Yes, I'm buying a Windows Phone (but not today)

Over the past few months, I've had plenty of hands-on time with the Windows Phone OS, enough to be sure I want a Windows Phone. But I'm not ready to buy one today or even this month. Here's how I made my decision.

Monday was the first day you could buy a Windows Phone 7 device in the United States. By every indication, this is a relatively low-key launch. I'm pretty sure I would have heard if any riots had broken out. Everything seems calm out there, and it's pretty safe to bet that today's debut isn't going to set any smartphone sales records.

To its credit, Microsoft appears to be in this race for the long run, and they're off to a solid start, at least from a technology point of view. I've had enough hands-on time with the Windows Phone OS to know it very well, having used a prototype device for several months and a new, retail-packaged phone for the past two weeks. (The latter was supplied by Microsoft as a review unit. I pay all service fees, and the phone goes back to Microsoft on or before November 22.)

Based on my experience, I'm sure I want a Windows Phone. I'm also certain I'm not going to run out and buy one right away. As smartphones go, it's a worthy contender with the iPhone and Android-based devices, but it still has some growing up to do, and I'm willing to wait a little longer. If Microsoft and its partners are really committed to this platform, my decision should be much easier in a few months.

I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all answer to smartphone buying decisions. In fact, I think asking the right questions up front is far more important than comparing feature lists or specs. Your decision might be very different from mine, depending on how you answer those questions and whether your circumstances are different than mine.

Here are the big questions, as I see them.

Which carriers can you coexist with?

If AT&T offers coverage where you live and work, you can choose an iPhone 3GS or 4 or one of the two AT&T Windows Phone models. That's a very nice choice to have. For me, unfortunately, AT&T isn't an option. In a 25-mile radius around our home, AT&T doesn't even offer 3G service, and there are no plans to ever build out that instrastructure here, as far as I can tell. Coverage is terrible in my house, and non existent in my office. I can remedy that failure with range extenders and microcells, but those drive costs up quickly.

Yes, my AT&T phones work fine on business trips to Seattle or the Bay Area, but a great hometown experience is essential, and AT&T fails that test for me. The last straw was the other night, when we were driving slowly along a dark street on a moonless night trying to find a friend's house on the other side of town. Neither my wife's iPhone nor my Windows Phone could find any trace of AT&T signal. The same thing happened last year on an equally dark street on a very cold and icy Christmas Eve. Those are the times when a mobile device can literally become a lifeline. AT&T gets a failing grade.

I know from personal experience that Verizon's network is rock solid around this whole area, including the neighborhood where we were briefly lost the other night. But Verizon doesn't have any Windows Phone devices right now. Maybe in 2011, around the same time they get the iPhone? I'll believe that when I see it. [Update: As a commenter notes, Windows Phone devices are coming to Sprint in early 2011, so I'll have another option to test if I wait a while.]

T-Mobile is the only other carrier with Windows Phone options in the U.S. today, with two models to choose from. I've watched guests and contractors struggle to make calls on T-Mobile devices in this house, so I don't have tremendous confidence that it's going to work for me, but I have to at least try. I see a visit to the T-Mobile store in my future, with the goal to take one of these devices home for some field testing.

Page 2: Does size matter? Is it easy enough to use? -->

<-- Previous page

Does size matter?

At PDC10 I was able to hold and briefly use a very broad range of Windows Phone devices. I used a prototype device (the Samsung "Taylor") for about two months before that and have had the HTC Surround for long enough to adjust to its dimensions. The Windows Phones I looked at are similar in size, with screens measuring diagonally from 3.8 to 4.3 inches; Microsoft dictates the screen resolution of 480x800.

The Surround is thicker than the others, because it has a good sized stereo speaker that slides up above the screen and a kickstand that props it up in landscape mode. I found the pop-up speaker gimmicky and not good enough to justify the extra bulk. The kickstand made it possible to share a YouTube video, but I found it surprising unpolished that the Zune interface remained in its portrait mode (and thus appeared sideways) during music playback with the screen tilted.

I'll want a thinner device.

Is it easy enough to use?

My HTC device arrived in retail packaging. I set it up in my hotel room after midnight, and the process took all of about five minutes using my Windows Live ID. I connected the mail hub to my Exchange Server account the next day, a process that also took only a few minutes. Because I've used Windows Live for a long time and have connected my Facebook and LinkedIn accounts to that Live ID, updates and contacts from those services appeared automatically in my People and Pictures hubs. Someone who hadn't already been through that process might have to do more to get to that same level of connectedness

There have been plenty of other exhaustive reviews, complete with descriptions, pictures, and video clips. I don't need to repeat those details here. If you're interested, I recommend the lengthy hands-on pieces from Joshua Topolsky and the Engadget team, Peter Bright at Ars Technica, and of course ZDNet's own Matt Miller.

My extended experience with two devices tells me that the OS is very comfortable and fluid. The interface design is very easy to understand and using the buttons become second nature quickly. The response of the touch screen is quick, with no lag in any of my real-world use. When it has a solid signal, it completes calls that sound great. I have yet to drop a call, no matter how I hold the phone.

I have historically been biased toward physical keyboards, but the soft keyboard in Windows Phone 7 has nearly won me over. I made many more mistakes on my iPhone keyboard than I've made on this device, and with AutoComplete I find myself very quickly tapping out messages that I would never have attempted with the iPhone. The Android keyboard appears to have been made in the same spirit, although the Windows Phone soft keyboard feels more polished than the one I used briefly back in August and September (see Why I dumped my Droid).

Are you confident in the platform?

Are you ready to make a two-year commitment on a brand-new platform? (Or are you willing to pay an early termination fee if you quit partway through?) There's no question that the iPhone/iPad ecosystem will be thriving in two years, and Android seems to have that same momentum. Will the Windows Phone ecosystem evolve? Will the software itself evolve? Will it be able to keep up (or at least not fall behind) as competitors deliver new features? Those are big questions whose answers will only be obvious in six months or a year--and even then the story might still be incomplete.

Right now there are missing pieces in the Windows Phone user experience that are annoying. The most obvious is the lack of copy-and-paste support, which will be delivered in an update early next year. You can't define a Wi-Fi connection manually from the Wi-Fi Settings screen, which means reaching a hidden SSID is impossible. I've been unable to receive any MMS messageson my new phone. None of these issues are dealbreakers, but I expect them to be dealt with quickly. If they're not, that's a bad sign.

And if you're a fan of Apple's FaceTime, you'll note that there's no front-mounted camera in any of the five current Windows Phones, so a similar video chat capability is out of the question, at least for now.

Are there enough apps? I find "Whose app store is bigger?" arguments to be pretty ludicrous. You need a solid core of useful apps to extend the platform, and you need enough momentum for developers to build apps for iOS and Android and Windows Phone and Blackberry. The initial selection in the Windows Phone app store is acceptable, but it needs to show sustained growth to prove that the platform is viable.

Page 3: What about apps and the iPod effect? -->

<-- Previous page

 

One complaint I read occasionally is that the Home and Apps pages on the Windows Phone OS are somehow harder to navigate than pages on an iPhone. Having used both devices for months, I don't see a difference. On a Windows Phone, you swipe up and down to move through a scrollling list of available options; you quickly find a rhythm that lets you see a page or so at a time. On an iPhone you swipe from side to side to see pages full of icons (with subfolders if your device supports that feature. After a while, either action feels pretty natural.

If you're addicted to apps and want a steady stream of new mini-programs and games to play with, Apple's platform is a sure thing, while Microsoft requires a leap of faith—and some patience.

Can Microsoft convince iPod users to switch?

The biggest barrier that Microsoft has to overcome with Windows Phone is the phenomenal success of the iPod and iPhone. An entire generation has grown up with its music delivered via iTunes and played on white earbuds. There's an iPod in every iPhone, and while a Windows Phone has an arguably more usable, more powerful alternative in the Zune software and service, Microsoft hasn't created a compelling migration story. And even if they perfectly deliver the "How to make your life better by switching from iTunes to Zune" message, it's hard to overcome the momentum of a decade's worth of iPod success.

Anyone who writes off the Windows Phone platform is being short-sighted. The smartphone market is still growing, and both Apple and the Android platform managed to go from 0 to big numbers very quickly. In fact, it's instructive to remember the iPhone's many shortcomings when it first came out. It lacked 3G support, there was no app platform at all, it cost $500, and it couldn't talk to an Exchange Server. Apple fixed all those flaws and dropped the price over the course of a year and has continued to improve the platform steadily since then. Microsoft's challenge is to fix its own flaws and improve its own platform just as quickly and just as decisively. I'm willing to wait—and watch carefully—to see whether that progress occurs. But I'm not willing to wait forever.

Meanwhile, I'm inviting my friends with T-Mobile devices to come over this week and help me find out whether it's a credible alternative to AT&T. I certainly hope so.