Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Confessions of a Recovering Windows Phone User

After two years on the Windows Phone platform, I switched back to IOS to see how things had changed and what the Microsoft mobile ecosystem might be missing.  Here are my random observations so far, in no particular order or priority.

[Before the Android fans chime in, I absolutely will not trust Google with any of my personal communications, so don't waste time trying to convince me - it won't do you any good.  Just move along, nothing for you here.]

  • The only real innovation that Windows Phone introduces is the UI.  Everything else falls far behind the competition.  Don't get me wrong, the UI is hands down the best mobile experience IMO - it makes IOS look like a Palm Pilot circa 1999.  But that's where it ends.  There are so many little things missing, simple stuff that more mature platforms already have, that Microsoft will probably never catch up without doubling or tripling the size of their core development teams.  And that's what is needed just to keep pace - jumping ahead seems totally impossible at this point.

  • The predictive text typing experience in IOS is simply archaic.  Really, Apple, one choice and that's it?  But then that pretty much sums up the entire Apple experience, doesn't it?

  • Microsoft really needs to figure out their device specification story (CPU + Memory).  The iPhone 5S is blazing fast compared to all the latest WP devices.  Apps pop open, screen transitions are snappy, pages render quickly - none of which happened on any of the Windows Phones I tried.  The whole OS just feels sluggish.  I know a lot of that is the underlying app framework - believe me, I've been writing XAML code for years now and it can sometimes be excruciating even on the desktop - but perception is reality and it just feels like everything takes longer than it should.

  • Xbox music sucks.  In every way imaginable.  It's not like iTunes is so great - it's not - but XBOX music really is terrible.  Zune was and still is the best music app - why can't we get that experience on our phones/tablets?  It's not like they don't already have the code!  Get a grip and get it right.

  • The IOS email client may just be worse than XBOX music and that's saying a lot.  I stuck with WP because of email and it's almost enough to make me want to go back.  OWA on iPhone is OK but not the same as an integrated email app.  Apple obviously has no clue how real enterprise email works.

  • The app ecosystem is where it's at and Apple simply owns the appverse.  If Microsoft wants to have a prayer in mobile they'd better start doing anything and everything to get more apps.  And don't tell me that all the apps for IOS are junk.  That's a cop out - sure there's a lot of crap but there's so much quality stuff available it's frightening.  Even the crossover apps are better on IOS (like Facebook and Twitter just to name a couple).  Part of the problem here is the horribly fractured development story for phone and tablet, requiring completely different code for the two platforms.   As a Windows developer, I can attest that this is a real PITA; in IOS  I need only worry about screen size and some device functions but for my native platform I have three separate solutions (Windows 8, Windows 8 ARM, and Windows Phone) requiring different emulators, with different capabilities and using different sets of reference assemblies with varying  degrees of functionality.  It's maddening.  Microsoft has got to figure out a "write once, run anywhere" strategy and they need to do it fast.  But I fear it's probably already too late.

  • I had forgotten what a tremendous aftermarket there is for iPhone accessories.  There were maybe five cases for my HTC 8x and that was it.  Having an iPhone is like getting a never ending set of Legos - you just keep snapping things on until you are happy for a while then you tear it apart and start over.  Perhaps a reduction in the number of form factors would help Windows Phone in this regard (maybe Microsoft becomes the sole hardware manufacturer) but I don't see how anyone ever gets close to the sheer volume of iGadgets. 

  • One of the most refreshing aspects of being back on IOS is the unified messaging and video experience.  I travel internationally on a regular basis so staying in touch with the family is of utmost importance.  On IOS, FaceTime and iMesaage are baked in as native apps.  Even better, the messaging app automatically uses the free Apple service when the recipient is also on an IOS device.  That saves a ton on SMS charges - and if you think that's peanuts then you don't get out of the country very often.  On Windows Phone there's Skype which, honestly, just isn't anywhere close.  It's buggy, crashes often, doesn't sync messages across platforms reliably, and isn't integrated into the core OS.  I don't want a separate app for messaging that's separate from all my other messages - I want it all to be integrated with no thought required on my part.  Oh, and FaceTime rarely, if ever, crashes or fails to login.  Skype?  Um, yeah…

  • I know SkyDrive takes a lot of knocks but I rather like it and I wish it were integrated into my iPhone like it was on my Windows Phone.  Sure, the SkyDrive IOS app is OK but it was better on the native platform.  iCloud just isn't my style. AirDrop is an entirely different matter - it works great (so long as other iPhone users are the ones you want to share with) and SkyDrive could use a similar feature that makes it dead easy to share stuff without going through the invitation email process.  Yeah, I know Windows Phone has NFC tap and send but AirDrop just feels more natural and has the advantage of being able to connect to non-mobile devices (granted, they have to be Macs, so that's a big negative).  I suppose it's a wash but maybe some tweaks to SkyDrive could give Microsoft a leg up here. 

  • Apple made a huge blunder with their less-than-impressive maps application but even that is better than the horrible atrocity that is maps on Windows Phone.  A blind mule with a broken compass has more of a chance of finding an address than a Windows Phone user.  And trying to search for places within the maps app?  Just forget about it - the closest thing to you will always be "No results found".  Whip out your ten pound blue Nokia brick and try to find a location when you're anywhere an iPhone user and they will literally laugh until they can't breathe - not that you'll be able to hear them as they'll already have arrived at their destination (and found all the swank places to eat, booked a reservation, and ordered appetizers).  Of course, Apple can't do too much of a victory dance as I'm pretty sure the first app every iPhone user installs and anchors to the home screen is Google Maps but at least Siri can actually find stuff around you when you ask her nicely.  Which brings me to another big problem...

  • Voice control.  Wow, did Microsoft miss the boat on this one.  Apple is on their third iteration of this feature and Windows Phone still doesn't have anything comparable.  The built-in voice commands are a complete joke - it's impossible to even send "on my way" via SMS because you'll never even get it to find the right contact in the first place.  If it responds at all, that is, which is rare.  This isn't a make-or-break feature for me but it's handy when you're driving or walking around and don't want to break your neck while thumbing.  Siri isn't perfect by any means but she sure does run rings around anything Windows Phone can do.  I've read a few rumors that Microsoft is working on this but again that just brings them up to some level of parity - it doesn't move the needle towards "Awesome".

  • I thought I would miss Live Tiles but I don't.  Most apps don't really take advantage of them anyway and the ones that do are mostly just annoying.  The auto power saving feature when the battery reached a certain level was nice, and the low light mode was killer for discreetly checking messages in a movie theater, but what I really miss is the lock screen status icons.  I like being able to tell how many emails and messages there are without having to swipe but since Windows Phone completely lacks anything even approaching a notification center or control center the productivity advantage still resides with Apple (and yes, I know there are tweaks for jailbroken phones that allow the lock screen to be customized).  

  • Wow, is IOS 7 ugly.  I mean make-a-train-take-a-dirt-road F-U-G-L-Y.  As I mentioned at the outset, Microsoft scored a big win with Metro/Modern UI/Whatever The Heck We're Supposed to Call It interface and Apple hasn't figured out how to change their aesthetic in a similar fashion.  IOS 7 is a half-hearted attempt at keeping up and it shows - the unified visual theme from previous versions is now just a haphazard mess of melted crayons and disjointed fonts.  It makes my eyes hurt.  At least on a Windows Phone all the necessary commands were down at the bottom of the screen or hiding behind an ellipsis.  I can't even count how many times I've tried to press and hold an app icon in IOS trying to get to a context menu, or hunted for a back arrow, "Add" button, or some other basic navigational element which used to be easy to find.  Here's a big hint for Apple and all IOS app developers: we all use our thumbs on a phone.  Stop putting navigation elements at the top where they are hard to reach.  Put them at the bottom so they are actually within range of the digits we're using to interact with the device.  Time for all those pretentious design mavens in Cupertino to go back to the drawing board and come up with something entirely new - 'cause this is just embarrassing.    
One final thought.  The Microsoft culture encourages product managers to think small by constantly evaluating features using the dollar method ("you only have a dollar to spend so what are you going to spend it on and what are you going to cut?").  This puts the focus on getting lots of small, relatively unimportant features into the spec at the expense of big, earth-shattering features that burn the entire budget.  It's an approach that completely stifles innovation - you can't leapfrog the competition when you're constantly working under such contrived constraints. 

What the guys earning the big paychecks in Redmond really need to ask is this: Do we want to win this market?  If the answer is yes, then throw out the feature cutting exercises, put "whatever it takes" into the budget line item, and innovate until the competition screams for mercy.  It's too late for incremental improvements - you've got to go big or go home.  And no more excuses about cost cutting or politics or OEM's or anything else. Either mobile is important or it's not - make a decision. Because right now you're getting your butt kicked and it isn't going to change until the current play book gets thrown out the window and a new one is written from scratch.  Talking about how much your own captive market grew year over year when you're in a very distant third place isn't exactly a rallying cry for victory.  For Pete's sake, after several years and billions of dollars invested Windows Phone is still only a few points ahead of BlackBerry in market share and they're dropping faster than the mercury during a polar vortex. Even Charlie Sheen knows that's not the definition of "Winning!".

At the end of the day, I'm a Microsoft guy and I want them to succeed.  I tried really hard to stick with their mobile offering but I grew tired of waiting for them to deliver the goods.  I'd happily switch back if they can knock my socks off with a future release.  I really don't want the ghost of Steve Jobs dictating what I want, when I'm going to get it and how much I'm supposed to like it.  But whether we like it or not Apple is setting the pace in this market and I just don't have high hopes that the situation will change anytime soon.

(This post was thumbed on an iPhone 5S.  Now my thumbs hurt and I'm depressed.  Siri says I need a drink.  And now that I have become an Apple drone I must do what Siri tells me...)   


  1. Great post, Eric. Far more objective than most articles of this type.


  2. Great article. Thanks for taking the time to "Thumb It" (on an iPhone no less).

    I posted this to FB too.

    Great write up. LUV the Lego's Metaphor to iGadgets. As much as I like SkyDrive it was a ways to go (on all mobile platforms) - simple things like sorting pics / docs by date aren't there. A have also commented on the lack of "App Parity" on the multiple Windows environments. One of the great killers is what you pointed out ... they have at least three disparate platforms to support. Standards Matter! They cannot win the mobile war with non-interchangeable parts.

    btw --- Voice Dictation in Evernote is fantastic on the Windows Phone. Ironically, this feature does not exist in OneNote

    note: I have pretty much stopped talking about features and function stuff on the Microsoft Surface and Windows Phone platforms in 2014 because no one at The Big M seems to be listening. A few people reached out ... and I thank them for that. However, until "Knock my socks off" and "Change the World" features come out ... 3rd place is not good enough.

    Like you ... At heart I am a Microsoft guy. And Yes, I'm just one user, but I care(d) about the future of MSFT.

  3. Easily the most intelligent critique yet on this platform. I'm a WinPho fan and will never switch, it's kind of like sport teams for me so I too want to see Microsoft succeed and always await for them to blow me away. The Surface announcement was a good start.

    I now await "Cortana" but my greatest fear is that instead of it being a culmination of 20 years of natural language study and integration, it will instead be another v1.0 for us Credit Card carrying, early adopting, beta testers.

    Microsoft, read this, and take the opportunity to blow us away, sooner rather than later. That the same company that once had a CEO that ran around a stage screaming "developers, developers, developers" could now be at a point that they are pissing off developers is a very sad story, and makes no sense.

  4. Nice post Shupps. Totally agree on all counts as someone who's switched back to iOS too recently. A lot of the Microsoft Apps for iOS are "ok" but aren't great compared to competitors e.g. look at Spotify vs Xbox Music, or Dropbox vs SkyDrive. http://www.jeremythake.com/2013/10/back-to-iphone-5s-from-adventures-in-android-and-windows-phone-8-after-2-years/

    oh and I tried Android and only lasted 6 months. http://www.jeremythake.com/2013/03/why-i-stopped-compromising-with-windows-phone-8-and-moved-to-android/

  5. Solid post. I can't say I agree with everything here, but you make some very good points.

    Personally, I have hope that Microsoft will succeed with their mobile platform. They're global market share is rising with Windows Phone, and it's making an impact. They're actually #2 in a lot of countries, not #3, overtaking iOS in a good number of those places.

    That being said, a real Siri competitor and true Skype video/message integration would be a godsend. As would a decent music app (and I really appreciate your acknowledgement of Zune being the best media playing software out there).

    Lastly, I'd be careful to discount the the UI as its only innovative feature. The design of the platform shapes the entire platform itself, and its influence has spread to other companies. A flat look and feel, minimalism, and typography have been central in a lot of modern UXes and digital designs already, but Metro/Modern UI is a bold statement in a new direction. I see it as the future of how we interact with technology and software.

  6. Yes, Apple's "choice of one" approach can be frustrating, but a lot of the time sticking with their choice can change your mind.

    For example, in iOS 7 the new folders have been lambasted for only showing 9 icons per page. The howls of rage are still echoing around the internet - how dare Apple restrict their god-given right to put as many icons on screen as possible!

    Yet I've found that not only is it far easier to use folders now, but I've reduced the number of home screens from 10 to 3:

    Firstly, 9 icons is exactly what you see in the folder icon itself. This means that you can see where the app you want to open is in the folder page, and can position your finger in advance to open it. This makes it much faster to open apps.

    Secondly, 9 apps is more than enough for your "prime" apps - the ones you use or need to access within any one category. The rest - be honest now - are filler: ones you think you might use at some unspecified time in the future. I now barely ever drill down below the front page in any of my folders. Yet I can put more of the "nice to have" apps in each folder, which has cut down the number of folders hugely.

    Finally, the orientation of a 3 x 3 grid doesn't change when you move from portrait to landscape - so muscle memory can stay consistent.

    The net result is - for me - that Apple's choice was right. But I wouldn't have thought it before I was forced to use it.

  7. I'd like to chime in as well, since me and my wife actually just switched to WP from iOS. I came from an iPhone 5 and my wife from an iPhone 4. We now both own a Nokia Lumia 925.
    The reasons for it were mainly because we were both bored with iOS look & feel. after iOS7 my wife thought the 4 was crap. Myself, I've been playing with WP since WP7, but never got to actually switching for most of the reasons you state.
    However, after a month with the WP, we both have no intentions to switch back to iPhone anytime soon.
    Yes, we (especially me, actually) miss a number of apps, but in the end they were nothing I *really* need. Mind you we still have iPads, so we're not fully away from iOS.
    We're very fond of Nokia MixRadio, I've never been a fan of streaming music, having tried Rdio, Spotify and even iTunes Match streaming. iTunes streaming sucked especially when on the road, but MixRadio is awesome and works flawless. But it's a different approach, I admit.

    App eco system. Yeah, fully agree. I have around 2500 iOS apps. Many of them collected for evaluation purposes (educational research), but quite a few bought personally. Still, I only miss a few that I used daily. I can fall back to iPad, so no biggie here.

    Readability is a big plus on the WP. I am farsighted and in the last few years have had issues reading on the iPhone. Even with the retina I had to zoom in all the time or keep my iPhone at arm-stretched level. On the WP for some reason my arms aren't too short anymore. I have no clue why this is, possibly because the 925 has a slightly bigger screen.

    Voice control - crap on both since neither supports dutch for now. I'm fluent in english, but it's just awkward to talk english to a device if your native language isn't.

    Maps - Nokia Here is excellent and finds about everything. Apple Maps didn't even find a well known museum in the area when asked. Nokia Here Maps finds the smallest venue. Just awesome. Admittedly on iOS gMaps still is king, although for navigation I used Navigon.

    Typing on the WP is much nicer than iOS. First thing I did on iOS is to switch of the damnyouautocorrect. WP just works in that respect.

    Skydrive. Works excellent. Too bad there's no real Airplay possible. I tried streaming a movie on skydrive using our xbox but that was frustrating to say the least. Now I work around this by dumping my skydrive files into iTunes and playing them on my AppleTV. It's ok, but it's not Airplay and by far not seamless. Here's hoping for something similar for WP...

    Device wise, my 925 has a much better camera (app) and feels much more robust than my iPhone 5. Battery duration is also about double.

    after market accessories - I used to care about this, but after a lot of kickstarter stuff and cases, all I really used was the Glif and occasionally the Olloclip. The former is now available in a universal package (ordered, not yet received) and the Olloclip.. well, too bad. Maybe in the future.

    Anyway, a nice balanced piece, I wonder if in one or two years I will switch back to iOS again, maybe.

  8. Great article. I agree with everything. I will add that when I pick up my wife's 5S with Apple leather case I think it just feels perfect. On the other hand, I do not miss iTunes at all, especially the music match service.

  9. Well put, I tried the WP because I just needed a phone and to text. It suffices to where I will not be switching.
    But, I completely agree that the navigation is near useless and has led me down roads that shouldn't have that name applied (one of which I would have been concerned to take a pickup on, let alone the economy car I was driving)
    Good article and I hope the new culture of MS listening will hear this.

  10. They've addressed or are addressing most the points here in the year and a half since this post was written.

    Great talk at SharePoint Techfest yesterday, btw.

  11. A lot has changed since this post was written - there still aren't many usable apps for Windows Phone, Microsoft's market share has declined even further, and Windows Phone has become largely irrelevant. It was a noble effort that was pretty much doomed from the outset. Windows 10 and Universal Apps aren't going to change that, either - market share will stay about the same mainly due to cheap phones being given away with carrier contracts. WP is DOA.