An iPhone Lover's Take On Windows Phone

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Back in October, after the official launch of Windows Phone 7, I wrote up some initial thoughts after having played with a few prototype devices in the months leading up to the launch. Many seemed surprised by my mostly positive reactions. It seemed to me at the time that Microsoft may have actually brought a gun to a gun fight with Windows Phone — as opposed to a sword, or a knife, or a mop.

At the same time, I noted, “Now they just have to run a marathon. Up a mountain. Against competitors that they gave a 20 mile head-start to.” And the early indications point to that race not going so well for Microsoft early on. But still, I think there might be some hope for the platform, for two reasons. First, I’ve actually had the chance to use a finished device for a while now — and I like it. Second, Microsoft has a seemingly endless supply of money.

As I’ve done with a number of other smartphones, the following is my take on Windows Phone from the perspective of an iPhone lover. In my mind, the latest iPhone (currently, the iPhone 4) is still the device to beat out there in the smartphone market, and so I look at all these new devices from that perspective. Is Windows Phone good enough to make me consider switching? Is there anything about it that’s better? Worse? Etc.

Different Is Good

Right off the bat, let me just say the thing that is sure to piss off every fandroid reading this. From an OS perspective, I find Windows Phone more appealing than Android. As I’ve stated previously, I like that Microsoft is doing something different to move the concept mobile OSes forward. The main problem I’ve always had with Android is that it feels too much like a less-polished version of iOS. Google has done a good job iterating and getting it closer to iOS, but it still lacks the refinement. And the fact that they made it have the same basic look and feel makes comparisons impossible to get around.

Windows Phone is completely different. From the homescreen tiles to the UI (codenamed Metro), when I’m using it, I don’t feel like I’m using a poor-man’s iPhone. I feel like I’m using something new. That’s jarring for some people considering the apps-on-the-screen model has been so dominant in the smartphone market up until now. But if Microsoft is able to scale Windows Phone into an actually successful product, they’ll have a lot of competitors copying a lot of what they’re doing.

Tiles

First and foremost, the live-updating tile idea of Windows Phone is great. I’ve never been a big fan of the little red dot badging system that iOS uses to indicate if there’s some update to an app. Windows Phone’s tile system uses a straightforward number system within the tile to show how many new text messages (or emails, or calls, etc) you have.

I also love the simple design of the tiles. They’re big and clickable. And unlike iOS or Android where developers often create weird-looking, ugly icons, Windows Phone tiles are all standard squares. The ones made by Microsoft can be customized with different colors, which changes the look of the homescreen. And tiles can also update with live information such as new pictures.

Clicking on a tile produces a neat little effect where all the other tiles zoom away and the app you clicked on opens. It’s little elements of polish like this that shows Microsoft actually put some work and thought into this OS.

Apps

In the apps themselves, the Metro design work is also very apparent. Microsoft uses this carousel-style system where you cycle through the different main parts of apps. This is a little odd because the way they indicate that there is something to scroll to is often with the word of the next area being partially obstructed. Again, different.

The best third-party apps follow this style as well. A bunch of the apps I’ve been using regularly, such as Twitter and IMDb, were created by IdentityMine, a firm which often works with Microsoft on a number of products. Because they adhere to this Metro style, the apps look really nice. Most importantly for Microsoft, you come away with the feeling that they seem like Windows Phone apps, rather than just regular old apps developed to be cross-platform.

Of course, that styling has probably slowed down the app development process for some third party teams. Kurt Brockett, the Director of UX Evangelism for IdentityMine, tells us that the dev tools are pretty great for Windows Phone and credits Microsoft for doing a good job on a v1 product. But at the same time, to look like the best Windows Phone apps, you’re likely going to have to either outsource your work to companies like IdentityMine or hire dedicated people.

Another brilliant app for the platform is the one made by Netflix. In fact, I’d say it’s noticeably better than the app Netflix makes for the iPhone. It’s just more polished. And they still don’t have any app available for Android. Of course, it may help that Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is on Microsoft’s Board of Directors.

Most developers I’ve spoken with over the past several weeks have said they are not focusing on the Windows Phone platform just yet. The main reason, obviously, is because they’re just not sure what the public interest will be yet. This is similar to developer reactions after Android launched. And it’s only just now getting to the point where teams are focusing on both iPhone and Android at the same time. So third-party apps may be a slow road for Windows Phone for some time.

Games

But while apps may be coming along slowly, one segment, games, already seem fairly strong. Microsoft has an advantage here given their experience with Xbox Live. And wisely, they’re tying that directly into games on Windows Phone. When games launched on Android, they were pretty awful. On the iPhone, they were decent, but I think it’s fair to say that Apple underestimated how important that market would be. Microsoft doesn’t seem to be underestimating that.

I haven’t played a huge number of them, but the ones I have played seem to run smoothly for the most part and look great. Ones also available on the iPhone (in other words, ported), like Fruit Ninja, don’t seem to run quite as well, but the experience is close.

Windows Phone ties in your Xbox Live avatar to the gaming area so you can keep track of achievements and connections. I suspect the company will continue to beef this up in the coming months as this could potentially be a huge hook for them to get people onto the platform.

Hardware

The Windows Phone I’ve been using is the Samsung Focus. It has a 1Ghz processor, a 4-inch Super AMOLED display, a 5 megapixel camera, and 8 gigabytes of internal storage (which can be beefed up via the microSD slot). The device runs on AT&T’s network — which, as we’re all probably well aware by now, is pretty awful in the Bay Area.

Call quality when AT&T is playing nice (meaning, it’s not raining, I’m not in SoMa, etc…) seems quite good. I love text messaging on the device because I prefer the Metro style Windows Phone uses versus the cutesy bubble style iOS uses.

Simply put: the hardware is overall good, but not great. The screen is great, but the device itself feels a little too plastic-y. Compared to the iPhone 4, it’s shockingly light — which is great when it’s in your pocket, but feels a little odd when it’s in your hand. It’s so light that it feels almost as if it’s missing the battery (which, of course, it isn’t).

Like most Android phones, taking the back off of this device is just about the least elegant thing in the world.

Microsoft is doing a smart thing with their OEM partners in giving them a fairly strict set of specs to adhere to for Windows Phone devices. This means that each phone will have many of the same basic elements, and all should be fairly similar from a user experience perspective. Like Android phones, the Windows Phones have virtual buttons that reside just below the screen. But instead of the four you find on most Android phones, there are three: Search, Home, and Back.

The Focus also has a physical camera button which allows you to quickly jump into camera mode no matter what app you’re in on the device. I’ve heard that a big focus of Windows Phone was to make the picture-taking process as quick as possible. And it is very quick. The problem with the physical button (as opposed to the virtual ones found on the iPhone and Android phones) is that it can lead to small jitters in your pictures, I’ve found.

But if you have steady hands, the picture quality is good. And the device can take 720p video, which looks great.

Overall, the system runs quickly and smoothly. Windows Phone could definitely benefit from the type of background pausing and resuming that iOS employs (apps currently fully quit when you exit them), but that’s a software issue, not a hardware one, and one that will undoubtedly be implemented.

Miscellaneous

In my few weeks with the Windows Phone device, I’ve found a few other things here and there to like about it. One huge thing is the deep Facebook integration. Your Facebook contacts are tied directly into the People tile on the phone, and all of the contact information from their profiles comes over to your device. A few Android phones offer similar things, but it feels more integral to the system on Windows Phone and less tacked-on.

Bing search, with its huge pictures tailored for the phone’s screen looks amazing. And the results pages that take on the Metro design look far better than anything Bing has done on the web proper.

That said, the web browser on Windows Phone is an abomination. It’s hard to describe how bad it is. It’s sort of like IE6, but worse. Nearly every page I’ve visited over the past several weeks has been broken in the browser in some way. It’s usually just small style issues, but still — Microsoft should be ashamed of this. The browser is arguably the most important feature of any smartphone. And on Windows Phone, quite frankly, it sucks.

The software keyboard in Windows Phone is somewhere between the iPhone keyboard and Android’s virtual keyboards in terms of usability, but it’s much closer to the iPhone’s. Again, for a v1 take on this, that’s impressive.

In fact, the overall responsiveness of the touchscreen elements is impressive on v1 of Windows Phone. Android has had a long time to nail this, and with many of their phones, they have not.

Conclusion

I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how much I’ve liked Windows Phone. Would I recommend buying one? Certainly not on AT&T, but if and when it came to Verizon, I certainly think it’s worthy of consideration. Would I replace my iPhone with it? Well, no. But I do think it’s important to remember that this is Microsoft’s first stab at this. If you were to compare this to the original iPhone, just from a software perspective, clearly this would be right there, if not slightly better (and much better if you consider that this has third-party apps and the original iPhone didn’t at first).

Of course, we’d probably be having a whole different discussion if Microsoft had released this in 2007 instead of continuing to give mouth-to-mouth to the decaying Windows Mobile brand. Now, they’re coming two to three years late to the party. That means they’re going to have to iterate at an extremely rapid pace — and that could be a good or bad thing.

But the good news is that they’re Microsoft. They have a ton of money that they clearly don’t mind burning if they feel it’s worth it. And mobile is clearly worth it. And that’s why Windows Phone is going to be around a while even if it never fully takes off.

But at least Microsoft has given it the chance to take off with the initial release of Windows Phone. They could have just as easily released a total dud into the market. They could have brought the mop to the gun fight.

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