April 20, 2012

Windows Phone (2.5 of 3: Abandoning the Base)

This doesn’t exactly fit into the second or third part of this series, but I think it bears inclusion. This isn’t so much a personal complaint about the OS as it is an observation on why it isn’t more popular. Once upon a time, there was a thriving community of enthusiasts who were quite fond of the Windows CE, Pocket PC and (old) Windows Phone OS. And rightly so. They were capable devices. They worked with lots of accessories (including keyboards), and they were highly customizable (you could even hack the registry like the desktop version of Windows if you were so inclined). Most had removable/expandable storage (via CF or SD cards) and a familiar file structure, and most worked AS expandable storage…you could plug them into your computer and drag and drop files onto them as you would a USB drive. There was also a wide array of software available, both from “professional” and “non-professional” sources. The devices and software still had stiff competition from the well-established Palm brand, but the devices were getting better with each iteration.

We won’t talk much right now about how Microsoft let this slip away, though I will say this: the jump from handheld device to phone went badly (the same can be said for Palm). A phone that needs a stylus doesn’t make sense. And the non-touchscreen version of the OS was limited (albeit easier to deal with).

Those issues are gone in Windows Phone 7. It is now a capable phone and no styli are necessary. But that fun stuff from paragraph one is also gone. As best I can tell, the OS doesn’t support as many accessories, including Bluetooth keyboards. There is minimal customization and most of it is less than skin deep. Some devices have expandable storage, but most don’t. There’s no file manager or USB drive functionality either.

This late in the game, Microsoft isn’t going to out-Apple Apple, so why bother trying? Why build such a closed-off phone when that space is already so thoroughly occupied? It would’ve made much more sense to go after Android. With the exception of jail-broken iPhone users, much of the mod/hacker community seems to favor Android. Android has the reputation of being more open and customizable. With a new offering that featured even a little bit of the old-school Pocket PC experience (but with more support, better developer tools, and higher equipment standards than Android), Microsoft could have wooed back at least a chunk of their old user base. Instead they took a middle-of-the-road approach and abandoned that base. It’s a closed-off system (like the iPhone), but without the unified design that works with a wide variety of accessories; and at the same time it’s a platform that can be used by multiple manufacturers with different hardware (like Android), but without the aforementioned functionality that would attract the modder/hacker crowd.

April 3, 2012

Windows Phone (2 of 3: What Doesn’t Work)

It’s been a while since my first Windows Phone blog post. In that time we’ve seen some of the early fruits of the Microsoft/Nokia partnership, most notably the Lumia 900. Despite generally positive reviews we’re probably going to be hearing a lot about what doesn’t work on the Windows Phone platform. Having lived with the platform for half a year now, I’d like to add to that conversation. So here we go: what doesn’t work.

This isn’t easy. I like the platform, and since I’m partial to it, it’s difficult to be objective. But it’s also not easy because Windows Phones aren’t all the same. So there are things I don’t like about Windows Phone in general and things I don’t like about my phone (the HTC Arrive) in particular. I’ll try to focus on Windows Phone in general. It’s also not very easy because I haven’t regularly used any iOS or Android devices, AKA the competition. But again, I’ve spent quite a bit of time on this phone, so I think I have a good sense of what doesn’t work.

One problem is inconsistency of the interface. I have one of the few Windows Phones with a slide-out keyboard. Don’t get me wrong, I love the physical keyboard, but the interface (most often with third-party apps) doesn’t always act the same way when you slide it out. Some apps rotate and turn the screen horizontal, some don’t. Personally, the openness to use different hardware is part of the reason I like the platform, so it’s disappointing that it’s not implemented with more consistency. I fear physical keyboards on mobile devices are not long for the world, so this might not be an issue for very long.

Speaking of buttons, one of the more aggravating features of the Windows Phone system is that Microsoft (I’m guessing) encourages the use of those touch-sensitive, “not really button” buttons. I’m sure it’s the wave of the future and all, but plenty of times my gaming, browsing, or whatever-else-ing experience has been abruptly interrupted because my finger brushes up against one of the three buttons at the bottom of the screen. It certainly makes for a cleaner look, but physical buttons of some sort would keep this from happening.

If I ever had any geek cred (I didn’t), I’ll promptly lose it with this statement: I use Internet Explorer most of the time. This has never been too much of an issue for me on the desktop (and I can easily use Chrome, Firefox, or Safari if I want to), but IE9 on Windows Phone isn’t very robust, and you’re kinda stuck with it. It’s come a long way in a short time from IE8 that came with the first-gen Windows Phone devices, but it still falls short compared to other mobile device browsers. I’m not sure if Google, Mozilla, or Apple are even interested in developing a browser for the WP7 system (they probably aren’t), but at least the option of using another browser would be nice.

Other issues are mostly nit-picking, like: I can’t take a screenshot and save it as a picture. And the built-in social networking is cool, but it’s also clunky (most people probably just use an app anyway). The biggest issue that most people will have is the ecosystem. But I’ll save that for the next post: what it will take to make this platform successful.