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

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:


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?

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.

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.

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

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


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Thank You!

    It is very interesting to see how a user with specific needs can/cannot tailor their use to a Windows Phone. I appreciate the non-biased article. It has certainly helped me in my decision about whether or not to make the jump to WP this fall. I really wish Google would open up their services to WP. It is a shame that they have not so far. Microsoft, make the $1B fund!
    • Google is becoming odd

      Google has some services for Windows Phone, such as the Google search app. However - Since Windows Phone 8 there is no technical reason why Google couldn't port there apps for Windows Phone. Some big wig at Google is choosing not too, just like Apple. Apple could easy port apps like facetime, etc, but ohh no that would be too nice of them. Google please stop behaving like Apple. Fact is that Microsoft has the most cross platform apps.
      Sean Foley
      • Apps

        I'm a Lumia user, have a MacBook, and a Samsung Android tablet. If you're invested heavily in one ecosystem, I understand why people want to stay with it. The app argument to me, it's just old. My God, why not just look something up with a web address? I use to use a Droid and the sea of widgets made me sick. My experience with WP 8.1 has been great. Wireless charging built in, off line maps that use no data(like the writer said), Cortana(in beta it's just fantastic!) with location based reminders, etc. People say Windows phone isn't customizable, apparently haven't used it. The live tiles are great, not static icons....widget widget widget..
        You can pin just about anything to the home screen, change the size, color, background... My girlfriend was a die hard Android fan for years, she gave it up for a Lumia 928. Xenon flash, best photos, especially in low light. There's a place for all the ecosystems... Choices are good for the consumer! Cheers to all!
        • the problem with LIVE...

          the problem with any thing LIVE on you home screen is that it suck the life out of the battery. I got rid of all my LIVE background and anything LIVE to save on battery life.
          • battery & Live

            I haven't switched off Live yet- however my 1520 outlasts my previous Note 3 by some margin (though not as long lasting as my G Flex). I could try turning off the Live feature. However, it's led to me discovering more interesting content than I have done on android or iOS- and there's something exciting and interesting with the changing WP interface compared to iOS and even android with widgets (which I was a heavy user of). iOS doesn't get in the way of the apps I want to use. Android allows me to tinker with the UI a lot (not necessarily adding a lot of value, but fun). WP gives me an interface that is fresh, without me having to customise too much and which allows me to manage things the way I want to more easily (e.g. having a tile for a specific book I'm reading). There's something about the way WP uses the screen space and the up/down scrolling that suits my usage very well compared to android (even when I set phones to be 5 columns by 6 rows).
          • Live Tiles vs Widgets/Live background

            MS has done pretty good at limiting the impact of LiveTiles on the battery. It also limits the functionality compared to widgets but I thinks it a good balance.
          • I just can't understand you Microsoft lackies!

            What every. Go play with your settings to make your battery last longer. A long lasting paperweight is really not that much more useful that a paperweight that stops working all together. They BOTH just sit there, being heavy and useless!
            NoMore MicrosoftEver
          • I just don't understand

            you scroogle lackies, my droid got about 4 hours of battery life with NO apps on it except the crappy ones it came with. My Lumia Icon will go two days with live tiles and me actually using it for more than emergencies. lagdroid is the bane of the phone os and scroogle is an unscrupulous company.
          • .....

            You must have had a bad battery . My Note 2 gets 2 to 3 days on a battery with average daily use.
          • And who is

            better? Not Android unless you want to go through 3 different things to get where you want. Or iOs for that matter.
            Tom French
          • No it is not a problem . . . .for me.

            I have several live tiles, and I usually have in excess of 60% battery when I plug it in at night. Samsung ATIV S Neo.
          • Wow,

            I have a lumia 1020. Used it for 5 months. Never turned off Live tiles and I get 2-3 days per charge if I am not watching videos or using the Bike Tracking App.

            I plug it into my computer, it presents as a disk drive and charges at same time, so never even use the wall plug charger.

            Really wonder what your Live Tiles are doing Sir. Really wonder ....
      • Also

        Google Authenticator? Why not just use the official Microsoft Authenticator, he didn't have to use a third party authenticator. If he can trust Google's Authenticator app, I don't see why he should have less trust in the Microsoft version.

        When I switched, I just enteres "microsoft authentikator" (I'm in Germany, so German app names) and it was at the top of the list.

        Google's active blocking of WP is a shame. MS play nice in the other direction...
        • MA

          I agree, this is what I use for all sites, and it is an official Microsoft App! Try this one David and update the score!
          • The updated score ...

            The updated non-Google score would be 70 out of 85 = 82% == B-
          • Agreed -- also web monitoring

            There's a nice app called Pingdom Pulse for monitoring your Pingdom account (both free and paid accounts). It has live tile support, etc. Since that app got only a 2/5 score, it seems it would be raised significantly with inclusion of this app.
        • Thank you

          I was hoping someone would mention this. Google's and Microsoft's authenticator apps work the same way.
        • Microsoft plays nice?

          Have not had a laugh like that since I don't know when.
          Microsoft's DNA is play to obliterate, it just doesn't work anymore.
          • That is every business' strategy...

            Microsoft just had the tools and balls to make it happen with Billy boy behind the wheel.
          • And the red ink.

            They can keep trying and you silly MS boys can keep revealing yourselves with your passionate support for your God, er, boss.
            NoMore MicrosoftEver