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

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!
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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 Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

We continue our app challenge...

What about Facebook and Twitter?

Both Twitter and Facebook have beautiful, native Windows Phone apps.

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

How does it do in the car? I use GPS and Pandora constantly, along with links to my car's Bluetooth environment. Can Windows Phone keep up?

The Lumia Icon comes with Nokia Here Drive and Maps, an excellent self-contained GPS application. Where it shines compared to Google Maps is you can download entire map databases to your phone, so even if you're offline (or don't want to eat up your data plan), you can navigate.

One nit for an excellent product is that you must keep the downloader open when downloading the maps. If you switch off the downloader, the download process stops. For some reason, this thing can't multitask a download. Very odd.

Pandora also has a nice, native media app for Windows Phone.

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

Other than the weird maps download issue, there is no question that Windows Phone can keep up with my Android phone for mapping and tunes in the car. In fact, given that maps can be downloaded right out of the box, with no additional app purchase, the edge goes to Windows Phone.

I use my phone to control my Hue lighting system. Can Windows Phone do this, or will I have to reach for an iPhone or Android to turn on the lights?

Yep, as a matter of fact, there are more than ten (I stopped counting at 10) Hue-related apps in the Windows Phone app store. I downloaded a few of them and they worked just fine.

None of them allowed the kind of home screen control that I can do on my Android phone, but neither can the iPhone, but that's because neither Windows Phone nor iOS have real widgets.

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

Bottom line: if you use Hue and you move to Windows Phone, you'll be just fine.

My family uses Life360 to keep track of where we all are. We have some aging seniors, so this is a very key application for family management. Can Windows Phone handle this? 

This was another pleasant surprise for Windows Phone. I didn't expect a more specialized app like Life360 to be on Windows Phone, but there is a native app and it works just as smoothly as its cousins on the iPhone and Android.

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

I use a tool called Fing as a network diagnostic tool. What sort of network diagnostic apps are available for Windows Phone?

I found a number of network diagnostic tools on Windows Phone, which shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone, given Microsoft's server products. That said, Fing was not on the Windows Phone store and the applications that were there were not nearly as convenient or as nicely designed as Fing.

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

I have a couple of widgets that show on my home page, indicating whether my Web sites are up or down. Can I replicate this on Windows Phone?

Well, I spent about an hour digging through the Windows Phone store both on the phone and online, and I downloaded a number of promising apps. There are certainly apps for monitoring servers, but none (that I found) for showing that information on the main screen.

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

I'm still giving this a 2 because if you want to monitor servers, you can. The at-a-glance functionality and usability I find so helpful is missing, but if you had to check your systems, you can.

How does texting work and can I integrate Google Voice well enough to call out, get calls, and do the same with texts?

You can certainly send and receive texts and make and get calls on the Windows Phone. If you have a Google Voice number, you can route that number to your phone and people who call or text your Google Voice number can reach you.

Calling out and making sure that your receiving party gets your Google Voice number is much more crude... but still doable. Since Google discontinued XMPP support for Google Voice, third party apps can no longer do the job. However, you can still make calls and send texts using a pinned IE shortcut using Windows Phone 8.1's version of Internet Explorer.

Here's a video that explains it all:

It is crude as all heck, but it is doable. Would I want to live with this day in and day out? Heck no. But is it a survival tactic? Yeah.

  • Functionality on 0-3 scale: 1
  • Usability on a 0-2 scale: 0

Click on through for more Google snafus, plus some surprising wins and losses...

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.

So far, we've seen some wins and losses in the Windows Phone app challenge. How will it all pan out? Let's continue...

My primary editorial management tool with the other ZDNet and CBSi editors and project manager is Google Hangouts. Can I still chat with my team?

This was a bust. I found a couple of applications that claimed to connect with Google Talk, which, theoretically, would have allowed me to chat over Hangouts to my colleagues. However, none of them would allow use of app-specific passwords and they each wanted my main Google account password. Uh. No.

I also tried using just IE, but that turned out to be a bust. I was able to load a very nice Google Plus interface, and I could post to, but I was unable to get Hangouts notifications. I could send a Google Plus message to a specific individual, but from the point of view of rapidly collaborating with my team: no way.

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

I use the Logitech Alert system to monitor the grounds around my home. I have a great little app on both iOS and Android that I can check. Can I do this with Windows Phone?

Nope. There was no app, and when I tried to access the Web site interface using Windows Phone 8.1 IE, the site detected the use of a mobile browser and pointed me to downloads for iOS and Android.

When I told Windows Phone 8.1 Internet Explorer to identify as a desktop device, I could get the Logitech Alert login page, but since I wasn't running Flash, there was no joy.

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

How is Kindle reading on this thing?

Smooooth. This may well be one of the nicest Kindle readers I've used, because of the simply gorgeous screen that comes on the Lumia Icon.

In addition, you can pin the book you're currently reading to the home screen, and the result is a cover image of the book. The only downside is when the tile flips, it shows reading status in white text on a light orange background, which is useless.

But I'll say this: I use my iPhone now pretty much as a Kindle reader at night. The Lumia would do just fine replacing that function. It's a sweet reading experience.

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

I use Google Authenticator and another authenticator application for multi-factor authentication. Do I need to dig up my Android or iPhone to authenticate to services or can I use Windows Phone?

Here's where things get a little ugly (and worrisome). Google Authenticator does NOT run on this. There are skanky-looking third party apps that claim to generate auth codes and I've heard from some users that they work.

I do not feel comfortable using some third-party authentication code generator for my main second-factor security tool.

  • Functionality on 0-3 scale: 1
  • Usability on a 0-2 scale: 0

Because I use Google Authenticator for a lot of systems (not just Google applications), the lack of official Google Authenticator support might well be a deal-killer for me if I tried to use Windows Phone full time.

If Google doesn't create a Google Authenticator app for Windows Phone, and if one of the third-party apps works, I'd recommend to Microsoft that they acquire it, brand it, and bless it as safe. Otherwise, a lot of systems will be locked out for the lack of this one small app.

Evernote and Dropbox are critical daily-use tools. How do they stand up?

Evernote works fine on Windows Phone with a native app.

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

Dropbox does not have an app on the Windows Phone store. There are a number of third-party apps that may well be using the Dropbox API, but there are still security concerns using third party apps as the primary interface to Dropbox.

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

I'm giving it a 2 for functionality because you can get the job done, and while some of the apps are well done, they're not from Dropbox and that is somewhat worrisome. Therefore, in terms of seamless usability, I have to ding this requirement.

What about CrashPlan? With either iOS or Android, I can check and manage my offsite backups.

There is a native version of CrashPlan on the Windows Phone store. It works quite well. I was honestly surprised to find a CrashPlan app, but not a Dropbox app, but that tells you to never go into these things with preconceived ideas.

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

What about my password manager? I can use it on iOS and Android, Windows and Mac, but what about Windows Phone?

As it turns out, there's a native version of the password manager I use on Windows Phone. It works quite well.

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

What about Withings? I use Withings to manage weight and blood pressure, by connecting via Bluetooth to either Android or iOS. Can I do this with the Windows Phone?

I found a number of applications that worked with the Withings WiFi scale, but nothing that worked with the blood pressure monitor.

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

I've just started using Trello as an organizing tool. How well does that work on Windows Phone? It works just fine with very nice iOS and Android apps.

While the original-equipment Trello app doesn't exist on the Windows Phone store, there is a third-party app that implements Trello quite nicely. As long as you don't have anything that's particularly of a security concern, using Trello on the Windows Phone is a go.

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

Next up: the final grades and my concluding thoughts. Should you buy one? Click on...

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.

For the past few pages, we've been rating Windows Phone based on how well it works with a variety of apps I use every day on my Android phone. This is where it all comes together. How does it do? Should you buy one? If you do, will you like it?

Overall rating

Before we tally up the score, I have to say that the availability of some apps surprised me. I found a more complete app ecosystem on Windows Phone than I expected going in. That said, let’s tally up the score. 

  • Initial points at start: 5
  • Functionality: 42
  • Usability: 20
  • Overall grade: 67 of 100 or 67%

Before I tell you my final thoughts, I was curious how much the Google ecosystem skewed the results. So I pulled out the grades for Google Voice, Authenticator, and Hangouts and recalculated. 

  • Initial points at start: 5
  • Functionality: 40
  • Usability: 20
  • Overall grade: 65 of 85 or 76% (minus the Google apps)

My final conclusions

This is where the rubber meets the road. How well does Windows Phone meet the app challenge? Let’s remember that this particular challenge is based entirely on my usage model, and I’m just one person. But it’s fair to assume that everyone has their own unique usage model, and so we can (perhaps over generally) extrapolate one person’s app needs as an indicator of overall app success.


In terms of my usage pattern, factoring in the need to use Google systems for work-related activities, Windows Phone’s app ecosystem scored a 65 percent, or a relatively sad D. On the other hand, if you remove the Google requirement, the Windows Phone app ecosystem scored a 76 percent, or a C+.

Now, let’s be clear: C+ is not an A. But it is workable. Overall, I found more apps working for Windows Phone than I expected. I didn’t expect to find apps to control my lights, connect me to my family’s tracking software, or my backup software. But they were all there and that’s pretty exciting.

In this article, I haven’t mentioned the usability of the Windows Phone environment, and — with the exception of the Kindle app and wireless charging — haven’t spoken much about hardware. This decision tree is entirely about app availability. Honestly, if you’re choosing any form of computing device, you should always factor in whether you can do what you need to do when you buy the device.

So here goes:

  • If you live heavily in the Google ecosystem: you can get by with Windows Phone, but it will be an unpleasant struggle. Skip it.
  • If you need a few very specific apps: check to see if they are available for Windows Phone. If they are, go for it. If not, skip it.
  • If you love the availability of all sorts of apps for all sorts of things: you could survive with Windows Phone, but you’ll probably prefer iOS or Android
  • If you want to customize the home screen functionality: Android beats everything, but Windows Phone has potential. The failing is that all apps don’t handle dynamic tiles the same way and some of them do it downright poorly. If customizing your launcher is key to your use, go with Android. Otherwise, you might want to consider Windows Phone. It’s not perfect, but there’s some value.
  • If you are a Windows PC user with Office and Outlook: Windows Phone will be fine for you. There will be the usual Microsoft quirks, but you’re used to that.
  • If you’re just starting out and deciding on a smartphone: You might want to give Windows Phone serious consideration. They are available inexpensively, are relatively easy to use, and do a lot.

The bottom line

If you have no preconceptions about what apps you need or want to use, Windows Phone is surprisingly functional. But if you need specific apps or access to specific systems, do your homework. And, if you’re heavily integrated into the Google desktop world, using Windows Phone will be a challenge.

Windows Phone’s ecosystem is a lot further along than I had expected, but it has a way to go. Microsoft needs to pull out all the stops to bring in big applications (there is no excuse for not having a native Dropbox app, for example). But Windows Phone 8.1 does have some legs. It may not win the marathon, but it is a competitor.

If Satya Nadella came to me tomorrow and asked what he should do to make Windows Phone a success, I’d tell him to set up a billion dollar fund for developers. Ignore games, and make sure all the top-tier, second tier, and even third-tier apps (especially those with wide ecosystems like Dropbox) are ported over to Windows Phone. Many app developers are very small companies and a billion dollar war chest could most definitely convince a few thousand key developers to make the jump.

Without that, the more entrenched Android and Apple get, the harder it will be to get users to make the jump when the apps they rely on won’t jump with them.

As for me, I couldn’t do my job using Windows Phone, at least until there’s better integration with Google (and I’m not holding my breath on that). If I were to use it more as a gadget around the house to read Kindle books and make Skype calls, it would be fine. In fact, if I were keeping this evaluation unit, it would probably replace my iPhone 4S as my nightly Kindle reader with the Lumia. The screen is that much nicer.

Finally, I encourage Microsoft to introduce a non-phone Windows Phone. It might be a great way to get people used to the platform without requiring a contract.

What about you? We're always hearing from readers who love Windows Phone. What apps do you use? What about you iOS and Android users on the fence? Are you planning on switching?

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.

Editorial standards