The Latest and Greatest and Doomed to 3rd Place
Another day, another pocket-altering mobile platform that’s more likely to wither on the vine than ever see its true potential. No, Meg Whitman, I’m not talking to you (cf, Carly Simon to James Taylor). webOS‘ time has come and gone; Windows Phone 7 is the new underdog darling in town.
What’s even more weird to me than calling a Microsoft product an underdog is heaping praise upon anything born in Redmond. I’ve long been a Mac owner and MSFT disliker. From Windows 3.1 and WM 6 to that stupid animated paper clip, for more than a decade I basically disliked everything Microsoft did. Blindly, even.
Then came Zune, which I kinda liked but didn’t see enough value in to even consider casting off my iPod for. Then came Kin, which I thought held a ton of potential but was D.O.A thanks to pricing and marketing-related atrocities, amongst other things. Then I tried Xbox Live, which I dug, but frankly I’m not nearly enough of a gamer to have formed anything approaching an informed opinion on – I just don’t use my 360 enough.
But then came Windows Phone 7 and, more importantly, the Mango update and the newest batch of high-end phones to support it. I’ve spent some time with Nokia’s Lumia 800, Samsung’s Focus S, and HTC’s Titan, all three of which run WP 7.5. I’ve perused the Marketplace, installed my apps, and carried them all around in my jeans pockets. And I really, really like ’em – Titan in particular.
Different Like webOS, But Actually Different
Windows Phone is a more extreme version of what webOS was a year ago – namely, a unique stab at a mobile phone experience. webOS was (is?) awesome, but it was basically a mash-up of the two dominant platforms with a lot of smart tweaking and a wee bit of fresh thinking. Yeah, it had cards and Synergy, but it also relied on a grid of icons and basically took Android’s notifications system and made it nicer. WP7 is different – or at least the new car smell hasn’t yet worn off for me. There’s no grid of icons, no launcher tray, and no chance at a patent lawsuit (well, there’s always potential for litigation in America). Instead, there are live tiles and true system-level social media (and Xbox!) integration and mandatory hardware camera buttons galore. Instead, there’s a company that used to be known for its drab, monopolistic, boringly corporate ways coming up with a fresh metaphor, new user experience, and utterly lovely typographic raison d’etre.
Whichever side of the Fanboy Wars you’re on, it’s hard to deny that the latest incarnations Android and iOS share more than a passing resemblance. You’ve got grids, you’ve got folders, you’ve got trays, and you’ve got notification pull-downs no matter which camp you’re in. Microsoft didn’t exactly re-invent the wheel with Windows Phone 7, but at least they took a different tack. Giant blocks of color and the Metro design language look great on giant screens and work just fine on Lumia 800’s “little” 3.7-inch display. Honestly, I’d always hated 4.3-inch+ cell phone screens until I tried the HTC Titan. Maybe I’m a sucker for Playskool-style squares of primary tones, but Mango just kinda works on a giant, relatively low-res (WVGA) display. Most everything in Windows Phone is big, bold and easy to see; after using Titan for a week I went back to my iPhone 4 and wondered what the hell was up with the weird banners, fonts and textures in Game Center.
I never would have thought I’d say it, but it’s true: Microsoft has made Apple’s design sense seem tacky. Metro is modern and stylish where iOS suddenly seems played-out and at times disjointed.
And there’s hardly any reason to compare WP7 to Android, user experience wise. All you need to do is try this simple exercise and the differences will leap out at you in stark relief: Take anything – Web page, photo, or piece of text – and try sharing it from an Android phone and then a WP7 phone. Android gives you a pop-over dialogue box with every choice under the sun, every time, including multiple paths to the same result (e.g. Twitter for Android, Twitter for HTC Sense, HTC Peep). Windows Phone gives you three choices: “Messaging,” Email (okay, one choice per account), and “Social Networks.” No obscure app names, no confusing duplicates, no needlessly unfriendly PC-era dialogues – just clearly defined options rendered in big, high contrast fonts. Yes, iOS does this but they don’t offer Facebook as an option, which (as much as I loathe Facebook) is obviously much more about corporate politics than user friendliness.
Android fanboys might call this brand of design sense “Smartphones for n00bs.” I’d counter with something this one jr. high school teacher of mine, hate him as I did, was right about: KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid.
Windows Phone has issues, and if it ever gains real traction some of these issues will quickly grow into glaring problems. Most notably, the “Live Tile” home screen and alphabetical text list of Applications simply cannot scale. I’ve installed maybe eight apps on my unlocked Titan and already I desparately wish I could rearrange the Apps list to my liking. There’s absolutely no reason why, three weeks shy of 2012, I should have to scroll from A-Z every time I want to launch Zillow on my smartphone. “Just pin it to your Start screen,” you say. “No can do,” I reply. “For my home screen is already three-scrolls full of tiles that can’t be resized.” Seriously, what if I don’t want Calendar to be two squares wide? Why can’t I resize a tile to my liking, Microsoft?
UPDATE: A few of you have rightly pointed out that Mango added the abilities to search for Apps and jump to all apps that begin with a given letter of the alphabet. I was remiss in glossing over those features, but don’t think they offer a viable solution. If I’m stuck with a list as the only way to view all apps, I at least want to be able to custom sort said list so my preferred apps are up at the top where I don’t have to scroll to get to them.
Apple and Google settled on folders and multiple home screens to solve their abudance of riches problems with app overload. Surely Microsoft can come up with something similar in concept but uniquely different in execution to aid the WP faithful in dealing with the glut of quality applications destined hit the Marketplace following the rumored Windows Phone onslaught at CES 2012. They’ll have to if Windows Phone is ever to gain real mainstream traction. Phones are the new computers, mobile is the new desktop, and apps are hot, hot, hot. Like it or not, if the average user can’t easily move through the apps installed on their phone, that phone’s not going to wind up a winner. So Microsoft’s got a two-pronged problem to solve: First, it needs better apps and more of ’em. Second, in needs a better system for user management of said apps.
That being said, my SIM is still out of my iPhone and in my Titan (thanks to an Amazon-sourced micro SIM adapter, natch). Should Sonos not see fit to release a free and official controller for WP7 in the short-term, I’ll be headed back Cupertino way. And I need Skype, too – nobody knows what Tango is, let alone uses it. Off the top of my head, those are the two pieces missing from my version of Mango’s ecosystem. I “need” video chat and a remote for my Hi-Fi and you still call these things “phones?” Hah! Nokia was right about one thing over the past five years, anyway – the phone call-enabled devices in all of our pockets really are “multimedia computers.”
Mango is My Daily Driver – For Now
That being said, I’m currently using Windows Phone as my daily driver, and I’m really liking it. Everything new eventually becomes old, and everything shiny winds up tarnished and dull, and such is the case with iPhone and iOS, at least for me, at least right now. I don’t buy those Microsoft ads that’d have you believe using Windows Phone can cut down on the amount of time you waste staring at your phone. And I don’t for a second imagine that there’s one mobile operating system (or flavor of ice cream, or size) to fit all. But for me, right now, Windows Phone is the one.
Ask me again in a month, or better yet track me down on the CES floor in early January and ask me what phone I’m carrying around (I’m one of those atypical gadget bloggers who refuses to carry two phones at the same time). For now, though, Windows Phone is a welcomed breath of fresh air in a branch of personal technology that’s far too important to be ruled by meaningless specs and innovation-stifling lawsuits, as it currently is. Add to that the sheer beauty of Metro’s big, bold fonts and I’m more than happy to call Mango my platform of choice. At least for now.