After just a long weekend of use, the iPhone 6S Plus has settled into a familiar routine, offering the expected similarities with, and advantages over, its predecessor. But in using the handset more, I’ve identified a few more features that I think will prove problematic for Microsoft to overcome with its coming new Lumias.
First, I wanted to just quickly highlight the ever-growing divide between iPhone sales and Lumia sales. Apple has just announced that it sold 13 million iPhones during the 6S launch weekend, a new record for the company. (To be fair, one that is slightly diminished by the fact that last year’s iPhone 6 launch did not include China, giving this year an artificial bump.) By comparison, Microsoft sold 8.4 million Lumias in the entire previous fiscal quarter. (Apple sold 47.5 million iPhones in that same quarter.)
Whatever the reason for this disparity—some will claim it’s just marketing and lemming-like customers, others will claim that Apple simply makes superior products—it exists, and while IDC, Gartner and others had for many years claimed that Windows phones would catch up with an even surpass iPhone over time, that is obviously never going to happen. So Microsoft is left with a familiar issue: Trying to prove that a third smart phone/mobile ecosystem makes sense.
And if Microsoft follows the path I believe they will, that means blurring the lines between categories as they did with Surface. So instead of tablet/PC hybrid, we will see phone/PC hybrid with Continuum. This “makes sense” in that it gives Microsoft a differentiator. I’ll broken-drum it and just mention again that no previous differentiators ever helped Windows phones succeed in the slightest.
Which brings me to….
I’ve been writing about technology–mostly Microsoft, but technology—professionally for over 20 years. One of the things I’ve always been sort of amazed by is the crazed, almost religious nature of the relationship that people have with technology. That is, when you really care about this stuff, a part of your self-worth gets wrapped up in the success and acceptance of the product(s) you prefer. We saw this with Mac users, of course, and Linux users back in the day. Today, we even see it in the Windows community, which I’ve often considered to be much more logical and less emotional than, say, the Apple folks.
This is clearly not the case. Which is good in some ways. Clearly, the Microsoft/Windows folks care as much about this stuff as do others in the Apple camp. But it also leads to some uncomfortable discussions.
For me, it means that every time I write something positive about a product that competes with Microsoft—or even about a Microsoft app that runs on a non-Windows platform—I’m personally attacked by some who want a return to the “Windows only/Windows first” strategy that hasn’t actually made sense for years. Conversely, if I criticize a non-Microsoft product, I’m attacked as a Microsoft cheerleader. I mean, I owe my own existence to Microsoft, so of course I am going to denigrate the competition.
It doesn’t work that way. And my covering of non-Microsoft products and services—often with a slant of, “how does this compare to what Microsoft is doing?”, yes—is not new. I’ve been writing about Apple, for example, for that same 20+ years. My guess is that the real craziness happens when the commentary cuts a little too deep. I can’t help it that Windows phone is failing, and while this wasn’t my plan per se, I’d likewise argue that no one outside of Microsoft has done more to “promote” Windows phones—by writing more about them than makes sense given usage—than I have. I wrote an entire 500+ page Windows Phone 8 book and gave it away for free, for crying out loud.
If an argument over iPhone, Windows phones, whatever turns into a personal attack, that’s how you know you’ve lost. This isn’t about me, and I’m just reacting to what is happening. Things aren’t going well these days, but I’m not giving up on Windows phones—I cannot wait to see the new Lumias next month—though I will also continue to be realistic, and base my opinions on my own real-world usage, and not what others think. Sorry if that’s a problem.
OK a couple of other features to mull over.
There are a few things about iPhone usability that really bother me. One is the lack of a Back button, which many—rightfully so, in my opinion—regard as an absolute necessity on any smart phone (and tablet). The iPhone doesn’t have a Back because of Steve Jobs, who wanted the hardware interface to be as minimal as possible. (I guess a Home button was somehow necessary, however.) And it doesn’t have one today because of tradition, not because it isn’t needed.
On Windows Phone and Android, there are always three buttons you can rely on, though many phones implement these in software, which is fine too: Home/Start, Search, and Back/Multitasking. These buttons are all necessary. Even on iPhones.
But Apple is Apple. So they build support for these features into the existing buttons instead of just doing the right thing. You can summon Siri by pressing and holding on the Home button, for example. And you can access iOS’s multitasking screen by double-pressing the Home button.
Sometimes, of course, many times, you just need to go back. For example, maybe you’re reading an email and there is a link in there to a web page. If you tap that link on an iPhone, Safari opens and you can read the article. But now you want to get back to Mail. So you press Home, find Mail in your many screens of icons, and get back to that email. Or you double-press Home if you know that shortcut, and find Mail in the back stack. This process is simpler on Android or Windows phones because there’s a Back button. Just press Back to go back to the message you were reading.
Apple gets this. So in iOS 9 and on the new iPhones, Apple has added a software-based Back button that appears in these cases. It’s tiny and mostly text-based, and you see it in the top left of the screen. So now you can actually go back from Safari to Mail in one step, just like you can on other platforms.
Actually, no. This only addresses one reason why a system-wide Back button (hardware or software) makes sense. Today, iOS 9 developers still need to build navigation into their own apps. And because there is no “Back,” they do so on their own, and in ways that are often unique, unfamiliar and inconsistent. So this new addition is welcome—and a reminder of how Apple is indeed closing the user experience gap—but it’s not a complete solution.
This one kind of hurts. Microsoft has provided a feature called Local Scout since Windows Phone 7.5, giving users a way to find local food and drink, shopping, activities, and more. It was (still is) built into the Bing Maps app and, thanks to yet another unique Windows Phone feature called deep linking, as a standalone tile (not really an app) on the Start screen. (We’ve since moved on to HERE Maps mostly, but Local Scout is still there in Bing Maps.)
In iOS 9 and on the new iPhones, Apple has added their own Local Scout feature called Nearby. It works very similarly to Local Scout, providing access to local food, drinks, shopping, travel, services, fun, health, and transport (to use Apple’s top-level activity names). Like Local Scout in Windows Phone, it is available from the stock Maps app (Apple Maps in this case). Intriguingly it is also available from outside the Maps app, in this case from the Spotlight screen (which you reach by swiping to the left of the leftmost Home screen). So while iOS does not support deep-linking like Windows Phone OS (for the most part), Apple has still found a great way to make this functionality available to the user.
Nearby works pretty well. And while it doesn’t offer the same filtering abilities as Local Scout, you can fine-tune your local searches in useful ways. For example, if you tap into Food, you will see choices like Popular, Restaurants, Groceries, Fast Food, and others. But there are no obvious restaurant sub-choices (American, Chinese, Mexican, etc.) as there are in Local Scout.
(And yes, Google Maps of course offers similar functionality. Google is like cancer, they’re everywhere.)
Ultimately, Nearby in iOS is not as powerful as Local Scout, but it doesn’t matter because it’s on a truly popular mobile platform and will no doubt get better over time. We can all look forward to the press and blogger audience applaud next year, for example, when Apple adds restaurant type filtering to Nearby and just shake our heads.
Which, I realize Windows phone fans do a lot these days.