Why can't I learn to love Windows Phone?

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...

TOPICS: Smartphones
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.


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

Topic: Smartphones

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  • Conway's Law...

    ..."Any piece of software reflects the organizational structure that produced it".

    The dominant organizational structure at Microsoft is the dual desktop Windows and Office empires. They bring in the lion's share of the revenue and profits. And they are terrified by anything that might weaken their position.

    Like, for example, an innovative new mobile platform. Remember the "Courier" tablet? That got killed because it was too much of a threat. And so we get Windows Phone and Windows RT instead, two watered-down, insipid offerings, already weakened by being fragmented into separate, incompatible products targeting different sub-segments of the mobile market, deliberately designed to prevent them combining forces into a credible competitor.

    And so, with its mobile forces in disarray, Microsoft is a sitting duck for a better-designed platform like Android to simply walk all over it.
    • There is one thing missing from this analysis...

      ...which is that Microsoft has almost certainly not focussed on massive improvements to Windows Phone because it has instead focussed on moving Windows to ARM. Windows Phone 9 won't be a phone OS at all - it will be Windows RT with its UI elements adjusted to suit phone-size displays. At that point, Microsoft becomes the only one of the big 3 (Apple, Google) to have a consistent OS across phones, laptops, tablets and desktops (yes, I know that's what Shuttleworth is trying to do too - guess we'll have to wait & see on that one). That means you can buy an app and use that same app on whichever device you want. It eliminates the need to develop separately for different devices. Whether that will be a winning strategy remains to be seen, but it's a goal that would make both developers and users much happier.
      • I believe this is MS's vision. A single UI for all devices.

        I question if it is a good vision. I honestly believe the device dictates the UI. As such, the UI APIs will be unique between different devices. I see MS's approach as the write once run anywhere philosophy of Java that brought us the worst interfaces to grace the computer screen in decades.

        I think it is goal that might make developers happy and users highly unsatisfied.
        • Author is a known iDiot

          It's his job to bash everything from Microsoft mobile campl.
          • Yup,

            That's right. He bashes everything Microsoft in his dozen .NET books. And he definitely was anti-Microsoft when he was an MVP (Microsoft Valued Professional). And of course, when he set up a software company that REQUIRED Microsoft servers and clients for its software, he absolutely bashed Microsoft.

            Jeez. He writes a critical article where he states he TRIES to like the Lumia and in the course of several months, the device doesn't do what he wants... so now he's a Microsoft basher? Get over yourself.
          • But something happened after he did all that stuff

            Yes, that was a part of his career, then this happened:
            "I realised that I could no longer trust Microsoft to look after my career and a change started to happen"

            Something happened with his career that he blames Microsoft for. Check out my one of my later posts where he is exposed on Twitter as having a good reason to hate Microsoft.

            Matt used to "trust" Microsoft to owe him a living but now he hates Microsoft. That much is undeniable. In and of itself, that doesn't preclude him from writing useful articles about Microsoft but just like someone who loves Microsoft, they have to back up what they write. This one was a rant with absolutely no support for what he wrote.

            "the device doesn't do what he wants"

            This is not true. At no point does he give us an example of how the device doesn't do what he wants it to do. Again, this is a rant. He hates Microsoft, hates Windows Phone, but at no point does he ever tell us why. At no point does he give an example of how Windows Phone failed him.
          • Toddy

            Read the article. He said pretty clearly why he didn't like it. It's the entire paragraph that starts with "Windows Phone is too Microsoft-focused, too quaint, and too parochial to be a truly good post-PC device." Just because he doesn't like WP after trying 2 different devices and 2 different versions does not make him a Microsoft hater. It means he does not like WP.
          • You go athynz!!

            Fact is that ZDNet does not report the correct number of folks that agree with your post. ZDNet is all about crazy to get folks to pay their bills. Microsoft, on the other hand, is all about getting money.

            BTW - Microsoft is dead. EOS
            The Danger is Microsoft
          • Here's a challenge:

            I dare you to say that to the Xbox division, which Microsoft is really counting on to chalk up its other brands (That's why you see Zune Music become Xbox Music, Games for Windows Live become Xbox Game for Windows, and IE on the Xbox). Microsoft's fate will lie at E3 from a software/peripheral perspective. If the next Xbox is less successful than the PS4 (which will integrate mostly with Sony's proprietary brands [PS Vita, Gaikai, SNE, etc], uStream, Facebook, and Android for mobile success, then Microsoft will have a harder time selling those add-on services that is making the Xbox brand well-known and profitable. If they're smart, they'd use their brand power to simply their services instead of creating new brands. MS Xbox, MS Windows, MS Search, MS Music, MSmail., MS Drive. When you fragment something you're trying to make seem like an all-in-one solution, it introduces brand disconnect and confusion. If I were them I'd either choose the Microsoft brand for recognition or the bing brand for its freshness. Sony learned their mistake already with Sony Ericsson (now just Sony Mobile) & Qriocity (now Sony Entertainment Network). This virtual things need to be tied to you. There's a reason everyone knows Android phones are a part of Google, because of the "Google Play Store" where all your apps rest and the embedded "Google Search" and Google Now. I need the opportunity to be Marketing Director at Microsoft... guarantee I could turn the company around from a brand perspective in 5 years, and from a corporate perspective in 8.
          • ALl that equates to:

            " I hate Microsoft and so I have decided that their phone sucks and I don't like it..."

            Let's look shall we?

            *) "Windows Phone is too Microsoft-focused" - OP wants it to be Apple/BB/Google focused? Just plain dumb.

            *) "too quaint, and too parochial to be a truly good post-PC device" - Opinion with no facts. What exactly is quaint or parochial about a Phone that is completely different from all other phones on the market? How about some details? He may as well have just made the headline say "I hate Microsoft" and then left the article blank.

            The fact of the matter is that he himself admits to having bad blood with Microsoft in general. Had he said "I'm pissed because I couldn't play my itunes library from my phone until I converted all 25,000 files to MP3 format." or "I hate that the twitter client for windows phone sucks ass.". But, he said nothing of the sort.

            All he did was speak in generalities about how he hates Windows Phone.
          • Ridiculous

            That isn't an example. If I were to write:
            "iphone is too apple-focused, too quaint, and too parochial to be a truly good post-PC device."

            you would accept that, and only that, as a valid reason for writing a rant about how much iphone sucked? Seriously?
          • Perhaps it is simpler than that...

            Perhaps MS just stole his business and he didn't have enough money to take them to court over it.

            Somewhat like what happened to Stacker... Only they went out of business in the process of winning the court case
          • Yes, maybe that is what happened

            Maybe he has a good reason to hate Microsoft, I took this into consideration.

            However, it is important that readers know he hates Microsoft when reading this, especially in light of the fact that he gives absolutely NO substantiation for his rant. He never once states why Windows Phone sucks.

            Let's put this another way: some here believe I hate apple. If I were to post:
            "iphone is too apple-focused, too quaint, and too parochial to be a truly good post-PC device."

            would your perception of my bias be relevant, especially given the fact that at no point I backed up how the iphone was too apple focused?

            Matt hates Microsoft. That's fine. He is allowed to. Matt has used his hatred of Microsoft to try and make up hit pieces about Windows Phone. That's fine too, he is allowed to do whatever he wants. I'm merely pointing out the facts that his piece is a biased rant with absolutely no substance behind it. I'm allowed to do that.
          • Yeah, but nobpdy expects balance from you...

            Get over it. He doesn't hate Microsoft - he males his living from them. He just doesn't like Windows phone. So what? A lot of people don't like it. That makes him a "hater"?
            Some people can only see black and white. It's too bad that you can only see through your own agenda.
          • I read it twice looking for WHY?

            nothing is listed except for a vague twitter reference.

            Purely user error, he needs to go back to the app basher IOS / droid phones with the special ed student UI.
          • I don't get you Todd

            Everyone has to love Microsoft? Is this what you hoped for if Romney was elected? Get over it. You are alone with the 10 other folks in America that really believe Microsoft can do something other than yank their pud.
            The Danger is Microsoft
          • Exactly

            Exactly what I took from this article. Nothing explains why WP is the worst mobile - worse than anything including BB and WM!

            And here you have WP winning hordes of design awards, topping consumer satisfaction reports, beating other OSes at task-specific tests, and praise from camps including raging Apple fanboys... but this guy here? Nah... M$ is the worst. Has to be.
          • lumia 920 personal example

            Heres my examples on my lumia 920 that I bought and returned. I was excited to get a new phone. I liked iPhones software but I was worried about bending the phone. So I decided to get a lumia 920. I had tons of issues. Internet sharing didn't work for periods longer than 30 seconds. After it stopped working I had to restart the phone. Then I could get another 30 seconds out of it. Dust got under the front facing camera. I tried to restart the phone from scratch, and that caused the mac sync app to crash anytime I plugged the phone in, making it impossible to even sync any music to the phone. The phone crashed 2 or 3 times while I was trying to make a phone call. The 'touch' buttons on front constantly caused headaches for me, if I was typing something it's very easy to hit the back button -- this is just terrible design. After the complete failure to sync music. I decided this was a device by a company that didn't care about weather or not it worked well. It seemed untested and shoddy. After 2 weeks I hated my windows phone. I took it back and told them all the problems I had with it and they didn't charge me any fees for returning it because with so many issues it was basically defective. I got an iPhone 5 and love it. It actually works. Theres no bugs. There's tons of software available. And it's easy to use. User experience is everything.
        • Do iphone and ipad have a single UI?

          I remember how it really annoyed the apple fanboys when it was stated that the ipad was just a giant iphone. "Oh no, they have different UIs" we were told. And yes, they do have different UIs. You can tell that the the theme is the same but that the UI has been tweaked for a larger device.

          Anyone suggesting that WP and W8 have the same UI is an idiot. Yes, they share a theme but the UIs are tweaked for the device. Only an idiot can't see that.
          • Obviously

            You either are the idiot here or you are simply not very well informed…

            First of all they already “installed it” on the desktops no matter if the users want it or not.



            Windows 8 UI is supposed to be the UI of all Windows devices and of course this is the biggest fk up Microsoft has embarked until now. But I am sure they are stupid enough to see it to completion and of course I am already making plans to jump ship. This is a stupid direction if not for anything else just because the Metro UI is stupid and boring beyond belief.