From iOS to Windows Phone: Act 1 (The Motive)

I wanted something new and refreshing.

That’s what I tell people when they ask why I’ve moved away, defected, from the iPhone and the Apple ecosystem. It wasn’t an easy choice. That’s what makes Apple so valuable. Yes, the products are fantastic and the support is phenomenal, but that is just what gets you in the door. What really keeps you there, paying for more night stays and charging your credit card for the extra in-room entertainment, is the ecosystem.

I had many reservations because of this, but I wanted to try something new with an open mind. It’s time to see what the fuss was all about. This review is in three acts:

  1. The Motive
  2. The Experience
  3. The Verdict

Act 1: The Motive

Blue polycarbonate just looked pretty. The phone looked bold, well built, and amazing. The glaring problem was the software. Meego (a Linux flavor) had abysmal support and lackluster applications to boot. But, it looked great. Clearly they took many pages from the Apple playbook. That isn’t a bad thing — “great artists steal.” But could Nokia bet the company on the N9?

At first, yes. The phone outsold the Lumia 800 worldwide 3:1. But the motive behind the sales would make one think otherwise. Thom Horwerda:

I’m starting to see why Elop was trying so hard to turn the N9 into a failure. As a Microsoft exec, he knew that the device and its MeeGo operating system were better than he let on. A good selling N9 was not part of his plan – which is to deliver Nokia’s smartphone business into Microsoft’s arms. Run it into the ground, and make it as cheap as possible.

So although the N9 was a victor, it was only because it priced to make it so. No — the real winner was to be the Lumia series, to be announced just a month later.

I point out the N9 because I was following the hardware first. The N9 was the first phone I could look at and fall in love with like the iPhone. A big bold display, not too much glass, and sturdy. All that matters was what you were looking at. But I also felt that Meego just wasn’t good enough for everyday use. It felt ordinary. If you look at it from the lens of an iPhone user, it almost looked too ordinary. Furthermore, the app development support would likely be small because of how locked down the system seems to have been. All in all, I decided to keep using my iPhone.

The Lumia

Enter Windows Phone 7.5, marry it with the N9, and you get the Lumia 800. Finally it seemed the body had the software that would tie it all together.

When the Lumia 800 was announced, it was also a debut for the Windows Phone OS. Famously, Stephen Elop calls it the “first real Windows Phone”, along with the Lumia 710 (which sucks, and I won’t even bring it up much further). Still the same N9 hardware, but now with a whole new attitude.

The glaring element of the Lumia announcement is that it wouldn’t be sold in the United States. The reasoning behind this escaped me: why launch a flagship phone and then not bring it to one of the biggest smartphone markets? For one, the phone is small. At 3.7” at the diagonal, we’ve seen this before. For another, it isn’t fast. The phone only supports 3G or H bands, which makes it lagging behind the competition. The second reason I didn’t buy as much — the iPhone 4S doesn’t have LTE either.

But perhaps the real reason is the lack of ecosystem. Windows Phone is the new kid in town. By December, they will have reached 50,000 apps, so one can guess that they were around 40k at when the Lumia was launched. The territory was unknown: for Nokia, for Microsoft, and, most importantly, the people. Why defect from a smartphone if it hasn’t proven itself? America is arguably the most picky bunch of consumers in the world, demanding highly of the smartphones crafted overseas. Like they say: “If you don’t have an iPhone, you don’t have an iPhone.” It would be months later that the Lumia 800 is released in the United States, but only as a pathetic bundle for $900. The reasons for this match the aforementioned: the phone isn’t the phone for America. The phone wouldn’t be the one to unseat the iPhone. That title, according to Nokia and Microsoft, will (hopefully) belong to the Lumia 900.

The successor

The Lumia 900 sports a 4.3” AMOLED display, akin to that of the 800. But, it additionally includes LTE, a front-facing camera, and behemoth of a battery (1830mAh, compared to 1450mAh in the 800). Looking at this laundry list, you can gather that:

  1. Bigger is better.
  2. Speed is vital.
  3. Video chat is a big deal.
  4. It needs to do all of that all day.

There are some issues with the 900, which result in simple design tradeoffs that occur when one tries to match these requirements:

  1. The 4.2” display is at the same resolution (800×480) of the 3.7” display, and it shows. The 800 clocks in at 252 ppi, while the 900 is at 216 ppi. For comparison, the iPhone’s retina display is at 326 ppi. The new iPad is at 264 ppi. When I looked at a Lumia 900 a couple of days ago, the first thing that jumped out at me was the fuzziness of the screen. It looked bloated. I look at the Lumia 800 and it looks good enough for my eyes to not complain. The iPhone will always be the best here, but if you consider that “retina” depends on how far away you hold the device, I find that the 800 is pretty great for resolution, all things considered.
  2. Because of the large size, the 900 becomes difficult to navigate, especially if you have smaller hands/fingers. The reach from one side to another makes it annoying to use with one hand, particularly if you want to navigate between applications and quickly type a message. The 800, which is roughly the same size of an iPhone, can be navigated easily with its form factor.
  3. LTE is fast, but it suffers the same battery life issues as every other LTE phone. The result is needing to create a larger phone in order to have a bigger battery. Also keep in mind that full LTE coverage will not exist until late 2013, so your milage may vary on fully utilizing the speeds in an LTE phone (we just got it here in Bloomington, IN).
  4. The front facing camera is sadly omitted from the 800. Right now it seems awkward to chat with people on video, but only because of the social implications of doing so — the idea itself is fantastic and should take hold when it becomes mainstream (AKA FaceTime becomes implemented widely).
  5. Time will tell if the 900 actually lives up to its “all day” claim. Initial reviews are mixed. Mossberg: “I found that, in light use, the battery lasted through a typical day. But in heavier use, including lots of email usage and Web browsing, streaming a one-hour TV show via Netflix, and conducting an hour-long phone call, the battery drained more quickly and was almost gone by late in the afternoon. This was especially true if I was using LTE much of the time.”

The astute reader can tell which side I’m leaning towards, but one can judge the two phones themselves by reading the spec sheets or glancing at the reviews. While the 900 spec wise looks good on paper, in practice it may not stand up. The 800 has the perfect balance of feature tradeoffs that bring out the most important aspect of the phone — the software.

Windows Phone 7.5

Every time someone says Windows or Microsoft, they instantly make connections to blue screen, viruses, money, and more negative connotations. I remember John Gruber and others remarking that the Metro style Windows should be rebranded entirely, just to avoid the connections that are inevitably brought out because of the name. The opposing viewpoint is to think of dominance, marketshare, and other traits that make Microsoft prevalent today. There is a reason that the entire world depends on Microsoft and its own ecosystem. Office is the biggest deal in productivity, and that fact isn’t changing any time soon. While IE has had its beating over the years, they still have over 50% of the browser marketshare. In the end, Microsoft, as the big company it is, will have naysayers and praisers. There’s nothing that will change about that.

Remember when the first iPad came out? David Pogue voices the “techy” point of view:

The Apple iPad is basically a gigantic iPod Touch.

That was the sentiment shared by many tech enthusiasts. This contrasted with others, like Mossberg:

The iPad is much more than an e-book or digital periodical reader, though it does those tasks brilliantly, better in my view than the Amazon Kindle. And it’s far more than just a big iPhone, even though it uses the same easy-to-master interface, and Apple (AAPL) says it runs nearly all of the 150,000 apps that work on the iPhone.

I point out the early iPad reviews to draw out the analogous claims being made regarding the Windows Phone device. Namely: it looks like another Metro interface. It was first seen on Zune devices (arguably even earlier in MSN/Encarta), and later evolved into the next generation Windows ecosystem, 8 and Phone 7. But, if history repeats itself, this comparison shouldn’t matter at all: having a unified interface experience can be helpful to people new to the device: it brings about the familiar and conforms to a mental model. The idea of live tiles is still a fresh concept when compared to other devices on the market, and the interface begs to be touched. Seriously — it is awkward to use the metro interface with a keyboard and mouse. It just doesn’t feel right.

As such, if Windows Phone is to be successful, it needs the hardware to match it. The new iPad is amazing because Apple took what they did right (the software) and improved the hardware. Windows Phone may be the best thing ever, but it would be crippled with poor hardware. I’m happy to tease the Lumia is likely the best candidate for hardware that can live up to the Windows Phone. In fact, it is the main thing attracting reviewers like Joshua Topolsky:

In all, it’s a fantastic piece of technology. It just looks and feels like nothing else on the market. It hits all the right notes for me. A little bit retro, a little bit futuristic, with just a touch of quirky humanity in its otherwise very machined design. This is the Nokia I grew up with, and it’s clear the company hasn’t lost its ability to enchant through hardware.

But, the same reviewer (and others), won’t cut Windows Phone slack any longer:

I think Nokia made a lot of the right decisions, but it’s almost impossible to move beyond some of Windows Phone’s shortcomings this late in the game. Try as I might to envision the Lumia 900 as my daily driver, the math never added up. There’s just too much missing, or too much that feels unfulfilling.

Joshua (and others) cite the overall lack of snappiness compared to the iPhone, the lackluster third-party support, and little nit-picky annoyances that add up to an overall underwhelming experience. The Windows Phone has to go against the standard of the iPhone, and it doesn’t come close. Here’s another take from Casey Johnston (ars technica):

That said, the OS isn’t without polish problems or minor difficulties. Landscape orientation sometimes seems half-baked, with buttons that stay portrait-oriented next to the horizontal keyboard. The phone is also a bit finicky about scrolling. Because the screen is so big and the range of my thumb is comparatively small, my horizontal swipes are often slightly diagonally downward (instead of working the joint to make the swipe straight, I keep my thumb straight). Android and iOS have never had a problem interpreting this slightly downward, mostly horizontal, somewhat lazy swipe as I intend it, but the Lumia often reads as “scroll down” instead of “swipe across.” This creates a lot of mistakes in an OS where there is so much swiping left and right to do.

Again — all of these points, while completely valid, are nit picky by themselves. But, they add up to an underwhelming experience. The other point worth noting, from Casey:

In some of its design and native apps, Windows Phone occasionally assumes too much. Take the Calendar app as an example. At launch, swipes between our agenda, day schedule, and so on are horizontal swipes, consistent with navigation in many other apps. When we switch to month view, we have to swipe vertically to see the next or previous month, but there’s no visual indicator that this is the case. Someone could go on using this phone for weeks or months before realizing they can see months other than the current one. It’s not a life-ruiner, by any means, but the interface doesn’t make the availability of more information clear, and it’s not alone.

I have experienced this same sort of thing myself — the phone can be incredibly subtle and inconsistent at times. But this is only after the first day or two. Time will tell if I can completely dive in and appreciate the subtlety, or become increasingly annoyed.

Thus ends this preview of what will come in my next installment, where I dive into the Windows Phone experience after using it for about a week, and give my reactions from someone who comes from Apple land. You’ll want to tune into Weekly Download #35, as well, to get my full impression of the device and the experience.

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