A day after switching over to Windows Phone 8, I found myself rooting for Microsoft’s evangelists on stage at its BUILD developer conference.
I’m not sure that my switch will be permanent. But for someone who originally first starting using a smartphone with Google’s Android operating system, shifting from Android to Windows Phone was surprisingly easy. Unfortunately, delving deeper also forced me to encounter some unexpected pain points.
(Note: I’m focusing here on my own experience of migrating from Android to Windows Phone. That means for the most part, I will ignore iOS, only because I don’t own an iPhone or iPad.)
Microsoft launched Windows Phone 8 on Monday, and, following the presentation, allowed press representatives to take home the Windows Phone 8X by HTC, for AT&T. (Developers and press attending the BUILD conference in Redmond received a new Nokia Lumia 820.) I’ve spent the last 36 hours or so using the 8X as my personal phone: placing calls, surfing the Web, and using and downloading apps, just as I would with any new device.
Switching to Windows Phone - or for that matter, any mobile ecosystem these days - begins with entering an email address. It’s the tiniest of steps into an ecosystem - but once made, each successive day, email, contact and attachment makes it more difficult to go back. Windows Phone’s strength really isn’t Hotmail; it’s Outlook, and the millions of corporate email addresses that still use Microsoft’s Exchange server. A phone’s basic function is to connect people, and a well-populated Outlook database will get you on your way.
But Windows Phone 8’s implementation goes a step further: It provides a unified inbox that specifically allows you to connect your Gmail account, even pulling in phone numbers and calendar appointments. (Apple is not even listed as an option.) So I was quickly able to combine my relatively barren Hotmail account with my active Gmail account, which enlivened my phone experience considerably. If you add a phone number on Google later, though, don’t expect it to be immediately sucked over.
Enlivening Live Tiles
And “enliven” is probably the key word here. You’ve probably read about Microsoft’s Live Tiles, interactive widgets that can live on the Windows Phone home screen as well as on Windows 8. Microsoft’s tiles are bright, dynamic pools of color. Oddly enough, they distract me while on a desktop PC, but I’m a big fan of them on the phone experience. An important note: On its Android devices, HTC imposes its own “Sense” user-interface on top of the base operating system. On the HTC 8X, there’s no Sense at all; the experience is purely Microsoft.
Unfortunately, at the moment only the “People” app really shows off Live Tiles. Before you link your email, Facebook and Twitter accounts, the People tile simply flips random squares of color. Add the accounts, though and the random squares bloom, replacing the random color swatches with the faces of your friends and colleagues. My only regret here is that the individual faces the tile displays aren’t linked to the person themselves - tapping the tile just launches the People app, sort of a contact list on steroids. I’d love for it to open the app and automatically place the person whose icon I tapped, on top.
The People app lists contacts, then slides over to reveal a “What’s New” page showing a stream of Facebook posts and Twitter updates. This is simply too cluttered. If you have a substantial number of Facebook friends and people you follow on Twitter, there’s simply too much information to track. And with Microsoft’s choice to use a larger font to emphasize subject lines and other important information, it takes up too much screen space. But there’s also a separate Facebook app, which simplifies the experience and can place your Facebook photos on the lock screen, a natural use of the vertical orientation. So far, the People app hasn’t convinced me that (from a social networking perspective) that it’s better than a few discrete apps.
On the other hand, the “Notes” section at the end of each contact is quite nice, and I liked how the app mined contacts for their websites and jobs. (Oddly enough, though, mapping Josh Topolsky’s Brooklyn location - identified as “Brooklyn, New York” - put him near Buffalo via Bing Maps.)
Another new feature of People is the ability to place people in Groups, with a shared calendar and to-do lists among other Windows Phone users. Unfortunately, that requires even more Windows Phones, although participants who use other mobile platforms can still get a limited view.
Google doesn’t really have anything comparable to Groups, although Google+ Circles might arguably perform some of the same functions.
Browser And Search
Obviously, Web browsers are a position of strength for both Android and Microsoft. But what I found surprsing was how the same sites could look dramatically different on two different browsers, based on the fonts used and the format. Compare the screenshots of the SFGate.com website, the home of the San Francisco Chronicle, on both the 8X as well as the Galaxy Nexus, which runs Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean and Chrome.
If I stood next to my Wi-Fi router both phones loaded the site at about the same speed. Elsewhere in my house, however, the 8X seemed to load sites much faster. But the Galaxy Nexus has spotty Wi-Fi coverage, not helped by the poor T-Mobile coverage in my hilly home in the North Bay. (The 8X uses AT&T, although a T-Mobile version is also available.)
Google also “knows” what sites I want to visit as I type them, based on its predictive response and its knowledge of my surfing habits. Microsoft may learn this eventually, too, but I haven’t noticed any improvements in the short time I’ve used the phone. I also wasn’t wild about the how searching via the magnifying glass button brought up the Bing search app, but it did so quickly, so I guess I’m okay with it.
Fortunately, the HTC 8X has a decent camera, although it’s reportedly not as good as the Nokia Lumia family. That’s a hardware limitation, but Google also limits photo resolution uploads to 2,048 x 2,048 using the Google Plus photo auto-upload feature. Microsoft’s SkyDrive uploaded photos at the full 8-megapixel resolution of the camera. Microsoft offers 7GB of free space for file storage, while Google offers unlimited storage for photos uploaded to Google+. (Uploading to Google’s Picasa service counts against your Google storage limit, though.)
Sideloading music onto a Windows Phone cost me an additional $20, although it wasn’t Microsoft’s fault: Instead of walking upstairs to my wife’s Windows PC, I tried shifting my collection via an external hard drive connected to my Mac. I hadn’t upgraded the Mac operating system in well, ever, and the Music app’s sideloading application requires Mac OS 10.7, not the earlier version I had. Oops. Time to download Mountain Lion.
Of course, I figured this wouldn’t be a problem, as I could simply upload my music to SkyDrive, and then download to the phone, right?
Inexplicably, that doesn’t work. A free Windows Phone app called Sky Player lets you stream music from SkyDrive (or download it to your phone). That works just fine, but it neither copies over your album art, nor places it in the appropriate folder to be accessed via the Music app. Here, Google Music carries the day.
Instead, I signed up for a free 30-day trial of Xbox Music, which auto-renews at $9.99 per month. That’s fine, but I don’t want to pay $9.99 per month for unlimited music; I already have Slacker for that. Unfortunately, that app isn’t yet available on Windows Phone 8. I hope I remember to cancel it before I get billed.
I simply don’t open or edit documents on my Android phone. Although there are a number of apps to do so, I just don’t want to type for any length of time on a phone keyboard. But for folks who tote around a Bluetooth keyboard, the ability to view and edit documents you’ve created elsewhere may be a nice Windows Phone feature.
This is sort of a catchall category. One of Google's strengths (and its greatest threats to privacy, if you're a critic) is how its services integrate to add value: Google's Jelly Bean operating system will issue you cards to remind you that you'll need to leave by a certain time to reach your next appointment, given the state of the traffic. Microsoft offers "cards," too, but really just as a supplement to businesses, such as their operating hours.
In fact, Microsoft offers no free turn-by-turn navigation at all, although its Bing Maps are included with the phone. However, the Local Scout app shows you a Foursquare-like map of which locations around you your friends have taken an interest in and like. (Nokia will offer free navigation on its phones.)
YouTube also works better on Android than on Windows Phone. I received an error message when playing back a VEVO video on Windows Phone that I didn't on Android. "As of July 2012, most YouTube partners and all new ones can choose to have their videos shown on only monetized platforms or across all platforms, versus on select devices," a YouTube spokesman said in an email. "We're working on migrating all legacy partnership agreements to this new model as soon as possible."
I also preferred Google's voice entry to Microsoft's.
This is a biggie, since most users customise their phones with a mixture of apps for any number of purposes, ranging from games to location-specific apps like Yelp. (Yelp has a Windows Phone 8 version, by the way.)
But seemingly obvious apps just aren’t available for Windows Phone: Rovio’s ubiquitous Angry Birds, which probably has a version for the Atari 2600 in the works, is in the Microsoft Store. But Angry Birds Seasons and Space aren’t. Netflix, another ubiquitous app, is on the store, but Slacker isn’t, yet. “Yet” may be the key word for a lot of your favorite apps, but the truth is that as far as new app development goes, Windows Phone lags far behind Android, not to mention Apple's iOS.
App discovery consists of a mention of “apps” underneath the featured apps from both HTC and the carrier, AT&T. Games, music and podcasts are also listed, looking like an addendum to cover Microsoft’s butt compared to the integrated Google Play store. When that’s selected, one big featured app dominates the screen, with just a minuscule search icon at the bottom.
While I'm on record stating that Windows 8 and Windows RT might be able to substitute the Web for dedicated apps, I feel differently in the mobile space. In my mind, a mobile app does a better job providing an optimized layout and location-aware services than a Web page. And, of course, this goes for games as well.
And that’s the problem. Live Tiles are an intriguing, dynamic invention that I would like to see more of. Facebook’s integration with the lock screen, automatically placing my photos for me to re-discover when I unlock the phone, are a delight. (Users can choose which app will interact with the lock screen, so that a business user can ask the Calendar app to push his next appointment to the screen, too.)
From what I can see, Microsoft has laid the foundations for success in the mobile space. Will I stay switched to Windows Phone 8? I don’t know - I may carry both phones for a while, and see what wins me over in the end.
But what needs to happen for Microsoft, over the long term, are three things:
- More apps.
- More Live Tile integration.
- More integration with the lock screen.
As those things happen, Windows Phone 8 will see more and more adoption and Microsoft’s star will rise.