November 8th was a good day for lovers of smartphones, social networking, and the Internet. AT&T and Microsoft released three new Windows Phone 7 phones in North America. The HTC Surround, LG Quantum and Samsung Focus.
I picked up a Samsung Focus and have now been using it for 28 days both as a consumer and developer. I decided to take some time and post some of my thoughts on Windows Phone 7 OS, the hardware, and the reaction from the technology press.
This is a long post that I hope you find is not a complete waste of your time.
Lick to Unlock
Just to get it out of the way, I’ll come right out and say it: I am in love with the Windows Phone 7 OS. It is truly a very beautiful and original take on a smartphone OS.
Being a developer with over three decades of experience developing applications for various operating systems and GUIs, I have to say this is possibly the most beautiful, minimalistic, and deep operating system and GUI I have ever seen.
You can tell after a few minutes of use that the team responsible for this paradigm shifting OS spent considerable time thinking about minute details and perfecting them.
This is not to say that Windows Phone 7 is perfect, because it is not; but it is remarkably close to perfection – especially considering that this is a version 1.0 product.
I don’t know what they have been feeding the Windows Phone 7 team up in Redmond, but whatever it it is, keep on feeding it to them.
And yes, you can lick the phone to unlock it – YUM!
Whack-an-App is Dead – Long Live Metro
I don’t remember where I first heard the term “Whack-an-App”, but in my opinion, it accurately describes the iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows, OSX, and Linux operating system interfaces. Colorful shiny icons and fancy drop shadows aside, in reality it’s still the same type of interface that we’ve used on computers dating back to the days of Windows 2 and the Mac OS before that – arguably this type of interface dates back to Xerox PARC in the 1970’s.
As you see in the picture in the upper left, Windows Phone 7’s home screen is composed of tiles. These are not simply static icons displayed on a page, rather they are dynamic “tiles” that represent the application or task that they perform. Yea, I know it sounds a lot like the typical “whack-an-app” GUI, but it’s not. The tiles not only provide a way to launch an application or perform an action but they also are updated with information pertaining to the task or application they represent. For email - it is the number of new emails, the calendar - upcoming events, the weather - the temperature and warnings and so on. The tiles are are almost a mini-applet. What information is displayed on the tile is entirely up to the application developer.
Once you go beyond the home screen, this is where the Metro design language really starts to get interesting and moves well beyond any other GUIs currently in existence. Gone is anything even remotely resembling the “whack-an-app” interface.
interface is primarily text with minimalist iconographic elements. It simply flows and encourages one to explore it. In my opinion, the Windows Phone 7 OS is influenced by and takes design cues from the German and Swiss minimalist typographic design movement of the 1950s and 1960s and fuses them with what are considered standard design principals in modern graphical user interfaces to make something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
There are no shiny icons or colorful interface elements. Everything is on screen that needs to be there yet the interface feels open, airy and not crowded. Information is presented almost as if it were on a printed page in Life Magazine. The interface is almost monochromatic and flat and yet it is not monochromatic and flat. Guttenberg would get the interface and yet completely flip out over it.
The interface is very adept at presenting information in a very clear and visually pleasing way that taps into a part of the brain that rarely gets stimulated when using a GUI. It is so clean, fluid, and visually arresting that it is hard to describe it accurately to people - yet as soon as people see it they “get” it. I can say with certainty that the Windows Phone 7 OS will never be confused with any other mobile operating system out there. It is simply in a class by itself.
On a side note, if you are interested in some of the background regarding the underlying principals of the typographic and graphic design used in Windows Phone 7, I highly recommend that you watch the documentary “Helvetica”. While the documentary has nothing to do with Windows Phone 7, it will give you insights into some of the history of graphic and typographic design that contributed to making the interface of Windows Phone 7 so visually stimulating and unique.
As an aside, I would love – no, I beg - to see this OS moved onto a tablet computer. A tablet device using this interface would instantly make all other tablets look as out of date as big hair, leg warmers, and Duran Duran – machined aluminum backs aside.
I will make a bold statement here: Windows Phone 7’s Metro design language is the first true paradigm shift in operating systems interface design and usability that we have seen in the last 30 years.
This is the most connected phone I have every used. Windows Phone 7 works flawlessly with Gmail, Google Calendar, Facebook, XBOX Live, and Windows Live right out of the box.
In a couple of minutes, literally sitting in the car outside of the local AT&T store, I had my GMail contacts, Google calendar and Facebook friends “live” on my phone. The only apps I really found that I needed to install were the FourSquare,Twitter and YouTube clients – and yes – just like the iPhone it is always being compared to, Windows Phone 7 does not come with Flash. If you want to watch YouTube videos you need to use an app – for now. Unlike the iPhone, Flash will be available for Windows Phone 7 sometime in 2011.
The built-in applications a truly first rate. The Bing Maps applications work very well is is very fast and easy to read. There is something about the look and feel that makes it feel much more modern than Google Maps. I am not sure if it is the color palette or the typography. It just looks and feels right. The traffic flow indicators on the map seem to be spot on here in Southern California based on my firsthand observations. The geo-location search and directions are awesome and have already helped me find my way to strange places like South Pasadena.
The voice recognition is spectacular and works well even in the car on the freeway at speed. Simply hold down the home button and speak and in a few seconds you are presented with the results.
The keyboard predictive text and auto-correct are first rate and far superior to what is available on the iPhone and Android. The keyboard also provides both an audible and tactile response that is on par with or better than what is available on the iPhone and Android.
The email application is gorgeous and is a pleasure to use. Some people will bemoan the fact that there is not a unified inbox, but to me that is a non-issue. I personally like to keep my email accounts segregated into their own bins. I am sure this “issue” will be laid to rest in a future update. I just hope it is configurable so that those of us like our email inboxes separated will be able to keep it the way we like it.
Speaking of email, with the help of my best bud, we tested the Exchange email and calendar sync on his corporate WAN and it worked flawlessly. It even fixed a minor but irritating issue that had dogged him for years with flagging messages. (Thanks Aox!)
OneNote and Office also work very well. I have read quite a bit of press about how the Office apps are “substandard” but that is nonsense. It’s a phone, not a a full blown PC. How many of us want to sit on a phone a write a novel in Word or create quarterly earnings report in Excel? Anyone who wants to do this is a masochist and should not be taken seriously when complaining that minute feature XYZ is not present in these mobile Office apps. For what they are, they are simply best in class. And yes, you CAN use these apps for serious work if you are so inclined. But why would you want to do work on a phone that is arguably the best gaming platform out there?
This OS and phone provide a truly killer gaming experience. The addition of XBOX Live and achievements is simply brilliant and quite fun. I would say the gaming performance is on par with the XBOX 360 or a dedicated gaming PC from five years or so ago. It is truly amazing to have a phone that is capable of playing fully detailed 3D games at 30 frames per second at 800 by 480 resolution in 24-bit color. It seems that many major and indie game publishers (including yours truly) would agree based on the amount of and the quality of games available at launch. As of now, there are no “extender” games – a game where you play part of it on the XBOX or PC and part on the phone much like the Saturn and its mini-game controller modules – available. I expect that to slowly change as new titles are released on the XBOX and PC. The idea of having a portion of a game that you can take with you is very exciting. I can easily imagine publishers adding phone only levels and achievements to a game. I expect that the gaming and social integration will drive a lot of sales of this platform. I have personally seen gamers, including girl gamers, get very excited when I showed them the gaming capabilities and the XBOX live integration.
Windows Phone 7 uses the Zune client software to load content on the phone. To be honest, I had never used the Zune software until I got this phone. I regret that decision. The Zune desktop software is an extremely easy to use and very capable media manager and well as an exceptional podcast aggregator. It also uses the Metro UI design, but not to as great an effect as the phone except for Smart DJ mode. The flowing combination of images and text it puts onscreen in that mode is breathtaking. It is such a good podcast aggregator and media manager that I have quit using my own podcast aggregator/media manager that I spent many hours writing. I regret not ever trying it out the Zune software. You do not need a phone or Zune player to use it. I had no idea it was so fantastic! I wish I had tried it long ago. I will now go punch myself in the head.
Since this phone and ecosystem are always going to be compared to the iPhone and Android let me set the record straight: There is absolutely so comparison between iTunes for Windows and the Zune software. The Zune software is hands down the better application. I’ll go ahead and state that the Zune software is the best in its class. I welcome a better alternative if one exists because this is about as good as it gets – seriously.
As for Android, unless you use a third party application like Doubletwist, you get no management software and your phone is just a dumb USB drive. You have to manually manage copying media back and forth to and from your phone.
Is the Zune software perfect? No it’s not. It does not play many of the file formats Windows Media Player supports with a codec pack like CCCP. You will have to manually convert files it does not recognize - for example MKV - to a format that it does recognize. If you think I am engaging in hyperbole regarding the Zune software, download it, install it, and use it. You can always uninstall it and post a comment here telling me how I am full of BS. Do it, I dare you.
Unlike other other applications, the Zune software and Windows Phone 7 support automatic sync over Wi-Fi. It works very well and is quite fast. As a matter of fact it works so well that it caught me by surprise the first time I used it. I have a habit of falling asleep listening to podcasts. I will usually resume the podcast in the morning when I awake where I last remember hearing it before I fell asleep. The first time I did this, I woke up and found that the podcast I was listening to had completely disappeared from my phone. I was very confused. Well, it turns out what had happened was not a bug but was exactly what was supposed to happen. The Zune software will let you set a podcast to sync only un-listened or partially listened to episodes to the phone. This is actually the default setting for a podcast. So while I slept the podcast played on and was marked as listened to. While I was sleeping, the phone synced and the Zune software dutifully removed the episode because it considered it listened to. It took me a minute or so to realize what had happened after I checked the Zune software. So now I simply set the Zune software to always sync the latest episode until I remove it from the phone or a newer one comes out. I really love this feature – a lot. A whole lot.
Note to Microsoft – PLEASE GET A BETTER MARKETING AND PR TEAM TO PROMOTE THE ZUNE SOFTWARE. IT DOES NOT GET THE ATTENTION IT DESERVES. IT IS FANTASTIC!
This phone is blindingly fast and the screen is the best I have ever seen on a smartphone. It’s simply brilliant with deep saturated blacks and vivid colors. It even works well in the bright sunlight of Southern California. The 5 megapixel camera is above average for what it is – but it’s still a phone and not a DSLR. The touchscreen is very responsive yet not overly so – it inspires deft maneuvering and confidence in the fingers. As for media playback, it is impressive. Video is smooth, colorful and crisp. Pictures look amazing on screen. Audio playback is smooth with rich, clean sound. The included headphones aren’t too bad. Not the best but certainly above par. The phone is very light and feels very good in the hand. The sculpted backside fits neatly into the palm. It feels solid, tight, and substantial.
There has been a lot of squawking in the press about the “defective” micro-SD slot in the Samsung Focus. The tech media has reported the phone was defective since it was “eating” and “destroying” micro-SD cards. Ignore the reports – here is the real truth.
Microsoft had never intended Windows Phone 7's storage to be expandable, swappable, or removable. Manufacturers often use internal, non-accessible micro-SD cards simply because they offer greater flexibility in manufacturing than soldered-on chips do. Manufacturers simply swap out cards to offer phones with different amounts on storage in them. The Focus happened to ship with a fully user-accessible slot and of course people – myself included – put a card in there with the intention of expanding the onboard storage.
On the first boot after a reset, the phone checks the inserted card and formats it. The “S” in SD stands for “secure”, and though most platforms don't make use of SD's security features, Windows Phone 7 does. After the format, the phone randomly generates a password that it stores in its internal memory and then uses that to secure the card, essentially bonding the card with the phone. At this point the card is now a “part” of the phone and useless in any other device because it is now secured.
There is quite a bit of wiggle room in the specifications for off the shelf SD cards and read-write latency specifications for the micro-SD card used in the phone are quite narrow since the card becomes bonded with the hardware and OS. Typically the manufacturers of the phones also manufacture the micro-SD card added to the phone so they are able to produce a part that exactly matches the required specifications. This is why off the shelf cards, regardless of the class rating, more often than not fail to work properly when added to the phone. The phone will typically format and secure the card but then fail to be able to utilize it due to it not being within tolerance. If you pull the card out and put it in another phone or device, it can’t be read due to being secured. The card, for all intents and purposes, appears to be dead. The card can be reset, but it takes a bit of trickery that most users do not posses.
As you can see, the reality of the situation is quite different from what has been reported.
I am sure that in the future Samsung and other phone manufacturers will offer micro-SD cards – most likely at a premium price – that will work perfectly in the phone allowing users to expand the storage capacity. We can only wait and see.
The battery life seems average for a phone of this caliber. I get about a days worth of heavy use out of it. If I could keep my hands off the phone I have a feeling it would last longer but I just can’t help myself.
Version 1.0 Issues and Non-issues
Being a essentially a version 1.0 product despite the internal build number and branding, the OS does have a few inconstancies and missing features. While none of them are deal-breakers, they do provide the tech press and media with ready made excuses to heap derision on Microsoft – as if that is anything new. One thing to remember about this phone: it is a CONSUMER focused device, not an enterprise focused device. The enterprise features like SharePoint and Exchange support are bonuses when you realize that this is a consumer-centric device.
Surprisingly, the main issue I have with Windows Phone 7 is in the keyboard layout. Depending on what application or what screen you are on, the keyboard layout is slightly different. Also, the really awesome spelling auto-correction is sometimes there and sometimes not. A good example of this is the difference between the FourSquare client and the Twitter client.
In the Twitter client you get spelling correction when you tweet and in the FourSquare client you don’t get it when you enter a note when you check in. I am sure this comes down to the application developer enabling it, but it seems to me it should be on by default unless the developer specifically disables it. A minor issue overall, but the predictive text and correction is so good that you really miss it when it is not there.
Another inconsistency is that some settings screens are “live” configurable meaning that if you change a setting then hit the back button, whatever you changed is now active. Yet a few screens are more traditional with an “Accept” and “Cancel” button. Once you are used to using the back button, the traditional “Accept”/”Cancel” button design throws your flow off for a second. You automatically hit back only to realize a split second later that you needed to hit the “Accept” icon. Again, a minor issue but one that bugs you when you are used to the “Back” paradigm.
Lack of custom ringtones. There are 30 or so mostly tolerable ringtones that come with the OS, but come on, really? I am assuming that this is a simple oversight and should be fixed in the first update.
Another simple oversight in the OS is the lack of retaining custom camera settings. While not a major issue, it is annoying and impractical at times to have to reset the camera settings every time you use it. This should be a simple fix in an update.
Another minor issue that I expect to be fixed in the next update is the ability to connect to hidden WiFi access points. Currently there is no way to manually enter the SSID of an access point you want to connect to. Being that I don’t have any hidden SSIDs on the access points I use, this is not an issue to me, but I am sure it bothers others who do use hidden SSIDs.
Inability to lock the phone while playing video content. There are times, like when I am in the kitchen cooking, that I don’t want to watch video and would rather just listen to the audio. For example when I am watching one of my favorite podcasts, Windows Weekly with Paul Thurrott, if I lock the phone then all playback pauses. This does not affect audio only content. Again, I think this is a simple oversight by the Windows Phone 7 team and should be addressed in a future update.
There are some other missing features that really don’t affect typical consumers that are present. For example lack of VPN support, full support for Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) policies, non-UAG authentication for SharePoint servers, and a few others. For the vast majority of people these missing features are moot issues as they are using the phone for personal not corporate uses.
Other than these complaints I find the new Windows Phone 7 OS to be a revolutionary step forward for smartphone operating systems and UI design. It is the first phone I have ever used that is so visually fun and tactile that compels me to pick it up and use it. I can’t keep my hands off it.
There are some non-issue issues that seem to have tech journalists and the Microsoft haters tongues wagging and claiming that Windows Phone 7 is a “disaster”. Yea, I’m looking at you Galen Gruman - you buffoonish excuse for a technology journalist.
Internet Explorer and the lack of support for HTML 5 seems to be a common thing the press and anti-Microsoft people complain about. Is that really a big deal? I mean come on, really? Speaking as a developer who has been doing standards based web development literally since the WEB WAS INVENTED, this a non-issue. How many HTML5 sites are there out there? Off the top of my head I can think of two major ones – Apple’s website and YouTube’s experimental HTML5 site – and a myriad of test and example pages that are essentially “Hey look what I can do with HTML5!” types of pages. I am sure there are more, but that’s all I can think of. Until the HTML5 standard is locked down it’s going to still be a niche technology. I remember going through the same thing back in the late 90’s with the transition from HTML 4.01 to XHTML 1.0 – and yea, I was one of the guys that was “Hey look what I can do with XHTML 1.0!”. I hear far more people complaining about the lack of Flash on the iPhone and iPad than I do cheering on the support of HTML5 in their browsers.
On the much heralded lack of “cut and paste” – it really is a non issue at this point. I have run into literally just a single case where I needed it. I am completely serious and not over stating that at all – I have not needed to cut and paste but a single thing over a three week period. One thing that is brilliant with the OS and applications running on it is that they seem to recognize what type of data the information being displayed is. When it is displayed, the OS makes it a link. You click it and you are whisked to the appropriate screen where that type of data would be used. It’s brilliant and seems to work everywhere in the OS. It gives the entire OS a solid, integrated feeling – even third party apps. The integration and “smarts” of the OS really do minimize the need for cut and paste.
Regardless, it’s a moot point as Microsoft has publicly stated they they will release an update with cut and paste in early 2011. Judging from the press I’ve seen, it seems most people have forgotten that the iPhone shipped without cut and paste as well and it took Apple TWO YEARS to fix that. The iPhone was released on June 29, 2007. Cut and paste was added to OS3 which was released on June 17, 2009.
As for the purported “failure” of the OS because it lacks multitasking, that is a non-issue as well. The way the OS and applications handle task-switching (known as Tombstoning in WP7 speak) makes the lack of multitasking almost a non-issue. A simple example is this: I am composing an email, my wife texts me. I tap the notification to jump into the text message, reply to her and then simply hit the back button a couple of times and I am back to composing an email. No fuss, no muss, no using a task switcher. Windows Phone 7 works more like a web browser than an OS – and it’s fluid and quick. Once you are used to this method of UI navigation on a phone – a stack of “pages” metaphor – it’s very hard to go back to the “whack-an-app”/task switcher way of doing things. But once again, it seems the tech press and most people have collective amnesia and have forgotten that the iPhone shipped without multitasking. It took Apple three years to remedy that. Let me repeat that: THREE YEARS! The iPhone was released on June 29, 2007. Multitasking was added to iOS4 which was released on June 21, 2010.
As of today, there is a rumor – I repeat, it is just a rumor – that Microsoft is planning a huge update to WP7 in January that includes multitasking. If this is indeed true, then Microsoft will have done in three months what it took Apple three years to do. Regardless, if the update “only” includes copy and paste then Microsoft will have done in three months what it took Apple two years to do.
For an interesting and comparative read, I suggest browsing the timeline and details of the iPhone OS release history and see how it compares to the supposedly flawed version 1.0 release of Windows Phone 7. You will plainly see that right out of the gate Windows Phone 7 comes with features and capabilities that it literally took the iPhone years to achieve. But hey, it’s a Microsoft product so it has to suck, right?
The Bottom Line
So how fun and engaging is WP7? This much: My wife, a devoted Blackberry user, a (former) hater of touchscreen phones, and of the mind that “a phone is just a phone” is now the owner of a new shiny Samsung Focus – purchased outside her normal upgrade cycle. It’s rather interesting the see a phone activate her latent geek gene so thoroughly.
Microsoft has a steep hill to climb in getting back into the smartphone market – arguably a market they created – but Windows Phone 7 gives them a real chance. WP7 certainly makes Android look dated and old fashioned. As for Apple’s iOS, I prefer WP7 to iOS. It’s much more fluid and faster to get around in WP7 for me and than in iOSes “whack-an-app” layout. However I don’t think MS will win over many iPhone users simply because it is a Microsoft product. The phones could print $100 bills, turn into a magic carpet and fly you anywhere in the world, and yet it would still not win over many iPhone users at this point.
All and all, anyone considering a connected smartphone should very seriously consider a WP7 phone. I mean it. It is amazingly well connected and thought out. Competition is good and MS just threw down a very big gauntlet. I expect that over time Windows Phone 7 will prove to be a very strong competitor to both the iPhone and the Android OS. As for Symbian and Palm OS? I’d say they are already dead but they just don’t know it yet.