We love Windows Phone. It was a hugely important step forward for how people think about phones. It promised to be a true, thoughtful, original alternative to the iPhone. But it still has some serious problems.
It shouldn't be like this. Nokia's Lumia 800 and 900 Windows Phones are plum delightful hunks of hardware. And the OS is constructed so that comparatively lacklustre guts aren't really an issue. And, frankly, WP is mature enough that its major flaws should be distant (bad) memories. What happened?
Windows Phone's greatest trick, the reason that it should be a true alternative, is its simplicity: it is uncomplicated, pleasant. Well, in theory at least: Right now, using Windows Phone makes you think too much, ironic for a platform whose ad campaign stresses a quick in-and-out experience. You feel uneasy and unsure about tasks that you should be confident are happening flawlessly. Every time you go to sync your files, store your music — or do anything that requires your phone to perform a prolonged operation — you have to keep an eye on it, make sure it doesn't crap its pants in the middle of the mall. This simply doesn't happen when using an iPhone or a decent Android handset.
Patterns develop. And having those inconveniences in the back of your head changes how you think about your phone and its neighborhood. Windows Phone is rotten with broken windows, while Apple keeps the paths in its walled garden pristine.
More than the spec race or design war, Microsoft has to get the simple stuff right before anything else. There are only so many times I can tell my friends that no, WP doesn't have that very basic feature, but look how beautiful it is. I've been a Windows Phone devotee for almost a year now, and I'm starting to cringe every time I hand my phone to a friend to show off this "great alternative". It's like living in one of those Home of the Future installations: futuristic features around every corner, but the faucets and light switches don't work.
Gotta Make the Layups
Whether by default or design, the most powerful thing about Windows Phone — and its biggest differentiation from iPhone and Android — is the way the OS itself picks up the slack for its seriously slacking apps. It doesn't matter that the Twitter app is an impossible piece of vomit, or that the Facebook app isn't much better, because WP lets you use either network, simultaneously, in its baked-in "People" tile.
Problem is, this vaunted integration — and it really is pretty great in theory — is full of half-measures and required workarounds in practice. You can't view your own wall in Facebook. You can load tweets, but not reply-threads for Twitter. You can use Facebook Chat but not GTalk. Foursquare is MIA. (There is an official app... but when we showed it to app-savvy company co-founder Naveen in November, he had never seen it before). On their own, these are relatively small complaints. But taken as a whole, it feels like reading a book that you would really love — if there weren't so many pages ripped out.
Even that would be workable if what was there worked better. iOS has a gazillion apps, but the Apple-designed core apps — Music, Mail, etc — are so rock solid that you almost can't compete with them. Windows Phone's apps aren't like that. "People" loads tweets and status updates. Sometimes. But sometimes it doesn't, and you just sort of get used to it after a while. The default Music app's organisation is a mess. That's a massive problem for a platform that positions itself as the mobile OS that doesn't need apps.
This deficiency isn't helped by what's going on with the apps that are there. Owing partially to Microsoft footing the bill for mercenary devs to build third-party versions of popular programs (this is why Selvadurai had never seen his company's WP iteration), you're mostly left in the cold once you buy an app. Foursquare hasn't seen an update in ages. That would never, ever happen on iOS. And if you were an expat iPhone convert, you'd rightly call bullshit.
Microsoft needs to rally its developers (developersdevelopersdevelopers), but they aren't answering the call.
There are apps that do what you need them to do for Windows Phone, in the way that the inches-from-scrap-metal computer in your parents' garage gets the job done when you really need to send a quick email. But the super-slick, this-is-why-you-need-a-smartphone apps that make iPhones and Androids worth having? The quality just isn't there, even when the apps are.
Take Rdio. Rdio's iOS and Android apps are wonderful music-streaming utilities. Those guys know how to make a mobile app. But on Windows Phone? It hiccups. It crashes. It doesn't sync correctly half the time and finds something else to screw up the rest of the time. It is not very good. When we talked to Rdio's people about it a few months ago — specifically, the quick-resume feature in Mango that was supposed to deal with the constant resolving that plagues all WP apps — they knew their Windows Phone offering wasn't up to their standards. Why? Time. Most of the successful mobile app teams are too small to focus on Windows Phone when the audience isn't there. And the apps that Microsoft supplements to get off the ground end up as unsupported ghosts. What's left becomes, all too soon, unusable.
It's like this across all sorts of mobile ghettos in Windows Phone. Apps that work just fine — wonderfully even — on iPhone and Android just plain stink on WP. Or worse, they aren't even there. There's all of one (relatively) worthwhile cross-platform chat app, for instance, compared to gobs and gobs for the competition. Too many potential converts are lost over simple things like, "No Instagram? No thanks."
Microsoft doesn't seem interested in doing anything about it. When we talked to a Windows Phone spokesman at CES, we asked if the company would consider raising the bar for apps getting into the Marketplace. If they'd at least consider making game-changing features like quick-resume mandatory. Nope:
"We think that over time the apps that take advantage of features that make the experience better will rise to the top naturally." And if no one adopts features as vital as quick-resume? "We might consider something like that in the future, but we think the Marketplace will put itself in order."
Maybe it will. But for now there is no chicken, no egg, and no damn way for me to play my Rdio on the train.
To be clear, Windows Phone isn't in any immediate danger. Microsoft has pumped in too much money to let it fail any time soon, and Windows Phone 8 is on the horizon. Redmond's said that the upgrade to the Windows 8 kernel (Windows Phone 7 and 7.5 are based on the aged Windows CE) will make developing for the platform much easier. It should mean more frequent updates, since the process will be more streamlined. But we've heard this before. Windows Phone 7.5 Mango was supposed to be a panacea, and thus far it simply hasn't been.
We love New Microsoft, the benevolent tech giant playing like a lightweight: a scrappy underdog dodging and weaving its way through a landscape full of mobile titans. But what we need now is a little bit of the Old Microsoft. The one that wouldn't think twice about bearing down on its partners if that's what it took to strong-arm its way into any damn market it wanted.
The exciting, refreshing, wonderful way out of the iOS and Android black hole is still under there. The Windows Phone ship doesn't need much to get itself righted; a few fingers in a few holes might do the trick. So please, Microsoft, get this done so we can finally have something — anything — to rave about besides a dreary, dreary iPhone.