Windows Phone app challenge: Can it stand up to the big boys?

Summary:This is where the rubber meets the road with Windows Phone. We take a selection of regularly-used apps and see whether Windows Phone can provide similar functions. The results may surprise you!

About a month ago, in the beginning of July, I began an evaluation of Windows Phone . I've long been an iPhone and Android user, but had no experience with Windows Phone. I reached out to Microsoft, and they provided me with a Lumia Icon to use for my review.

In previous articles, I described my first impressions. There is no doubt the device is a sweet phone. But the big question in my mind is also probably the single biggest negative Microsoft has to deal with in marketing Windows Phone: the app gap. Compared to the iOS app store and Google Play, Windows Phone has just a fragment of the apps.

What I wanted to find out was whether that mattered in real, day-to-day use.

Before I used a Windows Phone device for the first time (and mine is upgraded to 8.1 with the latest updates), I set out a list of app requirements based on my day-to-day use of my Android Phone, a Samsung Galaxy S4 that's under contract until next year.

Each of these requirements reflects my daily usage pattern for the phone. My feeling was that if I could do pretty much the same stuff on a Windows Phone, then it would pass the app challenge. But if I was unable to get the same productivity out of Windows Phone as I could with either iOS or Android, it would fail the challenge.

Grading scale

To evaluate the app challenge, I set out 19 requirements in my initial article. Windows Phone will be graded on a 0 to 5 scale for each requirement. Those of you math wizards in the audience will notice that 19-times-5 is 95, so to bring the scale up to 100, I'll give Windows Phone an initial 5 points just for plucky competitive spirit.

Finally, I'll report a final grade from F to A, according to the same numerical grading scale I use with my students:

201408grading-scale

One other thing. In terms of scoring, I'll be judging on two levels. First is functionality. Can the phone get the job done? Second is whether it can be done nicely.

What do I mean by this? Let's say I was handed the phone and had to use it for some reason instead of the S4. Could I get my work done, regardless of whether or not the interface was pleasant or just workable? Was I just plain out of luck? I will award 0-3 points for functionality.

The usability requirement is really a question of how elegantly it's done. Is it a pain in the neck to use? Do I have to resort to loading a Web page instead of an app? Is it a slick, clean user interface that's a pleasure to use. I will award 0-2 points for usability.

Now that you understand the rules of the challenge, let's get started with our first requirement. Good luck to everyone!

Let the challenge begin

All my phones use inductive charging. Can the Windows Phone?

It most certainly does. In fact, unlike the iPhone, which needs a brick-like sleeve and the Galaxy, which has a charging back that doesn't fit most cases, the Lumia Icon has inductive charging built in. There's no bulge. There's no muss. No fuss. This is how inductive charging should be done.

  • Functionality on 0-3 scale: 3
  • Usability on a 0-2 scale: 2

By contrast, I'd award both the iPhone and Android phone 2s for functionality. You can do inductive charging, if you buy add-ons. On the other hand, I'd award a sad 0 for usability for the iPhone. You need to attach a brick to it. I'd give a 1 to the Android phone because it then becomes incompatible with most cases, but at least it's not a brick.

Can I connect to both my email and my calendar? My email is Office 365 via Exchange and Outlook, but I live off of Google Calendar. Can I still manage my Google Calendar with this thing?

I had HUGE expectations for this. I expected the Windows Phone to integrate with my Office 365 account like butta. The phone even boots up with a friendly Office 365 icon right on the home screen. Excitedly, I tapped it, and ... well, huh? Where's my email?

I launched into the app, but there was no option to get my email. I could see my email attachments, but not my email. I pay $15/mo per user for Office 365, primarily for access to Exchange, but there was no email in the Office 365 app. 'Scuse me?

wheresmyemail
Where's my email?

As it turns out, if you exit the Office 365 app and go back to the home screen, there's a quarter-size icon (one quarter the size of the Office 365 icon) with an envelope on it. If you tap that, you can sign into your Office 365 email and get the relatively pleasant Outlook interface.

201408iconwars
Why Microsoft? Why?

So, yes, you can access your Office 365 email from Windows Phone. But not only was it not integrated like butta, it was a completely separate icon with no connection whatsoever (except for seeing attachments -- bizarre on its own) to the Office 365 app.

This is where Microsoft baffles me. This was such a no-need-to-bungle opportunity to shine bright, but instead, sigh, no joy.

As for my Google Calendar, the good news is you can integrate the Google Calendar (including multiple individual calendars). It gets the job done. On the other hand, the month view of Google Calendar on the Windows Phone (and presumably the month view for Exchange) is nothing short of useless.

201408calcompare
Windows Phone vs. Android

As you can see, the image on the left is from the month view of Windows Phone. The image on the right is from my Android calendar. It has so much information, I had to blur the whole thing out to be able to post it. Even more powerful, one of my home screens on my Android Launcher shows this calendar view, so I never even have to open the calendar to see my month at-a-glance. That functionality just brutalizes not only Windows Phone, but iOS as well.

Office functionality for Windows Phone was tough to rate. I fully expected this to be a knock-out-of-the-park 5, and instead:

  • Functionality on 0-3 scale: 3
  • Usability on a 0-2 scale: 0

Once you get past the initial idiocy of the way the apps work, you can enlarge the email icon and using it is reasonably pleasant. Even so, I dinged the score because it was just such an unnecessary place for confusion and such a huge missed opportunity to showcase integration.

Lots more apps to come. Windows Phone picks up some much-needed points...

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

Topics: Mobility, Android, Apple, Apps, DIY, Google, Google Apps, iOS, Smartphones, SMBs, Windows Phone

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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