Let's hope Apple has (Nokia) 10/20 vision

Summary:Many weeks using the Nokia 1020 as my primary phone revealed it to be both a strong iPhone competitor and an example of why Microsoft has struggled to build a mobile juggernaut. Its superb camera will bring many users, but how does it stack up as a primary phone?

Earlier this year, my natural curiosity – and the frustration of an out-of-warranty iPhone that was starting to behave erratically – led me to switch to a borrowed Nokia 1020 for what became nearly three months.

As a big photographer I was naturally excited to get familiar with the phone's now-legendary 41MP sensor, and it was indeed excellent. Colours were rich, the flash superb, the zoom allowing for an unparalleled degree of detail in images. Nokia knows its market too, offering a purpose-built camera grip into which the camera slips.

Nokia-Lumia-1020-with-Camera-Grip
Is it a phone with camera or a camera with a phone? The jury is still out. Image: Nokia

Yet this was only the beginning of my assessment: I wanted to experience the 1020 as a phone as well as a camera. And, after that time, what I learned about Windows Phone 8 (WP8) is that it presents an existential crisis of sorts for Apple, which needs to take more than a few tips from Microsoft – and vice versa.

Let me say first that, while I previously described Apple's candy-themed iOS 7 as the metaphorical equivalent of a flatulent supermodel , its subsequent updates have lessened the visual disaster somewhat. The minimalist look still makes the iPhone's design come off like a kindergarten student's art portfolio, but with the more-subtle greys that student might very well be Ingmar Bergman.

The 1020's interface is far more customisable, and pleasingly so. I found myself changing the colour scheme far more frequently than I expected to – and it was good. Apple still refuses to allow users to do even rudimentary customisation on its iOS or Mac OS X devices, other than changing backgrounds. I appreciate the desire for a consistent design experience but even support for a range of colour schemes would make many users that little bit happier.

Far more important, however, is the tiled interface in WP8. True to reports, this interface is easy to use, well designed, flexible, appealing, and a major challenge to Apple's screenful-of-icons approach, which is rapidly transitioning from comfortable to outdated and boring.

The thing is: WP8's interface is thoroughly undercooked. Many applications don't use it very well, displaying only a tiny amount of information or none at all. This makes the tiles more of a flexible launching screen for apps rather than a mobile uber-interface. I'm sure this will improve over time, but it hindered the appeal of what is otherwise an excellent interface. It's also the kind of thing that Apple could probably run with, and execute far more gracefully – if it were willing to step back even a little bit from its apps-R-us approach to mobile computing.

Despite all its promise, once you look under the covers there are some areas of WP8 where Microsoft engineers really need to look in the mirror and ask themselves: why?

There are some great ideas there, however: for example, WP8 lets you create home screens as short or as long as you like, avoiding the Android problem of cramming too many widgets into the small space of a single screen – and avoiding the iOS problem of not allowing any customisation except rearranging icons in a grid.

Microsoft has carried this conceit through its mobile operating system, with application functions arranged into category-based screens between which you move using left and right swipes.

This is an intuitive and elegant interface that has been well thought-out because it is consistent even across many third-party apps. Throw in a little parallax and some flashy graphics, and you get an arguably appealing interface that Apple would do well to consider as it pushes iOS 8 into the world.

Of course, despite all its promise, once you look under the covers there are some areas of WP8 where Microsoft engineers really need to look in the mirror and ask themselves: why?

Exhibit A: the Windows Phone System menu. Here, in true command-line minimalist style, we have a list of options as long as your arm, organised seemingly at random and far, far too long to be useful.

There are 40 – yes, 40 – options at your disposal on this menu alone, ranging from essential options such as Flight Mode (10th on the list) and Brightness (19th, just below Kid's Corner and Phone Storage) to Find My Phone (24th) and Display (36th).

Seriously, there is less logic to the layout of this and other menus than there is to the Sydney bus system.

WP8menu
Want to change your screen brightness? Only three swipes to go.

If I were designing a mobile operating system, I would put the most frequently used options close to the top of the menu so people wouldn't have to search fruitlessly when they were seeking to perform even basic functions with the software. I might break them into categories, as both iOS and Android do. If I couldn't do that, I would at least do users the courtesy of listing them alphabetically.

This is where WP8 falls down, and drags down an excellent phone like the Lumia 1020 with it: it suffers that all-too-typical Redmond interface herpderp, in which the software can't seem to decide whether it's slick and sophisticated or clumsy and underdone (cf Windows Vista, Windows 8, Office and Clippy, etc).

It wasn't enough to make me hate WP8, but it wasn't enough to make me fall in love with it. I stuck with the Nokia 1020 for long enough to get used to it, despite suffering from the now-official iMessage bug  in which messages sent from anyone with an iPhone were not delivered to my new phone.

In the end, I returned the Nokia 1020 rather reluctantly – but as I look back on my time with the platform, I realise it was mostly because of the camera. Windows Phone 8 is certainly an adept operating system that is far from a non-contender, but its lack of consistency and occasional clumsiness made it fall short as an alternative to the iPhones I had known and gotten used to over the previous four years.

That said, there is much to like about WP8 – things such as the tiled interface, which shows so much promise that it's a shame Microsoft has failed to live up to its potential. Yet through all this, I hope Apple is watching: it is no longer the king of mobile interfaces, and in the 10/20 vision that hindsight provides I hope the imminent Apple event shows the company is willing to look afield to learn some new tricks.

What do you think? Did you switch to the Nokia 1020 and never look back? Or did you walk away muttering about lost opportunities?

Topics: Mobility, Apple, iOS, iPhone, Mobile OS, Nokia, Smartphones, Windows Phone

About

As large as the US mainland but with a smaller population than Texas, Australia relies on ICT innovation to maintain its position as a first-world democracy and a role model for the developing Asia-Pacific region. Award-winning journalist David Braue has covered Australia’s IT and telecoms sectors since 1995 – and he’s as quick to draw le... Full Bio

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