Windows Phone apps: A choice between (Metro) style and substance?

Windows Phone apps: A choice between (Metro) style and substance?

Summary: The just-released Untappd app on Windows Phone 8 looks almost identical to the iOS and Android versions. Is this a problem? Should it be?


Over the past couple of days, two new Windows Phone 8 apps have some wondering what it means to be a "Metro"-style application these days.


When Microsoft announced the beta of the Microsoft-developed Facebook app for Windows Phone 8, many wondered aloud why it didn't take advantage of the usual Metro-Style conventions, especially around navigation.

The same is happening today, May 2, with the rollout of the Untappd beer-enthusiast app for Windows Phone 8. The Windows Phone 8 Untappd app looks almost identical to the iOS and Android versions. Some Windows Phone and Windows developers are not happy about this and have been taking the Untappd developers to task on Twitter.

Full disclosure: I had the chance to beta test the Untappd Windows Phone 8 app for the past month-plus.I like the Untappd app. It lets users keep tabs (pun intended) on beers they drink, comment on and toast other friends' beer check-ins and even upload beer-enthusiast pics. (How many different pictures of a pint of beer can you upload? Endless, if my feed is any indication.) Untappd claims half a million registered users and 28 million beer check-ins to date.

Do I care that it doesn't use Metro conventions for navigation? I don't. What matters more to me is the Metro look and feel of the overall Windows Phone OS platform than a specific app adhering to some kind of Metro-Style guidelines -- a similar sentiment to what Windows SuperSite's Paul Thurrott described with the Facebook app for Windows Phone 8.

I talked to Untappd Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer Greg Avola today about how the two-man shop that is Untappd developed the Windows Phone app.

Avola said he used PhoneGap to take the existing Untappd code and port it to Windows Phone. He went this route because Untappd started out as a Website. The Untappd guys then rolled out local apps simultaneously for iOS and Android phones.

"We use PhoneGap for all our apps. It lets us be flexible in writing our own code. You build it like it's a mobile site and then you customize it," explained Avola.

While Untappd got quite a few requests for a Windows Phone version, Avola said they decided to wait until the Internet Explorer browser was more standards-adherent before moving ahead.

"A Windows Phone version of our app has always been in high demand, but the HTML5 support just wasn't there on Windows Phone 7," said Avola. "Our app was built mostly for WebKit, so we had to redesign our code to make it work with IE," he added.

The initial port to IE took only four hours after dropping it into PhoneGap, he said. But then a number of tweaks and fixes were needed to make it work correctly on Windows Phone around custom fonts, layout and touch events. Some last-minute bugs (found by Microsoft) and stringent rules around the distribution of alcohol-related apps delayed the planned Untappd app on Windows Phone 8 by about a month, Avola said. But all in all, developing for Windows Phone went more smoothly than many had led Untappd to believe, he said.

Is it a case of (Metro) style vs. substance?

In building Untappd for Windows Phone, "we tried to conform to enough of the UI standards but to still create a common experience across all the platforms," said Avola.

In other words, as Untappd's other employee, Co-Founder and Designer Tim Mather tweeted, Untappd designed for the app, not the device.

This common experience benefits Untappd when updating and refreshing its app with new features. A common look and feel makes it easier to push updates simultaneously across all phones, he said. That said, he did note that the feed design which debuted in the Windows Phone version of the app appeared first on Windows Phone; it will be coming soon to iOS and Android.

The bottom line is publishers and brands seem to own the right to deliver the UI experience of their choice for Windows Phone apps as long as they meet the basic Store certification requirements. On Windows Phone, this means apps need to adhere to certain rules around things like the Windows Design Language, live tiles, wallpapers and such. But it doesn't seem to mean Windows Phone versions of apps won't adhere to the developers' own design rules and principles.

Thoughts, Windows Phone developers? Is it better to have more apps, more frequently updated if that means they might not be as different/Metrofied on Windows Phone? Does it really matter if Windows Phone apps look and feel like Android and iOS ones, as long as the overall "Metroness" of Windows Phone itself remains?

Topics: Windows Phone, Android, iOS, Microsoft, Software Development, Web development


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • It should have been

    Metro. You must respect the UI's language in my opinion.
    Throw All The Things
    • Yes and no...

      As long as it is familiar enough that a user familiar with the WP8 interface doesn't feel lost, it should be ok.

      Using non standard gestures, for example, should not be allowed, but having additional gestures or slightly different shaped elements, as long as they are recognisible and in the correct place, shouldn't be a problem.
      • Agreed but

        I just checked and this app is getting a ton of negative reviews because of it being non-metro like. If there is an app that I really want, I guess I would still want it no matter what but I don't want this to be a trend. I don't want my Lumia to look like an iPhone or an Android at all. I love what Microsoft has done with WP8.
        • Windows Phone getting bad reviews

          @MCTronix: I just checked the world wide web and windows phone is getting a tone of negative reviews for being metro based. The same thing goes for Windows RT tablets and Windows 8.

          Most regular people are not in "love" with Metro and if MSFT wants their platform to have more than a snowball's chance in hell of surviving, they need to be more flexible and possibly rethink this "metro" strategy. They also need to start telling their fanboys to shut the hell up and stop chasing away developers who are willing to make the effort to make a port. They should not expect everyone who bothers to write for Windows phone to do a complete rewrite and redesign of the UI just for windows phone given the really low marketshare.

          The reality is that windows phone is a really small niche platform with a shrinking base of interested developers.
          • Metro in Windows Phone...

            ...has been universally praised on every major tech site. Those users who criticize it are, according to my own observation, non-Windows Phone users but fans of other platforms mostly engaged in troll wars. You know how it is.

            But when an app gets negative reviews in the Store, that means some actual WP user has downloaded and tested it. That's significant because this guy likes his phone enough, and dislikes the app. So the app is not appealing to the actual users of the phone, not someone who is criticizing the entire platform out of spite.
            Ehsan Irani
          • Flexibility is a good thing

            "has been universally praised on every major tech site" -Precisely, which does not in any way translate anything about the general populace. Check out sales for votes by consumer. If one likes one's phone, then Windows has done its job. If he doesn't like the app, then he really does not have to use it. It is a darn app, not an OS. I would much rather have the app than to not have it because it has to to adhere to some kind of design mantra/edict. As long as it works--and obviously with many liking this app on other platforms, it works. It should of course have live tiles, same gestures, etc. but really who cares if it has a different look once you get inside it.
            And MS and WP converts are not trying to get the already converted users to WP, they are trying to convert others. And a case could really be made if you change OS which is a big jump, some familiarity with already used apps is in itself a good thing. Learning to use a new OS is one thing, but re-learning how to use every app you have already become accustomed to on a different platform is entirely a different matter.

            It is much more important to have it than not have it.
          • brickengraver: "The general populace"? Then, you don't know what you're

            talking about, since, the vast majority of the "general populace", and the vast majority of actual computer users, have not tried Windows 8 yet. Which then, logically, makes your comments complete nonsense.

            People cannot comment on things they don't know anything about, and others, like you , cannot speak for the majority of people either. Nobody has ever conducted a study where the majority of consumers have been queried about Windows 8 or the "metro" interface. So, don't pretend that you can speak for others. All that you are is a very biased troll and a Windows/Microsoft detractor.
    • No you don't.....

      As a Windows Phone user from the beginning I like the metro look and feel, but I don't want the Windows Phone platform to be one that is not accepting to what the developers want to make their app look like. It is not Microsoft's app and so its not their decision. Sure it would be nice to have metro for most apps, but I rather see apps come to the platform than to be picky and make them adhere to something they don't want to and ultimately push developers away. People amaze me sometimes with their attitudes towards things that really just don't matter that much to regular folks, they rather have the apps than just a few apps with a certain UI.
      • Then don't buy it

        After all, that is what people say about Windows 8; if you don't like it then don't buy it and when given a choice many do not.
        • What?

          I'm just saying that let the developers choose their course, no more no less. I thoroughly enjoy my Windows Phone, but I am not the type to say a developer must adhere to a certain design language or else. I will buy a Windows Phone no matter what developers choose as their design language.
        • People can not buy something yet give feedback..

          ..long as they truthfully tried and have used the product. That's like not liking the direction Windows is going and not having the ability to say your thoughts on it. I have tried and won't buy Windows 8. Shouldn't mean that i can't talk about why i don't like it.

          I haven't tried the phone out, so i can't say much about Windows on a phone. IMO it looks like MS should stick with trying to keep the desktop/laptop user base happy instead of trying to push out something that could potentially end them.
      • @OhTheHumanity: Well Stated! I think some will complain,

        just to complain and put down those platforms they don't like. So they find, sometimes the most trifle thing to complain about so theyan then push their own ego's and agenda...
    • You'll kill Windows Phone doing that.

      Restricting the look of applications will keep the software base from growing on Windows Phone. Having no software will keep it from growing. The majority of developers want a uniform look for their applications across all platforms. They want to maintain one code base. They want to maintain one user interface. If you make it illegal to do this, most developers will simply stop developing for Windows Phone. That would prevent Windows Phone from becoming popular.
      • Strongly Agree

        I will never develop for a platform that is egregious in restricting my creative freedom.

        On a scale of 1-10, Windows Phone is at least an 8 [pun intended, MJF. :)].
        Le Chaud Lapin
    • Strongly Disagree

      We're talking about an HTML5 app here that uses a platform agnostic user interface. While there is some benefit of having a consistent platform UX for every version, the cost to the developer would significantly increase. Requiring that would decrease the number of apps developers could push out and would lead many developers to only adopt the platform with the largest market share. As long as developers are using interfaces that adhere to standard UI guidelines and are not trying to replicate a specific platform's look, then I'm fine with it.
      Future Soon
    • An age-old question

      This isn't new. There has always been the OS UI vs Application UI issue.... are you OS UI guidelines so rigid that an application with its own established UI is going to have to bend or simply not port? This was actually a big deal in the earlier days, as custom UI written on UI-less operating systems migrated to the new OS UIs..

      And sometimes even beyond that. I worked for a company back in the mid 1990s that had its own very specific UI. This ran on OS/2, MS-DOS, Windows, various embedded platforms. But MacOS was left out, as it made the UI consistency all but impossible.

      That probably won't prevent a port to a very popular platform anyway. But when you have the tiny share that Windows Phone has today, recommendations are fine for the UI, but start enforcing that, and the platform will be sending away otherwise interested app developers.
    • Wrong...

      ...with such a small market-share, Microsoft is in no way capable of forcing developers to work "their" way... I know this will enrage WP enthusiast, but it's a predictable outcome.

      The more cross platform the apps become, the less tailored they will be to a particular platform.

      Ironically, this will tend to favor Android in a strange way.

      Most apps will start as iOS and "first try" layout using Apple conventions and APIs. Once they have mastered the app thing, they will push for a common "platform" using Android as a basis.

      Afterwards, they will push back that end result to Android and iOS and then continue the process for "fringe" OSs (BB10, WP7/8, Symbian, Ubuntu, etc.)

      That's what Facebook did, then Twitter, Foursquare and LinkedIn. All others will follow.
      • No your wrong

        In that you say it would enrage an enthusiast, I would totally agree with your point of Microsoft cant force developers.

        Personally I really like my wp8 I dont care how the app looks apart from the live tile for my home screen. Once I'm in the app all I want is the app to do the best job it can. the home screen is important to the overall ascetic of the UI and the app should be left to the way the developer wants it.

        The people who might become enraged by your comment are the super zealots! LOL
    • Get rid of Metro soon as possible

      Non Metro is good....anything that is MORE skeumorphic is better. I dont pay this kind of money for an etch a sketch look. We want buttons to look like buttons to push, shelves for my books and file folder to look like files we work with , not little square blocks.

      Stop with this Hello Kitty childish nonsense. If you can not write code that runs on today's hardware in a sufficiently fast and decent manner...get new job . Wanted to stick with Windows and had hopes for their tablets...but the apps suck on Win 8. I do use the Win8 phone, but its apps are nothing like the ones on the desktop. They actually work. But the Win8 mail is just silliness. Why have a nice 27 inch monitor with these little blocks and giant eye poking white screen on them. More like a giant game of Tetris rather then an OS. nd the new Office is horrid....such glaring Whiteness is nasty.
  • Metro apps are pretty, but not always functional...

    Microsoft needs to compromise a little bit. The clean, flat UI of Metro is good. The not-being-able-to-find-anything is not good. It's particularly frustrating for Windows users who are used to being able to do whatever they want with Windows.