Five Years Later, a Full-On Retreat from What Made Windows Phone Special

Posted on February 15, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Windows Phones with 0 Comments

Five years ago today, Microsoft announced Windows Phone 7 Series, an event which excited me so much that I immediately contacted the company and made plans to write the first-ever book about the platform. But in the years since, Microsoft has slowly removed all of Windows Phone’s key differentiators. And it appears that the release of Windows 10 this year will be the final death knell for this beloved platform.

This isn’t all bad news, of course: the universal app platform, common user experiences and integration capabilities in Windows 10 are important and will hopefully drive more user adoption than ever happened with Windows Phone. But if you’re a Windows Phone fan like I am, then Windows 10 is also the final step in a series of steps that Microsoft has taken to retreat from virtually every key differentiator that originally made the Windows Phone platform so special.

With that in mind, I’d like to look back on the original vision for Windows Phone and compare it to where we are today with Windows Phone 8.1.1 and Windows 10. As you’ll see, while there are surface similarities between the old and the new, most things have in fact changed quite demonstrably.

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Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced Windows Phone 7 Series at Mobile World Congress on February 15, 2010. “This is really about the phones and how the consumer will react to these devices,” he said during his introductory speech, setting the stage for the first big change: Microsoft was focusing Windows Phone 7 Series on the same high-end consumer smart phone market as the iPhone, and not on the traditional business market.

“We design for life maximizers,” a Microsoft representative told me at the time. “Windows Phone 7 Series is not about information workers.”

What’s a life maximizer, you ask?

“They’re 38 years old, 76 percent of them are employed, and 73 percent are in partnered relationships,” I was told. “They do care about work email. But what’s important to this audience is not feeling overwhelmed, balancing priorities, growing personally and professionally, and living life to the fullest.”

Yes. Really. And to spare Microsoft further embarrassment, I won’t get into the “personas” they created to show how Windows Phone was going to make everyone’s life better.

Windows Phone 7 Series—so named because the one thing Microsoft wasn’t doing differently when compared to Windows Mobile was its partnership with multiple hardware makers—was “a different kind of phone,” one that puts “the stuff that is important to you right on your Start screen” via live tiles, rather than requiring you to jump in and out of apps as with iPhone. Those tiles would provide “real-time updates” about your “contacts, games, and music.” It’s fair to say that this strategy has continued through the various versions and will continue into Windows 10 of course.

Windows Phone 7 Series would also let you post your Facebook and Windows Live statuses “once, and update all,” meaning that from a single interface you could post to multiple online services all at once (Twitter was later added). This system was provided through a Messaging app that also did SMS/MMS messaging, but it was dismantled in the move from Windows Live Messenger to Skype.

Windows Phone 7 Series would provide access to your “most recent contacts at your fingertips,” meaning that when you tapped the People tile, you would see the Recent view, which was a group of tiles representing recently-accessed contacts. Today, People goes directly to a stock contacts list, just like any other contact manager on other platforms, and that Recent view is long gone.

People would also provide “live updates from social media sites like Facebook and Windows Live.” That’s still there, as is the cool search feature, though it’s worth noting another major step back that I bet many have forgotten. In Windows Phone 7, search was context-sensitive. That is, when you pressed the hardware Search button, you would search within whatever app or experience you were currently using. So if you were looking at People, you would search your contacts. Today, that Search button is used to trigger Cortana or Bing Search (depending on the exact Phone version and your locale) and each app now implements its own in-app search functionality … just like with other mobile platforms.

With Windows Phone 7 Series, all of your photos—from your phone, PC and the web—would be “organized in one place,” the Photos hub. Since renamed to Pictures and defanged into a basic app, Photos never lived up to its hub-based promise, and no third party service—Flickr, whatever—was ever added (beyond the built-ins, which eventually included Facebook … until it didn’t). Like other photo apps, Photos is just an island of content: You can see your own photos on the device, and in OneDrive. That’s it.

This hub notion—”integrated experiences,” with People and Pictures both being great examples—was a key Windows Phone 7 Series differentiator. The idea was that content from multiple sources would be aggregated into a single UI, and that you as the user would not need to remember where information was stored. If you wanted a person, you went into People. If you wanted to find a photo, it would be in Pictures and you didn’t need to remember which service it was from. It was such a brilliant idea … in theory.

Pictures would let you “share instantly with your favorite people and social networks.” This still works, of course, and the Share charm/contract from Windows 8 and now the Share functionality in Windows 10 is a direct descendent of this work and a sort of 21st century version of the OLE/cross-application copy and paste functionality from the late 1990s versions of Windows.

The Zune Music + Video hub in Windows Phone 7 Series would let you access “all your music and videos from your phone, radio and the web,” but like Pictures this hub—later renamed Xbox Music + Video was never extended with third party services and was then split into separate Music, Podcasts, Radio and Video apps. So as with other platforms, you music think about which app you want—Spotify, Podcasts, whatever)—and then go find it yourself. No more centralized hub where everything is in one place.

Zune Music + Video, incidentally, “brought the best of Zune to the phone,” which didn’t exactly resonate with most users, and it let you “skip the wires [and] sync over Wi-Fi” (i.e. not over cellular). I’d have to go back and check, but I would imagine iPhone still required iTunes on a PC or Mac for syncing. Apple would soon fix that.

Windows Phone 7 Series would include Xbox Live games, bringing Xbox Live games, Xbox Live achievements and the promise of real-time multiplayer (really just turn-based at first) to the smart phone. This was partially successful, but the Games hub—like all other hubs—never really made sense to normal users, so Microsoft made games available from the normal Apps list so people could actually find them.

Windows Phone 7 Series brought “the power of Bing to your smart phone,” another misguided attempt to promote a brand that never resonated with consumers. (That Microsoft was selling Zune and Bing as Windows Phone benefits is of course ludicrous five years later.) It offered “one button” access to maps, directions and (location) info,” but the firm neglected to mention that it didn’t offer real voice-guided turn-by-turn navigation. It’s unclear what the plan would have been if Nokia hadn’t signed up a year later.

Microsoft has also been stepping back on the hardware requirements for Windows Phone from the beginning. Remember, competing with iPhone meant that Microsoft somehow had to marry its partner-focused hardware ecosystem with Apple’s horizontal model. So it was very strict, at first, about which hardware features every phone had to have. I was told that “hardware consistency is key” and that the only differentiation in Windows Phone would occur “via apps.” That Microsoft was writing the phone stack that all devices would use was considered a major step forward. How quaint.

Here’s how Windows Phone 7 Series hardware going to be standardized. Capacitive touch screens with 4 or more contact points. Multiple sensors, including A-GPS, accelerometer, compass, light, and proximity, all standard. A 5 MP or better camera, with flash and a hardware camera button required. 256 MB of RAM or more, 8 GB of flash storage or more. DirectX 9 hardware accelerated graphics. An ARMv7 Cortex/Scorpion or better processor. Start, Search, and Back hardware buttons, fixed on the front below the screen. Two screen sizes: 800 x 480 and 480 x 320. And while few remember this, there would be reference designs with both hardware and software keyboard designs. Only the latter was ever formalized.

Today, most Windows Phones don’t even come with a hardware camera button—necessary for pocket to picture, a key Windows Phone differentiator—let alone a suite of powerful sensors. (Some phones only have an accelerometer.) That 480 x 320 resolution never happened. Flash? Long gone.

(And as a bit of historic artifact: The original Windows Phone 7 Series hardware reference designs were made by … wait for it … ASUS. Which never even made a Windows Phone handset. And LG, which did, but only briefly. The first hardware to end up in external testers hands? Samsung. Of course. “It has a terrific camera,” I was told.)

The Windows Phone 7 Series developer platform was based on Silverlight, and, for games, XNA. And the underlying hardware platform wasn’t Windows, but rather an embedded version of Windows CE. But even remembering the platform changes that happened over the years is difficult. Silverlight and XNA gave way to Windows Phone Runtime (WinPRT), the Windows Runtime, and now the universal app platform, for example. The underlying OS, once based on Windows CE, is now based on Windows RT and, in Windows 10, “just” Windows. And of course developer capabilities have evolved dramatically over the years; fortunately, those were mostly positive changes.

The thing I remember most from the original Windows Phone 7 Series announcement—and subsequent revelations and interviews over the ensuing few months—was Microsoft’s strange and absorbed focus on the design on this new system. Windows Phone wasn’t just going to be different, it was going to be better. And a big part of that was its user experience design.

“The goal is to build a different kind of phone,” I was told at the time. “It’s not a clone of anything. It represents who the user is, immediately feels like yours, and gets even better over time. It’s a very different idea, inherent in the smart design.”

Windows Phone 7 Series would feature a clean design, with crisp typography, minimalistic iconography, and no 3D highlights. “The principle is that your content shines, not the UI chrome around it,” I was told. “The interface will help make that stuff the star.” Internally, this visual design was called Metro, and Microsoft heavily promoted this name until they were sued by a still-unnamed trademark holder and then started pretending it was never the name. Here are some internal Microsoft posters that I memorialized back in March 2010.

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“Motion and animation a big part of this, with full-bleed user experience elements and minimal chrome,” I was told. “You can’t just look at screenshots because motion is a big part of it. That’s why we always show videos, so you can see how natural the animations look.”

Albert Shum explained the history of Metro in March 2010, noting that it was inspired by “transportation graphics”—hence the name—which help you find your way using just icons, not words. “It’s good design,” he said.

But Metro was really just a step forward in a path Microsoft had been making for many years. It had its roots in products like Media Center and of course Zune, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the designers of Metro came up through Microsoft by working on those very products.

And this, sadly, is where things really go off the rails. In a push to legitimatize the design of Metro and the inherent superiority of Windows Phone 7 Series, Microsoft repeatedly kept communicating a pukey, design-centric language of its own. And it just made no sense to normal people. Rather than embarrass anyone specifically, let me lay out a number of key phrases that were repeated ad naseum at the time.

Fast and fluid. Do a lot with little. Fierce reduction of unnecessary elements. Delightful use of white pace. Full-bleed canvas. A celebration of typography. Uncompromising sensitivity to weight, balance and scale. Alive in motion. Content, not chrome. Content is the interface. Authentically digital. Red threads.

Terrible.

But what’s really sad about all this designerly approach is that it simply didn’t resonate with anyone. Take the white space thing. Microsoft’s original UI design for the Windows Phone 7 Series Start screen left a “gap” on the right side of the screen, a purposeful bit of white space. Everyone hated it. It was a waste of valuable onscreen real estate that could have been used for live tiles. So after trying to explain why this was good design, Microsoft finally relented and filled in the space. It was the first of many design capitulations to common sense.

Specific Metro design ideals that have been stripped away to nothing include hubs and panoramic experiences, pivot-based tabs, single-scale UIs that don’t let the user change font sizes or colors, and app bars and app menus. Today’s Windows Phone does have live tiles, but the rest of the system seems cribbed from the iPhone and Android playbook, with hamburger menus and other bland UI. Why? Because that’s what users expect, and what they want, and they will not switch to Windows Phone if it is too unfamiliar. (They don’t switch regardless, but that’s a separate story.)

Windows Phone 7 Series happened because iPhone revealed its Windows Mobile predecessors to be terrible and devoid of imagination. “Windows Mobile 6.5 was the Windows Me of mobile, the Rodney Dangerfield,” a Microsoft executive confided to me in early 2010. “We had to start over.”

But before it even shipped, Microsoft was forced to scramble to adapt to quickly-changing smart phone trends and, in one infamous case—that terrible name—to its own branding stupidity. It quickly dropped the “Series” part of the name and just went with Windows Phone 7.

“Customers want a simpler way to say and use the name consistently,” a Microsoft statement from the time notes. “The important thing is keeping the focus on the Windows Phone brand, which we will continue investing in through Windows Phone 7 and beyond.”

And now even the Windows Phone brand is gone, just the latest in a long line of capitulations over the past five years.

I still love Windows Phone, and I do still feel that its remaining differentiators are important. But the original design and ideas were much more powerful, and more differentiated, than what we see today. It’s not all Microsoft’s fault, but it’s too bad that so many good ideas needed to be thrown out along the way.

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