From iOS to Windows Phone: Act 3 (The Verdict)

Note: This is a continuation of a series on the Windows Phone. See Part 1 for the motivation for this review, and Part 2 for an overview of the Windows Phone experience.

Act 3: The Verdict

There was a time when switching phones was no big deal. We would go from candy bar to flip phone with little regard to features. As long as the phone was built well, had a good connection, and had cool ringtones, migrating was no problem.

I am in awe of how far we have come. Switching OSs is a leap of faith. There is nothing really broken with the current state of affairs — the phone has all of your apps, contacts and music stored and makes a good phone call or two. Coupled with the increased phone prices, heavy contract penalties and loss of data, switching seems like a useless gesture. In a sense, the OS you start with is likely the OS you stick with.

If you are in that group — stuck with your status quo — then pretty much everything you have read will go in one ear and out the other. I could argue that the Windows Phone 7 experience is incredible, but you would still cling to what you have because it is familiar. There isn’t anything wrong with an iPhone or an Android phone, so what is the big deal?

The big deal is the perpetuation of this status quo. We live in an exciting time of innovation. Companies are daring to be different, products are challenging previous conceptions of interaction, and people are beginning to care about technology at an intimate level. All of this becomes ignored if there is no heed to what is new. The Windows Phone and every other competitor to come is dead on arrival because people have their blinders on to anything that could be the next big thing.

So, my message in this final act is to convince you to always take that second look. Be bold. Critically engage the technology you use, and demand something better. The Windows Phone isn’t the perfect answer to everything the iPhone or Android platform lacks, but there are elements done so well that they should be considered when new iterations are to come.

An Uphill Battle

That best describes what the Windows Phone, and every other potential competing OS/platform, has to face today. People have invested time, money and mental energy in the current platform they use everyday. I had spent over $500 in applications on top of a $300 phone. With those numbers as a lens, it is really challenging to take a look at the other smart phones. Furthermore, the experience of an iPhone was familiar to me in so many ways. Apps were available when I wanted them, my Mac synced well with iCloud, and developer support is still amazing. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who isn’t in the same boat as I was prior to moving over.

For its part, Microsoft has done a phenomenal job in recognizing the issue of needing to win over the hearts and minds of users from other platforms. As soon as you launch the device, you are invited to connect to all of the other platforms that you use everyday: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google, WordPress, and more. From the box, migration becomes cake if you have everything already setup elsewhere. Curation of content could not be easier. After everything is linked up, the phone features everything else that is familiar to a smart phone user: music, maps, messaging, mail, calendar… all of which require a sync to whatever service it requires to get going.

There is still many other ways Microsoft could fill the “OS gap” that occurs when switching over. The lack of third-party iCloud sync can make it a tough sell for those who don’t want to move over to Google calendar instead, but Microsoft could do its part by partnering with Google to help migrate people over in a quick fashion. I spent about 2 hours doing this with my contacts and calendar, so having a bit of time saved wouldn’t hurt. Another glaring omission is a Dropbox application, but the ball is in Dropbox’s court to add that to the Marketplace. Though the Microsoft Phone Connector Mac application does a good job in syncing music and videos to the device, the ringtone support is pretty annoying — apparently you can only have ringtones that are in the iTunes main library (songs less than 30 seconds in duration are ringtones), and tones actually in the “ringtones” section are not synced.

Head-Scratchers

There are some things about the Windows Phone that I couldn’t help but ask “Why?” when I use the device:

Left-Right Swiping

It’s not that I hate the idea, but the idea is poorly executed. My large thumbs always end up tapping one side of the screen when I slide them up and down the screen to scroll through content. I always get flustered when I want to read my Twitter timeline or a news story because I end up moving to a different content stream or feed because I accidentally move my finger too far right or left. This is probably the exact reason why many iOS apps don’t employ this and instead use buttons on the bottom of the apps instead. The exception to this rule is Flipboard, and even they don’t use the left to right swipe.

Scroll to Top

I am sorely missing a shortcut to jump to the top of a page or content stream. The primary example of this is Twitter, when I have to scroll up through 200 new tweets before reaching the top. The other example is the contact list, which can become very large thanks to the integration features mentioned earlier.

Search Fragmentation

There is a dedicated search button at the bottom left of every Windows Phone device, but it only goes to one place: Bing. While having consistency is great, it also cripples the feature when considering the potential of how it could be better employed. There is no search feature in the music application, which is incredibly annoying when you have over 1000 songs to navigate through. Almost every other application has a search icon on the bottom, which is different than the search button at the bottom of the device. Why? It makes sense that I would hit the search button to search within the app, not globally at random. It is proven that many people go to apps for the information they care about, not straight to the internet. The search button should contextualize to the app that you are in and should not remain static.

Pseudo Multi-Tasking

Here’s how multi-tasking works in iOS world:

  1. Enter Twitter in iOS for the first time. You begin to type a Tweet about your day, but never send it because…
  2. … You get a phone call and start talking to someone.
  3. In the middle of your phone call, you hear something insane. You are forced to fact check it, so you hit the home button and open Safari.
  4. In Safari, you Google the fact, check Wikipedia, and confirm your suspicion. You remark to your friend how silly he is and hang up.
  5. To gloat, you click on the Twitter icon. You are brought right back to the Tweet you were in the middle of composing. But, you instead delete what you said and brag about your present conversation.

You can do all of the above on the Windows Phone, except at number 5, where things get weird. If you click on the Twitter icon a second time, the app is reinitialized and whatever previous screen state you are on is ignored. The only way to go back is to literally hit the back button. Something that an iOS user is unfamiliar with. Rather than having a learning curve, a better solution would be to simulate the back button press when an app is reinitialized. I’m sure there is some software/hardware limitation on the Lumia/OS that makes this difficult, but winning hearts isn’t easy.

Missing apps

Microsoft decided to not include the following applications that are standard on the iPhone:

  • Weather
  • Timer/Countdown applications
  • Reminders/To-dos
  • A native PDF reader
  • Skydrive

There is zero reasonable justification for this. Particularly the last app, which would make sense to be automatically bundled with the OS, rather than as a separate download.

Breakdown

Here’s where I attempt to provide vague scales of opinion on several arbitrary categories:

Multi-touch gesturing: 7/10
Smartphone users will feel right at home with many gestures, but there is a learning curve for understanding the left-right gesture that is heavily employed in many apps on the OS.

User Interface: 8/10
Looking for something refreshing? Get this phone. The tiles are beautiful, playful, and meaningful without being annoying. The OS looks alive, and it is incredible refreshing coming from an iPhone.

Email: 6/10
Email is the only application with high-contrast white instead of the elegant black background. This supposedly makes the text easier to read, but it becomes annoying when everything else sits on a black background. It is quite easy to type a quick message. Syncing lags between the desktop and mobile.

Calendar: 8/10
The home screen shows your next agenda item — a nice touch to quickly get a glimpse of what comes next in the day. The agenda tab is clearly the element that shines through in the calendar, making good use of the colors assigned in Google/Exchange. Month view is pointless since the text is impossible to read. I still can’t find week view.

Messaging: 10/10
Coupled with the people integration, messaging is the most elegant, well-executed experience on the phone. Threaded messages between Facebook and SMS just makes sense.

Social: 9/10
Every service, all in one place. Having all my contacts linked up with their social service counterparts is a great touch. The phone feels like a phone that connects me to other people, not just apps from a store.

Multitasking: 5/10
It does the basics, but lacks the elegance found in iOS. I find that it isn’t a deal breaker though, unless I was playing a game.

Marketplace: 7/10
Most every app you would want is on the marketplace. Developers have heavily discounted premium apps to get exposure. This isn’t a sustainable formula, however, and it will be up to Microsoft/Nokia to continue to evangelize the development for the devices on the OS moving forward.

Maps/Local Scout: 8/10
Local Scout is a really cool feature, but only if it is actually used by people. Reviews and ratings are Windows user specific — not crowd sourced from Yelp or other services.

Search: 6/10
Though it is nice to have a dedicated search option, it is difficult to understand why Microsoft didn’t think of contextualizing the button to the app you are in.

Internet/Browsing: 6/10
It feels clunky to look at webpages, mostly due to a lack of retina resolution. Text can be difficult to read. Thankfully, most multi-touch gestures from iOS are present on WP7.

Overall: 7/10

WP7 makes leaps in areas that previous OS platforms have not. Live tiles are a unique, fun experience on a phone. Focusing the experience on connect you with others shines through, and the out-of-the-box integration really makes for a compelling case as to why they did so. But, other elements of the WP experience don’t pick up where the great UI slacks. As a result, there are times where I find myself stepping back and thinking about my actions on the phone, rather than doing them with little effort. In the end, Microsoft has a battle of winning the hearts and minds of the masses. Little mistakes here and there add up and result in intense scrutiny, even though it may not be necessarily warranted.

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