Why can't I learn to love Windows Phone?

Summary:In late-2011 I tried Windows Phone. I didn't like it. I've just tried Windows Phone again. I still don't like it, but I do have a better idea as to why...

Thumbnail - No love for Windows Phone
Sorry guys, it's not you, it's me.No, wait, it is you.

In November 2011 I bought a brand new Lumia 800 phone. I'd really been looking forward to the release of Windows Phone, and the Lumia looked like a great device. I spent £400 ($640) of my own money on a SIM-free device, looking to retire my iPhone 3GS in preference to it.

It did not go well. After a month I found that I had developed a visceral lack of respect for the thing. It might even have been something like hatred. Whatever it was, the reaction I had was overblown for what was, after all, just a phone.

In hindsight, nearly 18 months on, what I think had happened was that it was at this point I realised that I could no longer trust Microsoft to look after my career and a change started to happen. The expectation I had for Windows Phone was bound up with how I'd felt about Microsoft. It was like a trusted friend had promised to take me me out for a special birthday full of my favourite foods, only to sit me down in front of a plate of deep-fried locusts with a side helping of live scorpions.

I had been thoughout my career a dyed-in-the-wool Redmondite -- my entire career revolved around Microsoft and their products. I did about a dozen books on .NET, I was an MVP for a while. I set-up a software company that provided custom software solutions, the only rule being that whatever we did had to run on Microsoft servers and clients.

The problem with the Lumia 800 was that it showed me that Microsoft just didn't understand post-PC, just like my hypothetical friend thought I liked locusts for dinner, rather than delicious sushi. For all of their messages about how the understood the smartphone market, that Windows Mobile was the wrong approach and that would all changed, what I got was a buggy and incomplete little operating system in a nicely designed chassis.

My reaction in the first instance was to try and offload the phone on eBay (which wasn't easy), and replace it with a new iPhone 4S. The second reaction I had was to change my philosophy to one where in my work Microsoft's products would be part of a mix of products from a variety of vendors. Luckily this was fairly easy as in reality this was happening my work anyway. 

Back to Lumia. What I didn't manage to do throughout 2012 was get back on the horse and try the Windows Phone platform again. But when the opportunity arose to buy a Lumia 620 for £120 ($192), I made myself have another go.

A year

I've got two main complaints about Windows Phone.

Firstly, what on earth has Microsoft's engineers been doing over the past year? What I get with Windows Phone 8 seems to be exactly the same experience as Windows Phone 7.

Note that I said "experience". I see that it has more ancillary features. Fans of Windows Phone are likely to tell me about Kids Corner, Rooms, and some other stuff. There are, of course, loads of little incremental improvements to the system, but they don't change the fundmental position that Windows Phone simply is not as good as iOS, Android, or even -- unbelievably -- BlackBerry 10.

BlackBerry 10 is a very interesting case-in-point here. BB10 has two problems -- the app support is very ropey, and the battery life is a little bit of a disaster, but what the engineers over at RIM/BlackBerry managed to do should go down in history as one of the finest pieces of software engineering and product development ever. Two years ago they set out to create a phone that would land in the market and compete with whatever incumbents happened to own the market. They didn't know for certain who those incumbents would be, or which features customers would demand. Yet they delivered a great product that was sympathetic to the market's needs, first time. And their starting point -- BBOS7 and devices like Curve and Bold -- was a platform that to all intents and purposes offered nothing more than a mobile groupware client.

The rationale behind the reboot of Windows Mobile to Windows Phone was that Windows Mobile could not compete with iOS and Android. To me, the validity of Windows Phone has to be measured on what value has been delivered to users through that transition. When I look at Windows Phone 8 and all I see is the previously-disappointing Windows Phone 7 with the tiniest possible amount of additional bling, I have to ask myself whether Windows Phone is actually any better than Windows Mobile. I've come away from that question thinking that Windows Phone really isn't much better than Windows Mobile.

If you've ever used a late generation Windows Mobile 6.5 device -- and I'm thinking here specifically of the HTC HD2 -- that wasn't an terrible smartphone by modern standards. It demonstrated what Microsoft's partners could do upon being dealt a lousy set of cards. The rationale with rebooting is that Microsoft's partners then get a good set of cards -- if that's the case, why is Windows Phone 8 not simply astonishingly good. Windows Phone should be to the iPhone what the iPad was to Windows XP Tablet Edition. Starting from where Microsoft started and with the talent and money that they have, Windows Phone should have made all the other smartphones look like a bad joke.

Quaint

I remember distinctly when I lost patience with the Lumia 800 and decided to give up. I was sitting in the lounge and my daughter was playing with my iPad. I wanted to check Twitter, looked at the Lumia, sighed, and just stared at a blank wall rather than picking it up and switching it on. I love Twitter a lot, and to take "staring at a blank wall" in preference to spending some time on it is an indication, for me at least, of a real problem.

At the time I didn't come up with a convincing explanation of why that might be happening. I think I now can.

Windows Phone is too Microsoft-focused, too quaint, and too parochial to be a truly good post-PC device. I think this is caused by a combination of Microsoft's cultural obsession with owning everything. (You might think Apple is obsessed with "owning everything" -- I think they are obsessed with controlling everything, which is very different.) Everything on Windows Phone feels bent and skewed towards Microsoft's point of view. You look the tiles on the home page and it's entirely "hey guys, this is how we think you should look at things! You like people? Here are people! You like Office? LOOK AT THE MASSIVE ORANGE OFFICE ICON!" (Please, use up 15% of the real estate on the home page advertising Office at me. I only paid real money out of my own pocket for this thing, after all.) I get that their idea is that Microsoft wants people get this set-up their home pages exactly how they like it using the tiles, but to me it feels like game of shuffling Microsoft blocks around in a Microsoft landscape, only creating something usable if I arrange them into one of the precanned structures Microsoft wants.

iOS, Android, and BlackBerry aren't like this. The approach from both of them feels much more free. It's like Apple and Google know how to look outside themselves and being the positive good into the wider world in a way that Microsoft just doesn't know how to do. Given Microsoft's history this makes sense. Their success comes from ownership of spaces in markets driven through competition and a desire to either consume or crush anything non-Redmondian. That, to me at least, bleeds through into how Windows Phone feels. It's their game played by their rules. Apple make products that it wants people to enjoy so as long as they only put safe stuff in their catalogue, what do they care. Google is a bunch of engineers slapping together stuff seemingly for the fun of it under the watchful gaze of a commercial engine designed to suck in money. BlackBerry has got a bit of Microsoft going on on the messaging side which they own totally, but then they're the best in the world at mobile messaging. The rest is just as open and fun as everyone else, it's just that there's not much of it right now.

For me though, the final nail in the coffin comes down to a slightly odd idea. Post-PC devices are all about relationships -- your relationship with yourself, and your relationship with others. The only reason why anyone picks up a smartphone or a tablet is to tap into that network. What should happen when you do that is your digital world should unfold like a flower in front of you showing you a digital world of possibilities. Every iOS device I've ever used has done that. Every Android device has more of less done that, although for most of its history clunkiness has been a distraction. Windows Phone has to be coerced into connecting you into your digital world. It always feels like I'm having to use a set of robotic arms and look through telescopes -- it never, ever feels natural or fluid. For what it's worth, this is also why I found my Surface RT was unworkable. Unless they fix that, Microsoft's entire post-PC mobility strategy is pointless.

I'm not sure the current culture at Microsoft is able to make a good post-PC device. Windows Phone should be insanely great, and it still isn't.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Image credit: Microsoft, Wikimedia

Topics: Smartphones

About

Matt Baxter-Reynolds is a mobile software development consultant and technology sociologist based in the UK. His latest book -- "Death of the PC" -- is available on Amazon now.

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