While I had been meaning to write up something about the dramatic differences between the original vision for Windows Phone and its implementation today several years later, there’s an equally important story to tell. And that’s why I still feel that Windows Phone is still the superior smart phone choice and will remain so into the Windows 10 generation.
I didn’t add this information to Five Years Later, a Full-On Retreat from What Made Windows Phone Special for a number of reasons, but the most obvious one is length: That article was already getting unwieldy and I actually removed a number of references to how things had actually gotten better over the years as well. Some misunderstood this to mean that I was unhappy by how Windows Phone had changed.
Looking over that article and my original notes from many meetings and events throughout early 2010, a few key Windows Phone themes emerge. And the most important one is actually as true today as it ever was: that Windows Phone wasn’t designed to be different from iPhone (primarily, but let’s add Android to this conversation today for obvious reasons as well) but rather to be better that iPhone. That is, Microsoft identified what it was that people really liked about iPhone—its consumer focus, its multi-touch user interface, and its apps—and sought to ensure that Windows Phone included that functionality. But it also identified key areas in which the iPhone fell short—subjectively—and sought to improve matters in Windows Phone.
I identified a number of those iPhone shortfalls—and the resulting differentiators in Windows Phone—in Five Years Later, a Full-On Retreat from What Made Windows Phone Special. And as that article demonstrates, not all of those ideas—well-intentioned and user-focused as they were—panned out in real world use. For a variety of reasons. But if you look at that situation from a high level, you can also see how Microsoft adapted to the perceived needs of users over the course of subsequent Windows Phone OS releases. And in that adapting, it didn’t just step back from Windows Phone differentiators. It also adopted key Android and iPhone features that users demanded, wanted or needed.
There are a lot of examples of that in Windows Phone today. A task view interface that can be used to close running apps. The Action Center notification interface with quick views. Folders. A growing adoption of “hamburger menu”-based slide-in panes instead of older and native Windows Phone UIs like pivots, panoramas and app menus. If you’ve been following along, you know the drill.
Indeed, Windows Phone fans can and should debate the merits of these changes, but the underlying rationale is sound: Microsoft needs to address the needs of its users, of course, but also the needs of its content and ecosystem partners, its wireless carriers, its hardware device makers, and its developers. With that in mind, let me provide a real world example.
In the initial shipping version of Windows Phone, Facebook functionality was integrated into the OS, and while Microsoft commissioned a standalone Facebook app—which was originally created by a third party company—the point of Windows Phone, originally, was that apps didn’t matter. So you could post to Facebook from the Me tile, the People hub, or the Pictures hub, and you could see what your friends were doing from these interfaces as well.
To Facebook, which is an important partner and a powerful brand in its own right, Microsoft’s integration did nothing to promote its brand at all: those interfaces were all very generic and worked similarly for other services. And when you think about it, the important piece of the puzzle here is that Facebook is on Windows Phone. That is, Facebook can help Windows Phone succeed, while Windows Phone doesn’t do anything to help Facebook to succeed. So Facebook eventually demanded that OS integration occur through its apps—as on other platforms—and Microsoft of course complied.
Some users don’t like this, but look at it this way: when you bake functionality into the OS, it’s really hard to update it. So while Facebook—the service—was racing forward with new features, the integrated Facebook functionality in Windows Phone was stuck in the past. For example, you could check yourself in with the integration, but not other people. It just never kept up-to-date.
But Facebook didn’t just demand standalone apps. It demanded that its Facebook apps look and work consistently on Windows Phone as they do on Android and iOS. And of course Microsoft acquiesced, as the alternative is Facebook leaving the platform. So over time, the Facebook apps lost more and more of the Metro look and feel, and today they look and work much as they do elsewhere. (OK, they’re not as good. Let’s move on.)
Is this a “loss” for Windows Phone users? No. As I argued on “Windows Weekly” at the time, these changes may not sit well with some fans, but the truth is that it’s much more important for Facebook to be on Windows Phone than to demand some arbitrary design language. And as Apple, Microsoft and others have discovered over the years, users are surprisingly adept at adapting to different user interfaces. A world in which all apps look the same—similar toolbars in Office of all, for example, or the Metro UI guidelines in Windows Phone more recently—is not necessary.
So that’s a lot of explanation, and maybe you can see why this part of the discussion didn’t make it into that original article. It’s just a big topic … more stuff. But with all that in mind, I still love Windows Phone. Why?
It’s simple. It’s just more personal.
As many guessed in reading Five Years Later, a Full-On Retreat from What Made Windows Phone Special, some of the core Windows Phone advantages persist to this day and have in fact been expanded in key ways. Live tiles, which can be sized and placed in ways that make your phone truly personalized, are still much better than the bone-dead “grid of icons” in iOS/iPhone and more consistent and better than the limited set of widgets you can configure in Android.
This means a few things. It means I can see the weather without launching an app. It means that apps I want info from—MSN News, Facebook, Photos, Calendar—can be configured with large, expressive tiles so I can see what’s going on. And those that are less expressive—Phone, Messaging, IE—can have tiny tiles. On iOS or Android, all app icons are the same size, and are still less expressive than the smallest Windows Phone tiles. They’re dead, not alive.
And while Microsoft hasn’t made the lock screen much more interactive over the years—heck, even the Windows Mobile 6.5 lock screen was better in this regard—the Glance screen and double-tap to wake that most Windows Phone users can access certainly make up for that.
I also love “pocket to picture,” a key differentiator in the initial Windows Phone release, as much today on modern Lumias—like the 930, 1520 or 830—as I did in 2010. And I especially love that high-end Lumias like the 1020, 1520, Icon and 930—have the very best cameras in the smart phone world—sorry, iPhone 6—while even affordable devices like the Lumia 735 and 830 have surprisingly good cameras for their prices.
I love that you can buy a solid Windows Phone handset like the Lumia 520, 635, or similar for under $100 and use it as a second device, as a free offline GPS, media player, or game machine. Or that you can give it to a child and not worry about expensive repair bills or phones. (You can buy two Lumia 635s today for the same price as an on-warranty iPhone 6 screen repair.) This is computing for the rest of us.
I love the integration with the Microsoft services I both care about and use—Office, OneDrive, Outlook.com and Office 365, Xbox and Xbox Live, Xbox Music, Xbox Video, Bing, and more—plus the unique apps like Office Lens that really put this platform over the top. Yes, many Microsoft apps are available on other platforms, but that doesn’t diminish the first-class experience we get on Windows Phone, with advantages like expressive live tiles—look, the latest news from MSN News without opening the app!—and other integration bits.
Some will argue that this is a short list, that you could simply list the many iPhone-exclusive apps as reason enough to stick with the Apple ecosystem. Sure, to each his own. I don’t personally care about those apps on my phone—they are a bigger deal to me on tablets, though—but I would respond that both Apple/iOS and Google/Android have important soul-crushing issues that make them less interesting to me. And Windows Phone is so fast, so efficient, and so customizable and I just find iPhone and Android handsets to be almost quaint in their deficiencies. Now that Apple is done copying the design language from Windows Phone, maybe it can copy live tiles next.
I realize that to many people, the app is king and that for those people a smart phone is nothing more than a giant grid of stuff they can do. I get that, and I don’t discount it or the people who feel that way. But I’m busy. I want to get in and out, get things done, and move on. I’m not staring at my screen all day like a zombie, but I can say that when I do look at my Windows Phone screen—a Lumia 930—I smile. I love this freaking thing.
And I don’t love it “still” or “despite of” whatever. I just love it. I understand the changes that have occurred, and why, and I most do agree with them. Many of those differentiators from the original Windows Phone release that were canceled or changed over time simply weren’t good ideas, even though they may have seemed to be so at the time. Real world experience should always change your perception of things, and Windows Phone has had to adapt to the times. That’s absolutely fine.
Looking ahead, the big differentiator Microsoft is pushing at developers and other partners is the universal app platform. For consumers and other users, it’s the integration with Microsoft’s platforms, a similar and consistent user experience, and content and settings sync. These are good stories, though they don’t really speak to what it is I love about Windows Phone. That’s already there. It never left.
Ultimately, my passion for this platform is equal parts emotional—the part that’s hard to describe—and logical. The personalization capabilities still put Windows Phone over the top, and even though I can move icons and folders around on an iPhone or Android home screen, what I’m ultimately looking at there is just another smart phone home screen. When I pick up my Windows Phone, I’m looking at my Windows Phone. There is no confusing it with anyone else’s. I love that. I love that Microsoft got this piece right and has continued to get it right while both Android and iOS move forward blissfully unaware of how important this is.
For me, there is Windows Phone and then there is everything else. And everything else is lacking. That’s why I know Windows Phone is special. I miss it when I have to use another device, no matter how nice it is. By the way, that includes Windows 8: imagine how excellent that OS would have been if Microsoft had actually based it on Windows Phone. It looks like they’re about to fix that problem with Windows 10. And guess what? I couldn’t be happier.
I love Windows Phone.