update and when. As a result, a phone buyer cannot have confidence that their device will get updated in a timely manner, if at all. It’s literally playing a game of chance when you’re in the cell phone store and it’s not fair to customers. Period. What if a unique form factor like two screens or a “ticker” catches your eye? Well if you decided to bet the house on your new Kyocera Echo or Samsung Continuum purchase, you are now left holding the bag as far as device updates go. Want Android 4.0 without having to mod your phone (if that’s even possible due to how unique some of those form factors are…) then you’re out of luck. The Continuum is just getting the 2-year-old Android 2.2 Froyo update pushed to devices. That is unacceptable by any stretch of the imagination and the worst part is many people are likely still on contract with no phone upgrade in sight. “Just buy a Nexus” isn’t an acceptable response.
Microsoft learned from the experience they had with getting carriers and manufacturers to offer up updates via the PC and decided to put their foot down. Forget about offending carriers or manufacturers, they realized that to finally have a world class platform, they had to own the experience end to end, including updates. A Windows Phone is pretty much getting the next OS update, device specific updates for bugs notwithstanding. Because Microsoft knows the devices and tests each phone themselves, they’re able to pretty much certify the update for phone compatibility out of the gate. Yes carriers do testing, but because the phone hardware’s been validated already, it’s likely a much shorter time span than on Android.
Windows Phone’s “Chassis Specs” make certain that one phone won’t be left behind while another device released around the same time gets updated. Each phone’s running the same hardware internally, even the drivers for the internal hardware are picked by Microsoft and uniform across the devices that are in that “chassis.” Carriers are limited in the number of applications they install and all must be removable by the end user. Manufacturers and carriers can’t change the UI beyond choosing one of the 4 available theme colors. This allows the update process to be quick and somewhat unified, instead of manufacturers and carriers having to test their applications and enhancements against the new version of Android.
Can Microsoft still improve? Certainly. They’re still forcing you to plug in your device for major updates (Notification about impending updates is done OTA, ditto small patch updates) and that’s something that has to change. I shouldn’t have to plug in my phone, not in the world we live in now. Furthermore, it turns out that the carriers have more power over phone updates than Microsoft first let on. They are allowed to block updates, as many updates as they want actually. This is disappointing as that brings on the risk that fragmentation can occur and sure enough, there’s at least one carrier who’s blocked at least 2 updates…some of these updates actually FIX legitimate bugs like a disappearing keyboard and SSL Certificate errors. Microsoft might not have the leverage that Apple has but hopefully they will in time. As for the carriers, we already know you guys simply don’t care about your end users, and hopefully working with Microsoft will make you change your ways.
I’m not tinkering as much as I used to
It’s kinda hard to admit, but nowadays I’m far too busy to do much beyond root my phone, and on the right Android device I don’t even have to do that. Before, I used to flash ROM after ROM on my Windows Phone Classic powered Samsung Omnia, but now I mainly want a phone to just work. When Windows Phone 7 was announced and more information was shared, I immediately became disappointed because it seemed a lot harder to customize. Now though, it appears those fears were a bit unwarranted.
The same thing goes for such “power user” features like true multitasking. It seems that even the most power sipping Android device doesn’t come close to Windows Phone or iOS when it comes to battery life. With Multitasking Services like background audio and network access, along with push notifications, perhaps there’s an advantage to this lighter, more restrictive, approach.
Not everything is rosy
Does Windows Phone perfectly mirror my use case on Android? Hardly. The app store is still a bit small, even at 65,000 apps, there are key names that are missing. Pandora internet radio is a perfect example. A big name app like this should be on Windows Phone 7. It’s already on Windows Phone Classic. That and it’s one of the “key apps” that people look for when comparing platforms to choose.
Another issue is a lack of compelling devices on my carrier. Verizon’s notoriously been ambivalent toward Windows Phone. They’ve picked a very unassuming handset, the HTC Trophy as their launch device and haven’t gained any new models since. This is disappointing in more ways than one and Microsoft needs to figure out exactly what the deal is with Verizon and Windows Phone. Is it beef with the KIN? Is it the lack of carrier control that Windows Phone has?
In the end, I’m still game to give Windows Phone a chance. The polish outweighs the few downsides to the platform and the promise of a diversified suite of devices might prove very appealing. It does for me.