Windows phone. No way! Really?

Yes, I think Windows Phone (7.5) is the best smart phone operating system available right now. What’s my qualification to say that? As part of my job with a telco, I change my handset every few weeks and have used every major platform, and many, many handsets. My views here are my own, but they are informed by what I see in my day to day job. Let’s look at the other platforms before focussing on Windows Phone.

The iPhone is King

There’s no doubt that in Australia at least, smartphone equals iPhone. iOS has become the dominant smartphone platform, and well deserves that position based on the significant innovation Apple brought to market with the release of the original iPhone. I am also prepared to make a major concession to iOS, that while I think Windows Phone is better, there is no doubt that iOS offers the best phone ecosystem currently. The marketplace for Apps, Music, Books, Games, etc. is superior on iOS to any other platform, although all other platforms are trying to challenge this. 

I have a love/hate relationship with Apple. I am a former Mac owner, I own an iPod Touch, I have an iPad, I have used iPhone extensively. There is no doubt that Apple deliver an exceptional user experience, but I often feel like I’m in a scene from The Matrix, if I take the blue pill everything will be calm and okay, but I really want to take the red pill. The fact there is such a vibrant jail breaking community on iOS, and the fact it’s called jail breaking, points to my problem with the platform. I’m okay with some lock in, but total lock in makes me pause. That said, the grounds of the prison are lovely and many people could live there happily forever.

Google Android… which one?

I have used every version of Android since 2.1 on a wide variety of handsets. Android has definitely been improving, faster than iOS. Therein lies the rub. It’s changing and improving so fast, it’s hard for me to keep up, and I work at a telco and don’t have to pay for the handset I’m using. As an operating system, Android feels a little bit to me like the wild west, or in computing terms, Linux.

There is a new flagship Android handset every couple months, which has to be confusing for consumers. I’m not knocking the innovation, it’s amazing, and credit to Google for breaking apart the lock Apple was getting on the smart phone market, but there is a problem with fragmentation on the Android platform. With Apple, the choice is simple, you buy the current model iPhone. With Android, there are so many options it’s hard to choose, and the technology paradox is in full force… do I buy now or wait a couple of months and get something better?

Another big difference with Android seems to be a failure for handset manufacturers to provide ongoing upgrades to the handset software, so unlike iPhone, you might get at best one or two Android updates to your handset. if you want to be running the latest version of Android beyond that, you’ll need to ‘root’ (jail break) your handset and install it yourself. Some people may say this is because the manufacturers want you to buy a new phone, which may have some truth, but given most people are on contracts with their handset, I doubt this. Much more likely is that the manufacturers have to run so hard releasing new and better handsets, they just cannot continue to focus on handsets that hit the market more than 12 months ago.

The Android marketplace, now called Google Play is great, but I have noticed many apps have comments in the reviews that point to another problem of fragmentation of devices and OS versions, getting an app to run on every handset variation and every version of Android is a much tougher job than iOS. So in the long run, while the openness of Android is great, app developers are likely to still build for iOS first.

What about Blackberry? RIM, RIP?

I used Blackberry for over 5 years for corporate email. I’ve used a 6280, 9000 (Bold) and 9800 (Torch). There was a time when you said ‘smart phone’ people thought you meant Blackberry. I have a soft spot for them and only packed up my Torch and put it in a drawer a month ago. Blackberry remains a strong option for email focussed people, but relied on being the option your company chose for you, for all the good reasons corporate IT folk choose things. Unfortunately for Blackberry, they stuck with that model, while the consumer brought their iPhone to work and demanded they be able to get their mail on that. IT held out for as long as they could, but when the CEO was telling them to make his/her iPhone work with the mail system, it was all over for Blackberry.

Blackberry have made some attempts to update, and they still have good hardware, but simple things like having to reboot your Blackberry every time you install an app (a 5 min process) showed the distance between what RIM felt customers needed to do to work with their platform and what customers wanted to do. Not to mention the ill-fated Playbook tablet that was an awesome piece of hardware, but came without an email client, when Blackberry’s last hold on the market was email. The one hold out for Blackberry is the popular Blackberry Messenger (BBM) service that is keeping them in the game in some markets. If they can leverage off their remaining market share and brand to create a great new product, we may yet see them again, but for now, most market watchers are predicting the end of Blackberry.

What about Windows Phone?

Windows Phone has actually been around for a long time. We need to think of it in terms of before and after Windows Phone 7.

Windows Phone 6 was born of the popular Palm Pilot style, and came with a stylus so you could tap tiny buttons on the screen. It was awful. I used an HTC Touch Diamond with Windows Phone 6 on it. I hated it so much, I refused to accept mobile phone calls with it. By putting the phone against the side of your face (as you do) it would hit the hang up button and end the call. That handset lasted 2 weeks.

So I wasn’t disposed to look kindly upon the next Windows Phone device that came across my desk, an HD7. I’d heard it was all new, and the Microsoft corporate sales team made sure we knew about it. I’m not a big fan of the larger form factor ‘tablet’ phones which the HD7 definitely was, but I found that I quickly came to like what was on the inside, Windows Phone. I’ve subsequently used a Samsung Omnia W which was my favourite handset of 2011, and am currently using the new Nokia Lumia 800, which I’m fairly sure will be my favourite handset of 2012.

What makes Windows Phone better?

Microsoft were losing badly in the phone space and they knew it. This actually freed them from a number of constraints. They could go back to the drawing board and start from scratch. In my view, this has paid off. Apple re-imagined the smart phone in 2007 with the iPhone. It was revolutionary and everyone loved it. In terms of user experience, Android walks in the same footsteps. There are many differences to be sure, but the grid arrangement of icons on home screens, which you navigate by swiping is standard to both platforms. Microsoft took a slightly different approach.

The Windows Phone user interface (UI) is known by the code name “Metro”. The Metro UI applies a grid layout of icons/tiles on the home screen, so there’s some familiarity for users. There is only one home screen though, which is vertical scrolling and as long as the user chooses, determined by how many tiles they ‘pin’ to the home screen. A swipe to the right shows the full list of applications and options. A long press on any application in the full list reveals a ‘Pin to start’ menu option. For rearranging icons on the home screen, a long press on a tile will change the screen to edit mode, allowing you to unpin or rearrange tiles. Simple.

That doesn’t make Windows Phone better, just different. Where I think it shines is the way it breaks down the barriers between applications and services. By connecting your various identities together across Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, etc. Windows Phone will allow you to see updates from friends within your contacts list, or communicate with them via those services, direct from your contacts list. Likewise, when taking a picture you can post it to Facebook direct from the camera application. This integration of services is much more central to Windows Phone and in my view makes it much easier to do things we’d normally want to do. Rather than silos of apps, Windows Phone is centred around ‘hubs’ like people and pictures. The design of the interface is nicer too, something I didn’t think I’d say about Microsoft versus Apple, but I like the design aesthetic of Windows Phone, apps look nice, fonts look nice, the user experience is… pretty.

The team who worked on the customer experience of Windows Phone have also addressed some really fundamental things about the way we use our phones. It’s clear they have paid attention to the detail of the way we actually live and work with our devices. A key example of this is that Windows Phone allows you to go straight from a locked phone to be ready to take a picture in about 1-2 seconds by just holding down the camera button. The phone itself remains locked, but you can take pictures straight away. Phones are becoming the most popular form of camera, since we always have them with us, but for anyone (everyone) who has fumbled about trying to unlock their device, get to the camera application and be ready to take a picture, only to miss the moment, this is a really nice feature. It shows the level of user experience polish Windows Phone has.

What about apps?

It’s fair to say that the Windows Phone marketplace doesn’t have the same number of apps as the Apple Appstore or Google Play. The phrase ‘there’s an app for that’ definitely means for iOS, which remains the go-to platform for app developers. As I said earlier, iPhone is the undisputed ecosystem king. However, I find that the difference in the size of marketplace is immaterial if the apps I want are available on the platform. On Windows Phone I have the key apps I want, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Evernote, Foxtel, Kindle, IMDB, banking, fitness, maps and directions, Taxi, and many more. It has what I want, therefore the size comparisons are less meaningful.

What about Microsoft lock-in?

Yes, there is lock-in with Windows Phone. Old habits die hard with Microsoft but I think the compromises here are in line with other platforms. The biggest lock-in is having to use the Zune software to sync your phone with your computer. Although I think Zune is superior software to iTunes, I’ll accept some may not agree. What Zune certainly did better than iTunes was scan my library of content without any effort. Syncing can be set up to occur over wifi, so you do not need to connect your phone to your PC to update content. Phone updates are performed via the Zune software but so far there has been only one major update (from 7.0 to 7.5)

Somewhat annoyingly, the Windows Phone does not mount as a USB drive on your computer, This means you need to use Zune to transfer files and photos to and from the device. There are some instructions on how to mount your Windows Phone 7 as a USB drive but I’m loathe to tweak registry settings that may cause conflicts later on, so it’s annoying we can’t just copy files to and from our device like Android. 

Although it’s possible to use the phone without a Windows Live (eg Hotmail) account, that’s like saying you can use an iPhone without iTunes, or Android without a Google account. Since it’s no worse than any other platform, it’s not a black mark, but it is a platform lock-in worth mentioning. If like me you are using Hotmail or have a Windows Live account, it is really not a problem and the service integration (eg SkyDrive) relies on it, so there are benefits for this. 

The lock-in’s might be annoying for some, but they are no worse than any other platform. 

Nokia are back!

The Lumia 800 is a beautiful handset. Personal tastes vary but I am confident that few people would take issue with the styling of this device. The hardware has a solid feel to it, it feels like… a Nokia. I’m not going to do a review of the Lumia 800 but I will say why I think it’s great for Nokia.

You’ve read what I said about RIM (Blackberry) above. Nokia were even deeper in the hole, which led to CEO Stephen Elop’s famous burning platform memo. In a sense, the decision Microsoft took to start from scratch with Windows Phone was a similar decision Nokia had to make about its future, resulting in the strategic partnership with Microsoft in Feb 2011. It has taken a year, but the Lumia is Nokia’s ticket back. Hardware has never been Nokia’s problem, so a great handset with a modern smart phone platform deserves to succeed.

Without doing a product review, the Lumia 800 complements the Windows Phone platform nicely. My previous favourite handset on this platform was the Samsung Omnia W, which I still like. But the Nokia feels like a high end smart phone, behaves like a high end smart phone and delivers like a high end smart phone. It does everything well from taking photos to doing email. 

One side note, it uses a Micro SIM like the iPhone, so if transferring from an older phone, you’ll need to get your phone shop to stamp out your old SIM card to fit. They happily did it for me in about 10 seconds, so although there are instructions online for cutting a full size SIM card to fit in a Micro SIM slot, I recommend visiting your local phone shop who will have a mechanical punch to do it much more safely.

I put my money where my mouth is

As someone who doesn’t pay for phones because of my job, what really counts is would I buy one with my own money? Yes I would. Before the Lumia 800 was released, I bought my wife a Samsung Omnia W and while that’s still a good phone, my choice now would be the Nokia Lumia 800. Either way, it’s Windows Phone when I spend my own cash. My wife had previously been using Android on the original HTC Desire, and her reaction was instant, “Oh wow, I love this, it’s so much easier to use”. Tellingly, she has begun using features on her Windows Phone that were available on Android, but she didn’t touch.