Writer bias: former longtime Windows Phone fan; current Android user; invested in Windows ecosystem.
When Windows Phone 7 came out I was excited. At the time Android was a poor imitation of iOS and iOS was boring. I loved the squares that flipped. The unique blocks of colours. The smoothness of use. “Metro” was minimalism taken to the extreme and it was great. I picked up a Omnia 7 and couldn’t be happier, obnoxiously pushing it on all my friends. Over the years the UI grew and changed, moving away from a lot of its initial design conventions although I never felt it lost its soul. I was a loyal fan buying almost every new flagship. However, 6 months ago when it was time to upgrade I did the unthinkable. I got a droid.
So as I wave good bye let me break down what I liked and disliked about the platform and what went wrong.
WP UI number 1!
Windows Phone interface to me was the best feature. It was minimalist, fast and succinctly conveyed a lot of information. More information than grids of plain icons. The metro squares that flipped to show more information are something I miss and are unmatched by things like widgets on Android. The only downside is many apps didn’t support live tiles in meaningful ways.
The second feature of WP I liked was the flow of use. Each action felt like it flowed into the next due to good animations and app design. Multitasking felt very easy to use. I think a lot of the “flow” feeling I got with WP was the use of swiping rather than tapping which made navigation feel more organic somehow.
When apps were properly designed for Windows Phone’s they worked amazing. Traditional app design is a menu with buttons that take you to screens with various functionality. App’s are file tree’s where you go down different paths to end up at the screen with the function you want. Windows Phone pioneered something different. Apps were supposed to have a single big picture stretched over all the main screens and then you would swipe between the different screens with the section of picture serving your reference point. One of the greatest things about WP was its focus on showing information through design rather than text.
I don’t know what it is about the keyboard that I loved so much. Swiping and tap typing seemed more seamless to switch between compared to Android/iOS. The icons for each letter were squares that touched each other so unlike other keyboards there wasn’t much dead space. This made letters feel a lot easier to hit. Being able to drag your finger and then release on the letter you want was a nice feature. Being able to double tap uppercase to capitalise your selection was also useful. I’m sure you could find a keyboard on Android that allowed much of the functionality however from my experience nothing I’ve used has surpassed the WP keyboard.
One of my favourite parts of Windows Phone was the beautiful devices produced for it. Both HTC and Nokia created, I think, the best looking phones ever made. Nokia’s unashamed use of polycarbonate housings created vibrant designs. Unlike today where everything is metal or plastic pretending to be (yuck). I wish the polycarbonate designs had stuck around and everyone didn’t abandon them because there were a lot of advantages with things like scratches and breakability. I’m not sure what’s happened to phone design recently but I find the current Android standard’s pretty ugly and most of what Samsung does an assault on my eyes.
What I liked most about the platform was the vibe. Ironically, I guess, the whole project was built off the mantra “think different.” I assume in the disorganised days of Steve Ballmer, where everything except Office was ignored, the mobile team was allowed to push boundaries and try new things. People expected WP7 to be the mobile port of Windows 7: plain grids of icons like Windows Mobile and the competition. Maybe some funky aero backgrounds to top it off. What we got was the only drastically innovative OS design ever made since the iPhone rose to power. This ethos permeated the user base of Windows Phone. In general users were older and counter culture. The app developers had a focus on innovating and doing things differently to conventions. I assume people involved with any fringe platform (e.g. Linux) are much the same.
So here’s where things get less rosy. The issue with Windows Phone is Microsoft is too stubborn to let it die but not willing to expend resources to make it viable. Microsoft hasn’t seriously pushed it since the end of Windows Phone 7 as by then it had become clear the platform wasn’t going to blitzkrieg to 13% (as some analysts predicted). The platform ekes along at the edge of relevancy in a weird quasi state. The fear as a user is when the plug is going to be pulled. Not just for the platform itself but also for the ever dwindling dev base.
As a result, Windows Phone gets a worse port of everything. Even Microsoft’s first party apps like OneDrive and Office in my experience work better on Android. This really shouldn’t be the case. The truth with the platform is you will have 95% of applications you need. However, the quality has no guarantee. Your bank app will likely have the basic functionality of the mobile site for instance. For most of the big social media apps (Reddit, Snapchat, Instagram, Vine, YouTube etc.) you have to use 3rd party work arounds. However, making it big on Windows Phone doesn’t mean flappy bird riches so even apps like Metrotube that almost everyone uses don’t generate the income to ensure full time dev teams. Therefore, you basically have to hope that your favourite apps’ developers stay inspired and continue to support their project. There are a lot of abandoned apps that float around on the Marketplace that people still have to use due to lack of alternatives. These are usually in the process of slowly breaking. Bacconit (Reddit client) was an example of this.
Finally, carrier support is awful. Know-it-all phone salesmen constantly shove in your face how ubiquitous their Galaxy Whatever and iPhone are. “Oh why are you using that?” “Oh I use this and I have no issues at all.” “You really should think about switching to x POS droid we stocked too many off.” The reason that eventually pushed me away for good was when the flagship Windows Phone (Lumia 930) didn’t even get the Windows 10 update because my carrier just decided not to bother.
So who should go out and pick up a Windows Phone?
If you’re one of those people who doesn’t use any social media then this is the platform for you. If you only use the big apps like Facebook, YouTube and Reddit then you will do fine… assuming you don’t mind missing out on the occasional feature. However, if you are already invested in the ecosystem on other platforms then swapping over will be difficult. And you always have to keep in mind that some killer app might one day come along that you want to try but can’t e.g. Pokemon Go.
Windows is currently on the right path by integrating their platforms, if it becomes relatively easy to port tablet and desktop apps to the mobile OS that will work wonders. But I think Microsoft needs a big relaunch when they’ve sorted the platform. They also need to spend money paying devs to port to WP. I think a good goal would be ports of all 100 top apps on Android and iOS. As it is Windows Phone will never go anywhere as long as it sits in purgatory. Microsoft has to figure out what they’re going to do with it and what will set it apart. The platform and devices need yuge innovation to tempt people again. Until then I have a Windows desktop, Windows laptop, Windows tablet, Windows console but I wouldn’t buy a Windows Phone.