I remember when I first saw Windows Phone 7 introduced all those years ago now how it just looked like Microsoft playing the me-too game with one of its biggest competitors. This was also a time when RIM, you know those guys who make the BlackBerrys that everyone used to rave about, where the kings of the smart phone world and Android was still considered that upstart that would get no where. Back then I said I’d end up getting one of these handsets eventually, mostly for application development purposes, but also so I could share the experience with you, my readers. I never really made good on that promise but thanks to LifeHacker I’ve had the privilege to have a Nokia Lumia 900 as my sole communications device for the past couple weeks and I thought it was high time I told you what I think of it.
Before I get into the meat of the underlying operating system I want to take a little time to comment on the phone itself. Nokia, renowned for their low end handsets that are everywhere, sheds those preconceptions easily with the Lumia 900. Whilst I know its no indication of the underlying quality the 900 has a really nice heft to it, feeling quite solid in the hands. The specs are actually quite incredible with it sporting a 1.4GHz Qualcomm Scorpion processor, 512MB RAM and 16GB of internal storage. Couple that with an 8MP camera with Carl Zeiss optics capable of capturing 720p video you’ve got a solid base of hardware that’s easily comparable to all other handsets from its generation. The battery life is also pretty incredible, easily lasting a couple days with moderate usage. Indeed if Nokia were to release a similar phone to the Android market there’s no doubt in my mind that it’d be right up there with the likes of Samsung and HTC.
My first impressions were quite good for Windows Phone 7 with some teething issues that I’ll dive into. On the surface Windows Phone 7 is visually pleasing with the large icons, live tiles and a very smooth scrolling experience that all just works. Just like you do with Android or iOS you sign into your phone using your Windows Live ID, which can be any email address you want, which then hooks into the underlying services that power your Windows Phone 7 handset. For the most part this is synching with things like Live Contacts, SkyDrive for your cloud storage and any other Microsoft service. For the most part these work well however I had a stumbling block at the start which did sour me initially on the platform.
So ever since I moved from my Windows Mobile device to my first iPhone all those years ago I’ve had my contacts stored in Google Contacts as that was the easiest way to ensure they’d follow me from platform to platform. Thankfully Windows Phone 7 allows you to add accounts across a wide range of services, Google being one of them. So I entered my details and hit sync…nothing happened. Indeed even when I tried to sync to my LiveID (which has nothing in it) I got a similar error saying “Attention required” and upon investigation it said that my username/password combination wasn’t correct. No matter what I did to get this to work it would always come up with this same error for both services. To rectify this I had to reset my phone to factory defaults, sign in again with my LiveID and then attempt to sync again. For Google Contacts I had to create an application specific password to use it (I have 2 factor auth turned on for my Google account) but I wasn’t prompted for this from Windows Phone 7 like I have been for other services. Realistically I’d expect a little better from a platform that’s been around for this long and this was why I was initially unhappy with Windows Phone 7.
However all the other in built apps like email, messaging and maps work absolutely flawlessly. It didn’t take me long to get everything in sync with all my emails coming down as soon as the server received them and things like MMS, which usually require some fiddling to get them to work properly, just worked straight away from the APN settings that came down from Telstra. The problems I experienced getting my contacts onto Windows Phone 7 were really the only major issue I had with the platform itself and it speaks volumes that the rest of the experience was so trouble free by comparison.
Of course the platform itself is only part of the equation as it’s the third party applications that can make or break it. Thankfully I’m please to say that for all the major applications like Twitter, Facebook and Shazam there are native applications and the function pretty much identically to their counterparts on the other major platforms. There are of course some differences in the applications that can be rather irritating (Twitter for instance doesn’t preload tweets like it does on Android) but they are more than usable. I wouldn’t say I prefer the Windows Phone 7 experience over Android or iOS as I was very much used to the former due to it being my platform of choice for the past year and a bit but I don’t find myself wanting for any specific feature. It’s probably more due to the fact that Windows Phone 7 has its own UI styling that’s pretty consistent across all the applications and for some instances that fits well but for others it just doesn’t really work at all.
Where Windows Phone 7 starts to fall down is in the niche application area, I.E. those applications on other platforms that you have for one specific need or another. My best example of this would be SoundCloud, a music sharing application, which has a great application on both Android and iOS. For Windows Phone 7 there’s no official application and all the third party solutions are really quite bad, to the point of being unusable. Of the 3 I tried no one supported logging in with Facebook and since I have no idea what my SoundCloud password is (I never set one, because of the Facebook integration) I simply could not try them. The SoundCloud mobile application is actually quite good but it doesn’t function the way you’d expect it and in order to get similar functionality you have to do things that aren’t particularly intuitive. Reddit is another example as whilst there’s an usable application (Alien News) it’s just not as good as Reddit is Fun on Android.
The state of the niche applications might not be a big deal to the majority of people who only need a few major applications (which are well supported on Windows Phone 7) but for power users like myself it feels like you’re artificially limiting yourself to being a second class smart phone user. Now this is no fault of the platform, it’s simply a function of its popularity among the wider public, and the only thing that will solve it is more users and time. Whether that will happen is hard to say as whilst Windows Phone 7 market share has been growing it’s still hard to call it anything more than an also-ran in comparison to Android and iOS.
In an objective comparison between all the platforms, forgetting the applications as they’re not strictly reflective of the platform itself, I can say that Windows Phone 7 is most definitely comparable to Android and iOS. The interface is slick and smooth, the built in applications are very usable and there are no real show stopping bugs that prevent you from doing anything that you could do on other platforms. Whilst I’m not sure if this will become my default platform of choice for the future (considering my Lumia won’t get Windows Phone 8) I definitely can’t fault anyone for choosing it over any of the other ones available. Indeed for certain people, especially those who are heavily invested in the Microsoft platform, I’d recommend it over anything else as its tight integration with Microsoft would make it much more worthwhile.
So overall I was very impressed with Windows Phone 7 as I was truly expecting the majority of applications to be no where near as good as their iOS/Android counterparts but they were. The most telling thing was that I never found myself wanting to do something and then finding out I wouldn’t be able to do it. Sure the experience wasn’t ideal in some cases but the capability was there and in many cases that’s all that matters. It will be interesting to see how this compares to the upcoming Windows Phone 8 and whilst I won’t promise that I’ll rush out to get one for the review (I’ve made that mistake before) I won’t say to no if Microsoft gives me a loaner for a couple weeks.
Which is actually a real possibility considering I’ll be blogging for them
I have a confession to make: I never took the plunge and bought a Windows Phone 7 handset like I said I would. It’s not because I didn’t want one, new gadgets are something I have a hard time turning down, it’s just that my desire to get one was overcome by the notion of spending several hundred dollars on a handset I wouldn’t use every day. I still kept my eye on them thanks to several people I work with having them but even their raving reviews of it weren’t enough to pull me away from my now Ice Cream Sandwich blessed Galaxy S2. In all honesty I had pretty much given up on Microsoft’s mobile efforts as they didn’t look like they’d be able to retake the crown they’ve lost to Google and Apple.
News comes today however that Microsoft has announced their latest version of their mobile operating system, Windows Phone 8. Unlike Windows Phone 7 which was more of a preview of Windows 8 than anything else WP8 keeps the same aesthetic that’s won them significant praise whilst firmly bringing their mobile platform into the Three Screens vision. WP8 also brings all the other improvements we’ve come to expect from new release such as support for faster phones, bigger screens, NFC and an upgraded browser that. The biggest improvement, from my point of view at least, is that WP8 devices will be running the full WinRT framework essentially elminating the gap between their tablet/ARM devices and their mobile line.
Now this isn’t anything that hasn’t been done before, Apple has long had a similar level of platform ubiquity between their tablet and handset platforms. However WinRT does provide the capability for applications to run on desktops as well, something Apple (or anyone else for that matter) has yet to achieve. Whilst the 3rd screen, the TV, has yet to receive the WinRT treatment from any Microsoft product it would seem to be a safe bet that the next generation Xbox will feature the framework. This is of course wild speculation on my part however Microsoft would be foolish not to take advantage of the foothold they already have in the home entertainment space and I’m sure the people inside Microsoft think in the same way.
Interestingly enough the announcement of Windows Phone 8 comes hot off the heels of another announcement from Microsoft: that of their new Surface tablet. Now this isn’t to be confused with the original Surface table as that’s now been renamed to Microsoft PixelSense. No this tablet is a lining up to be a direct competitor to the iPad having very similar styling and identical use cases. The differences appear to be however that the Surface will come in two versions, one WinRT only and the other a full blown x86 PC. The delineation isn’t made lightly and it’s obvious that the x86 model is going to be aimed more at corporate users who need all their applications and the WinRT version will be meant for the consumers. It looks like a solid product however I can’t help but shake the feeling that it might not be the greatest step forward for Microsoft.
You see whilst Microsoft does need to do something about getting into the tablet space they’ve already done most of the legwork with Windows 8. They already have great relationships with OEMs and this is why you don’t see a whole bunch of Microsoft branded devices around the shop: they make the software and others provide the hardware. Getting into the tablet business means they’re kind of thumbing their nose at the OEMs, especially when each license for Windows 8 will cost them $85. As long as Microsoft makes their tablet a premium price range product though this won’t be so much of an issue but they could really do some damage to their OEM relationships if their tablets debut in the $200~$400 range. Since there’s not a whole bunch of information about it now I’ll have to play wait and see with this one as things could change significantly between now and launch day.
Microsoft’s mobile platform has been taking a battering from every side but with the unification between all of their platforms they might just be able to tempt people away from their Android and iPhone comfort zones. Certainly the unified platform provided by WinRT will be attractive to developers and that will hopefully see more killer applications find their way onto Windows Phone 8. The next year of Windows 8 related releases will be key for Microsoft’s future and will be telling if their vision for platform unification is the direction they need to be heading in.
Cross platform development is one of those things that I’ve seen done dozens of times before but rarely do I see anyone get it right. I understand the allure of doing so, heck my most creative forms of procrastination came from experimenting with these ideas, but the fact remains that more often than not they’re going to be a total waste of your time. I do have one exception to this rule however and that comes in the form of the cross-platform game engine Unity. Where other libraries promise compatibility and a wide range of functions Unity actually delivers on these with little compromise. Couple that with their ridiculously good pricing model and awesome dev environment and it’s hard to fault the product. Indeed all the shortcomings I found were, as far as I could tell, limitations of my programming expertise.
For games developers Unity offers the chance to have one code base for all platforms with only minor tweaking required once you want to deploy the project to your chosen platform. This is great because initially you can focus on one platform and then once you’ve verified your product there it doesn’t take much to port it to the new platform. It’s no surprise then that you’ll find many Unity based games in both the Apple and Android app stores. Figuring that Unity was going for all round platform domination I thought it was only a matter of time before I saw that the library would support Windows Phone 7, even though it’s still in its nascent stages.
As it turns out however that won’t be happening:
The Unity engine does not support Windows Phone 7 because of restrictions placed on Microsoft’s mobile, the CEO of Unity Technologies has said.
“But we’re looking at Windows Phone 8 and hopefully it will be easier to work on that system,” he said.
In an interview with Develop, to be published soon, Helgason explained Windows Phone 7 “is a relatively closed system so you can’t run native content, which means we can’t really support it”.
The “closed” nature that David Helgason (CEO of Unity) is referring to is the fact that if you want to put a game on the Windows Phone 7 platform you need to have coded it in either Silverlight or Microsoft’s XNA framework. Unity then approached Microsoft to see if they could get an exemption from this rule (as well as access to some private APIs which would be required for their libraries to work) however Microsoft turned them down. This means that Unity and all the games built on top of it are banned from being released on this platform, save for a full rewrite of the code. In response Unity has turned their sites towards Windows 8 which will be a lot more friendly for them thanks to the WinRT framework.
This feels like a pretty big misstep from Microsoft. Windows Phone 7 hasn’t been gaining any momentum and it’s overall smart phone market share (that includes Windows Mobile devices) has been taking quite the battering dropping to a low of 1.6%. Whilst I won’t go as far to say that Unity would be its saving grace it definitely wouldn’t hurt to have that available as an option for games developers looking to develop for the Windows Phone 7 platform. Indeed since Unity supports coding in C# I’d hazard a guess that there would be quite a few who’d be willing to give it a shot just because it would be easy for them to learn. Heck I know I did.
In reality Windows Phone 7 has a lot of other hurdle to overcome before it can be considered a serious competitor in the market but Microsoft can’t afford to throw away any potential advantage it can get. Not working with Unity only serves to damage the Windows Phone 7 platform as it has demonstrated success on every platform it’s available on. Unity developers then may have to wait for Windows 8 and the corresponding Windows Phone release before they can think about coming across onto Microsoft’s platform but I feel that may be too far off, and the damage has already been done.
For the past year I was somewhat of an anomaly amongst my tech friends because I choose to get an iPhone 3GS instead of one of the Android handsets. The choice was simple at the time, I had an app that I wanted to develop for it and needed something to test on, but still I copped it sweet whenever I said something positive about the platform since I’d usually be the only one with an Apple product in the area. When it came time again to buy a new phone, as I get to do every year for next to nothing, I resisted for quite a while, until one of my friends put me onto the Samsung Galaxy S2¹. The tech specs simply overwhelmed my usual fiscal conservativeness and no less than a week later was I in possession of one and so began my experience with the Android platform.
The default UI that comes with all of Samsung’s Android handsets, called TouchWiz, feels uncannily similar to that of iOS. In fact it’s so familiar that Apple is suing Samsung because of it, but if you look at many other Android devices you’ll see that they share similar characteristics that Apple is claiming Samsung ripped off from them. For me personally though the Android UI wins out simply because of how customizable it is allowing me to craft an experience that’s tailored to my use. Widgets, basically small front ends to your running applications, are a big part of this enabling me to put things like a weather ticker on my front page. The active wallpapers are also pretty interesting too, if only to liven up the otherwise completely static UI.
What impresses me most about the Android platform is the breadth and depth of the applications and tweaks available for the system. My first few days with Android were spent just getting myself back up and running like I was on my iPhone, finding all the essential applications (Facebook, Twitter, Shazam, Battle.net Authenticator, etc) and comparing the experience to the iPhone. For the most part the experience on Android is almost identical, especially with applications that have large user bases, but some of them were decidedly sub-par. Now most would say that this is due to the fragmentation of the Android platform but the problems I saw didn’t stem from those kinds of issues, just a lack of effort on their part to polish the experience. This more often happened for applications that weren’t “Android born” as many of the native apps were leaps and bounds ahead of them in terms of quality.
The depth of integration that applications and tweaks can have with the Android platform is really where the platform shines. Skype, for example, can usurp your outgoing calls and route them through their network which could be a major boon if you’re lucky enough to have a generous data plan. It doesn’t stop with application integration either, there are numerous developers dedicated to making the Android platform itself better through custom kernels and ROMs. The extra functionality that I have unlocked with my phone by installing CF-Root kernel, one that allows me root access, are just phenomenal. I’ve yet to find myself wanting for any kind of functionality and rarely have I found myself needing to pay for it something, unless it was for convenience’s sake.
Android is definitely a technophile’s dream with the near limitless possibilities of an open platform laid out before you. However had you not bothered to do all the faffing about that I did you still wouldn’t be getting a sub-par experience, at least on handsets sporting the TouchWiz interface. Sure you might have to miss out on some of the useful apps (like Titanium Backup) but realistically many of the root enabled apps aren’t aimed at your everyday user. You still get all the benefits of the deep integration with the Android platform where a good 90% of the value will be for most users anyway.
Despite all of this gushing over Google’s mobile love child I still find it hard to recommend it as the platform for everyone. Sure for anyone with a slight technical bent it’s the platform to go for, especially if you’re comfortable modding your hardware, and sure it’s still quite usable for the majority who aren’t. However Apple’s platform does automate a lot of the rudimentary stuff for you (like backing up your handset when you sync it) which Android, as a platform, doesn’t currently do. Additionally thanks to the limited hardware platform you’re far less likely to encounter some unknown issue on iOS than you are on Android which, if you’re the IT support for the family like me, can make your life a whole lot easier.
Android really impressed me straight from the get go and continued to do so as I spent more time getting to know it and digging under the hood to unlock even more value from it. The ability to interact, modify or outright replace parts of the underlying Android platform is what makes it great and is the reason why it’s the number 1 smart phone platform to date. As a long time smart phone user I feel that Android is by far the best platform for both technophiles and regular users alike, giving you the usability you’ve come to expect from iOS with the tweakability that used to be reserved for only for Windows Mobile devices.
Now I just need to try out a Windows Phone 7 device and I’ll have done the mobile platform trifecta.
¹I’m reviewing the handset separately as since Android is available on hundreds of handsets it wouldn’t be fair to lump them together as I did with the iPhone. Plus the Galaxy S2 deserves its own review anyway and you’ll find out why hopefully this week
The last two years have seen a major shake up in the personal computing industry. Whilst I’m loathed to admit it Apple was the one leading the charge here, redefining the smart phone space and changing the way many people did the majority of their computing by creating the wildly successful niche of curated computing (read: tablets). It is then inevitable that many subsequent innovations from rival companies are seen as reactions to Apple’s advances, even if the steps that company is taking are towards a much larger and broader goal than competing in the same market.
I am, of course, referring to Microsoft’s Windows 8 which was just demoed recently.
There’s been quite a bit of news about the upcoming release of Windows 8 with many leaked screenshots and even leaked builds that gave us a lot of insight into what we can expect of the next version of Windows. For the most part the updates didn’t seem like anything revolutionary although things like portable desktops and a more integrated web experienced were looking pretty slick. Still Windows 7 was far from being revolutionary either but the evolution from Vista was more than enough to convince people that Microsoft was back on the right track and the adoption rates reflect that.
However the biggest shift that is coming with Windows 8 was known long before it was demoed: Windows 8 will run on ARM and other System on a Chip (SOC) devices. It’s a massive deviation from Microsoft’s current platform which is wholly x86/x86-64 based and this confirms Microsoft’s intentions to bring their full Windows experience to tablet and other low power/portable devices. The recent demo of the new operating system confirmed this with Windows 8 having both a traditional desktop interface that we’re all familiar with and also a more finger friendly version that takes all of its design cues from the Metro interface seen on all Windows Phone 7 devices.
Looking at all these changes you can’t help but think that they were all done in reaction to Apple’s dominance of the tablet space with their iPad. It’s true that a lot of the innovations Microsoft has done with Windows 8 mirror those of what Apple has achieved in the past year or so however since Windows 8 has been in development for much longer than that not all of them can be credited to Microsoft playing the me-too game. Realistically it’s far more likely that many of these innovations are Microsoft’s first serious attempts at realizing their three screens vision and many of the changes in Windows 8 support this idea.
A lot of critics think the idea of bringing a desktop OS to a tablet form factor is doomed for failure. The evidence to support that view is strong too since Windows 7 (and any other OS for that matter) tablet hasn’t enjoyed even a percentage of the success that the dedicated tablet OS’s have. However I don’t believe that Microsoft is simply making a play for the tablet market with Windows 8, what they’re really doing is providing a framework for building user experiences that remain consistent across platforms. The idea of being capable of completing any task whether you’re on your phone, TV or dedicated computing device (which can be a tablet) is what is driving Microsoft to develop Windows 8 they way they are. Windows Phone 7 was their first steps into this arena and their UI has been widely praised for its usability and design and Microsoft’s commitment to using it on Windows 8 shows that they are trying to blur the lines that current exist between the three screens. The potential for .NET applications to run on x86, ARM and other SOC platforms seals the deal, there is little doubt that Microsoft is working towards a ubiquitous computing platform.
Microsoft’s execution of this plan is going to be vital for their continued success. Whilst they still dominate the desktop market it’s being ever so slowly eroded away by the bevy of curated computing platforms that do everything users need them to do and nothing more. We’re still a long time away from everyone out right replacing all their PCs with tablets and smart phones but the writing is on the wall for a sea change in the way we all do our computing. Windows 8 is shaping up to be Microsoft’s way of re-establishing themselves as the tech giant to beat and I’m sure the next year is going to be extremely interesting for fans and foes alike.
Microsoft has a few ways it goes about building out a presence in a market. The first, and the most rare, is that the develop a product in house from scratch to compete directly in a market that’s currently booming. The most recent examples of these sorts of products are the Xbox and the Zune both wholly developed by Microsoft to compete in the gaming and portable music player industries respectively. The second way they establish themselves in a market is to buy out either the top competitor or one of the more successful competitors as they did for things like Softricity who were the leaders in application virtualization software. Lastly sometimes they’ll say they’re getting into a market but will never make any serious attempt to do so just to kill off any potential competition, which they attempted to do back when the iPad was still a rumor and they announced the Courier tablet which failed to materialize.
Whatever strategy they adopt to establish themselves in a chosen market there’s always one common theme to their approach: throw money at the problem until it becomes successful. Now this isn’t a strategy that every company can adopt (realistically only a minority can) but Microsoft is usually so flush with cash that they can afford years of losses without it posing any sort of risk to their core business. Most notably they did this for a good 7 years with the Xbox division before it managed to turn a profit, sinking billions of dollars into the product before it actually made them any sort of money. They also continue to do it for products like the Zune which continues to languish behind Apple’s iPod but that’s still got a couple years before it reaches the 7 year mark that the Xbox did, but there’s really little hope for that product.
Their latest endeavor which is seemingly flush with cash is their Windows Phone 7 product. Whilst the sales of the devices haven’t been that stellar they’ve still managed to take a small percentage of the smart phone market. Their partnership with Nokia sets the scene for them to become a potential juggernaut in this sector but they’ve got a long uphill battle ahead of them and the gamble isn’t a sure thing for either side. Microsoft now appears to be looking to strengthen their WP7 offering even further by shelling out a cool $8.5 billion dollars for everyone’s favorite communications app, Skype:
The purchase price includes the assumption of Skype’s debt.
The agreement has been approved by the boards of directors of both Microsoft and Skype.
Whilst the acquisition is not solely dedicated to the WP7 product line it’s still the one that has the most to gain from it. WP7 doesn’t currently support any form of video calling like Apple’s FaceTime or Google’s Video Chat does and Skype could provide a good chunk of the underlying infrastructure, saving Microsoft a lot of work. Skype’s vision of being available everywhere lines up quite well with Microsoft’s three screens idea and I’m sure they’ll be looking to leverage Skype’s vast network to push their cloud products further. Still one has to wonder if the $8.5 billion price tag they paid for Skype is worth it, considering its Microsoft’s biggest acquisition to date.
When I first heard of the news that Microsoft had bought Skype my first reaction was that this was a maneuver to deny Facebook the chance at getting it. There were rumors of Facebook testing the waters of an acquisition for a while but it seems that in the end the only serious bidders were Microsoft and Google. It then becomes clear that Microsoft simply did not want the Skype network in the hands of one of its largest competitors and Facebook was probably not that interested in the first place, especially if Microsoft (who owns 1.6% of Facebook) was going to pony up the cash for them anyway. Google might not have been completely serious about their offer anyway since they already have most of what Skype has to offer and might have just been making sure Microsoft spent more than it had to (hey they’ve done it before).
It will be interesting to see how Microsoft leverages this investment, especially with its current product lines that have direct synergies with Skype. They’ve certainly been doing all they can to make sure their mobile sector succeeds and if Gartner is to be believed then we’re less than 4 years away from them becoming the dominant platform. I’m not so sure about that idea but I do know that Microsoft does have the resources to throw at this problem until they become big in this sector, and the Skype acquisition is a testament to that fact.
You know I was pretty hyped about getting a WP7 handset after having a short play with one in the store. The slick interface and overall usability of it was so high that I thought it was worth a shot and I had really nothing to lose since my work would be paying for it. The NoDo update was on the horizon however so I decided that I’d hold back until it made its way into production so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the same frustrations that day 0 customers had. Most notably this would be the inclusion of copy and paste, but there were also a few other fixes that I thought would be good to have and worth the wait.
The problem is however that unlike regular Windows patching there’s a gate keeper between me and Microsoft’s patches for their new mobile platform. You see the patches have to pass muster with the carriers first before they can be distributed to the handsets although Microsoft had said in the past that they were working with them to make the process as quick as possible. Unfortunately for us Australian customers looking for a WP7 handset you really only have one carrier to go with: Telstra. Now this wouldn’t be so much of a bad option normally since Telstra had to start playing straight after their retail and wholesale arms were broken apart but it seems that they’re not up to the job of testing WP7 updates:
Universal availability of the copy-and-paste update to Windows Phone 7, codenamed NoDo, is almost here, according to Microsoft’s latest schedule update. The final unpatched phone available in the US market, the HTC Surround sold by AT&T should start to receive its updates within the next ten business days. The network’s other two handsets, the Samsung Focus and LG Quantum, have been receiving updates since last week.
European carrier Deutsche Telekom (which includes T-Mobile UK) has at last finished its testing, as has Australian carrier Optus. Updates from phones on these networks should also appear within the next ten business days or so. This leaves only two carriers still delaying the updates due to “testing”: Telefonica, in Spain, and Telstra, in Australia.
This was the one area where I was expecting Microsoft to shine through since their bread and butter products have depended so heavily on their patch services for well over a decade. Sure the vast majority of the blame should be leveled at the carriers since they’re the ones causing the delays, but Microsoft isn’t innocent of incurring delays either. Of course the original iPhone and Android handsets weren’t immune to problems like this either but I had expected Microsoft’s late coming to the party to be at least coupled with a strong patch and feature release scheme so they could play catch up quickly.
It might seem like an extraordinarily small gripe considering the rest of the platform looks solid but when minor feature releases like this take so long to get through the pipeline it makes me wonder just how long I’ll have to wait for the next update, codenamed Mango, to drop. Amongst other things Mango will bring full HTML5 support to WP7 something which it currently lacks in its browser. Whilst the IE9 implementation of HTML5 does leave some things to be desired (my newest app idea uses HTML5 bits, and IE9 mangles it) it is a lot better than not having it at all, especially when so many mobile versions of sites rely on HTML5 functionality. With speculation now brewing that this update might slip to next year that’s starting to put WP7 at a serious disadvantage, unless some enterprising browser developer ports to WP7 ala Opera et al.
I’m still planning to nab myself one of these handsets if only for the few times I’ll want to try my hand at developing an application for it but with such delays piling up on each other I could very well see myself changing to Android or back to iOS until they’re finished playing the catch up game. I’m sure as time goes on they’ll develop a much better relationship with the carriers and hopefully they’ll be able to leverage that to remove some of the roadblocks to getting patches and updates out to us consumers. Until then however WP7 users are going to be at the whim of the carriers, even more so than they are normally.
Whilst the only current smartphone platform I’ve had any decent experience with is Apple’s iPhone I’m still not completely tied to it. Sure the platform is great and I’ll always be keeping an iOS device around for as long as I keep developing for the platform but my next handset purchase is more than likely not going to be another Apple device. The case is strong for a Windows Phone 7 handset thanks to its great tool set and general esoteric-ness (I don’t yet know anyone who’s bought one) but that same air of mystery is a double edged sword. Sure most of my general applications will be available on it, like Twitter and Facebook, but past that there’s not a whole lot of interest in the platform.
It’s not surprising really considering that slice of the mobile market pie that Microsoft commands is only a mere 5.5% according to the IDC, which includes all handsets that come under the Windows umbrella. The nearest rival to them is RIM (creator of the Blackberry handset series) who nearly triple their share at a whopping 14.9% and even they don’t seem to command a 3rd party developer army comparable to that of Android or Google. Still with them sealing the deal on a partnership with Nokia recently the IDC has reported that Microsoft’s WP7 platform will begin to surge ahead, overtaking iOS and being second only to Android.
The intial reaction to this was of course, utter disbelief:
In the close to six months that WP7 has been available, it has failed to set sales on fire. In fact, Microsoft hasn’t provided any metrics on how many WP7 handsets have been sold. Also, the 5.5% market share that Microsoft has now represents both WP7 and the old Windows Mobile 5.x and 6.x systems, which are still being sold on enterprise handhelds.
Further, Microsoft has stumbled badly with the first two system updates for its smartphone platform. First by delaying it for nearly two months, and second by bungling the actual delivery of the updates. Things are not going so smoothly for Microsoft. Heck, WP7 champion Joe Belfiore actually wrote a public apology to its WP7 customers about the whole update debacle.
Zeman makes some good points about the WP7 ecosystem and the troubles Microsoft has faced in dragging their Windows Mobile platform into the modern age. The sales figures aren’t that impressive when you compare them to iOS and Android, heck they’re not even that impressive compared to single handsets on either platform. Still this ignores the fact that WP7 is still a nascent platform and it will be a while before it reaches the maturity level that everyone’s expecting of it. If we’re fair and compare the initial WP7 sales to the initial release of Android you’ll actually find them quite comparable with the G1 selling some 600,000 handsets in the first couple months and WP7 cracking 1.5 million in its first 6 weeks. It took quite a while for Android and even the iPhone to hit the fever pitch that they have today so the current market share of WP7 devices shouldn’t really come as a surprise.
I can’t provide an excuse for their botched update schedule however. Apple seems to be the only major competitor that’s nailed this completely with Android and WP7 both suffering from the same carrier induced delays and fragmentation problems. It’s actually one of the reasons why I haven’t already lashed out for a WP7 handset since the main carrier of them here in Australia, Telstra, is still testing the pre-update update and has no schedule for the release of the coveted Nodo update. Since there doesn’t seem to be any way to route around the carrier and install the patch manually (although I’ll admit I haven’t done a ton of research on this) it means I’m wholly dependent on someone other than Microsoft to get my handset updated. With Telstra’s track record that doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence in the platform.
Both Android and iOS faced similar problems in their infancy and I’m sure WP7 will be able to overcome them in the future. Whether it will become the second most popular platform though remains to be seen as whilst the Nokia relationship means they have a strong possibility of gaining some serious traction it’s not a sure bet that every current Symbian customer will convert over to WP7. With Microsoft being particularly coy about their sales figures its hard to get a good reading of how their new mobile platform is trending but it will definitely be interesting to see how their market share changes as Nokia begins releasing their WP7 handsets.
The date is fast approaching April and that means the Fringe Benefits Tax year is about to roll over. For most people this is a non-event unless you’re salary sacrificing a car but for contractors like me it means I can write off another phone and laptop device on tax, effectively getting them for half the market price. Whilst it’s not as good as it used to be (you were also able to depreciate them, making said devices basically free) there hasn’t been a year yet when I haven’t taken advantage of at least getting a new phone, and last year was the first when I purchased my Macbook Pro. So of course I’ve spent the last couple weeks looking through the available selection of phones and tablets with which to gorge myself upon and the more I look the more I get the feeling I won’t be able to leave my iPhone behind like I did with my other smart phones.
The tablet choice is pretty easy since I’m not particularly fond of the iPad (I don’t need another iDevice) and getting something like the Motorola Xoom would cover off my need for an Android device to code against. To have all current platforms covered then the smart phone choice (HA! See what I did there?) would be a Windows Phone 7 handset. Taking a look around I found a few pretty good deals on various handsets with contracts comparable to what I’m on now with tons of extra value. My handset of choice is the HTC Mozart which appears to be the cream of the current crop of WP7 handsets, anything else is just too far off on the horizon to be worth considering.
Of course whenever I’m contemplating a new phone I’ll always compare it to what I currently have to see if it fixes the things that bug me and whether or not it will be worth it. Whilst my 3GS is less than a year old it’s nipping on the feet of being 2 generations behind the current trend so any recent handset should beat it hands down. A quick look at the similarly priced handsets shows this to be true all of them bristling with bigger CPUs, more RAM and better dedicated graphics. Unfortunately however there’s one thing that all the other handsets I’ve been looking at don’t cover.
That unfortunate beast is the Apple App Store.
Despite the insane growth that Android has shown over the past year Apple is still the platform of choice for many early adopters and developers. It’s extremely rare for a company to attempt to launch a mobile application on anything but Apple first, simply because the user base tends much more towards that early adopter mindset of trying things out. Sure there are many examples of popular apps that made their debut on the Android markets (although none that I’m aware of for WP7) but when you compare them to the number of success Apple can count using its platform there’s really no contest. Couple that with the fact that despite Android’s runaway popularity the App store is still by far more profitable for developers looking to sell their wares and you’d really have to be crazy not to launch on their platform.
For me this presents an interesting conundrum. Whilst I was never going to sell my 3GS since it will make a good test bed for at least another year or two I do use it quite extensively to test out potential competitor’s applications. Since most of them launch on iPhone first this hasn’t been a big deal but with me planning to move to WP7 (or possibly Android) for my main handset I can’t help but feel that I’ll probably want to keep it on hand so that I can keep a close eye on the market. Sure I could just make a note to try an application later but many up and coming products are based around using them for a particular purpose, not booting them up occasionally to see the new features. Granted this is probably limited to social applications but any new product is almost guaranteed to have some kind of social bent baked in (heaven knows I tried to avoid it for the longest time with Lobaco).
The market could change and with the growth that Android is experiencing I may be singing a completely different tune a year from now. Still until the Android store starts pumping out billions of dollars to its developers I can’t see a future where any serious developer isn’t focused primarily on Apple first with Android planned down the line. For now I think I’ll stick with my plan of a WP7 phone and an Android tablet, keeping the gaggle of devices close at my side at all times so that I can test any app regardless of its platform. It’s the same line of thinking that lead me to buy every major console, although the Wii has only ever been used a couple times.
There’s an analogy in there somewhere
I’ve had quite a few phones in my time but only 2 of them have ever been Nokias. The first was the tiny 8210 I bought purely because everyone else was getting a phone so of course I needed one as well. The second was an ill-fated N95 which, despite being an absolutely gorgeous media phone, failed to work on my network of choice thanks to it being a regional model that the seller neglected to inform me about. Still I always had a bit of a soft spot for Nokia devices because they got the job done and they were familiar to anyone who had used them before, saving many phone calls when my parents upgraded their handsets. I’ve even wondered loudly why developers ignore Nokia’s flagship mobile platform despite it’s absolutely ridiculous install base that dwarfs all of its competitors, acknowledging that it’s mostly due to their lack of innovation on the platform.
Then on the weekend a good friend of mine tells me that Nokia had teamed up with Microsoft to replace Symbian with Windows Phone 7. I had heard about Nokia’s CEO releasing a memo signalling drastic changes ahead for the company but I really didn’t expect that to result in something this drastic:
Nokia CEO Stephen Elop announced a long-rumored partnership with Microsoft this morning that would make Windows Phone 7 Nokia’s primary mobile platform.
The announcement means the end is near for Nokia’s aging Symbian platform, which many (myself included) have criticized as being too archaic to compete with modern platforms like the iPhone OS or Android. And Nokia’s homegrown next-generation OS, MeeGo, will no longer be the mythical savior for the Finnish company, as it’s now being positioned more as an experiment.
We’ve argued for some time that a move to Windows Phone 7 would make the most sense for Nokia, and after Elop’s dramatic “burning platform” memo last weekend, it was all but certain that the company would link up with Microsoft.
It’s a bold move for both Nokia and Microsoft as separated they’re not much of a threat to the two other giants in the mobile industry. However upon combining Nokia is ensuring that Windows Phone 7 reaches many more people than it can currently, delivering handsets at price ranges that other manufacturers just won’t touch. This will have a positive feedback effect of making the platform more attractive to developers which in turn drives more users to come to the platform when their applications of choice are ported or emulated. Even their concept phones are looking pretty schmick:
The partnership runs much deeper than just another vendor hopping onto the WP7 bandwagon however. Nokia has had a lot more experience than Microsoft in the mobile space and going by what is said in an open letter that the CEOs of both companies wrote together it looks like Microsoft is hoping to use that experience to further refine the WP7 line. There’s also a deep integration in terms of Microsoft services (Bing for search and adCenter for ads) and interestingly enough Bing Maps won’t be powering Nokia’s WP7 devices, it will still be OVI Maps. I’m interested to see where this integration heads because Bing Maps is actually a pretty good product and I was never a fan of the maps on Nokia devices (mostly because of the subscription fee required). They’ll also be porting all their content streams and application store across to the Microsoft Marketplace which is expected considering the level of integration they’re going for.
Of course the question has been raised as to why they didn’t go for one of the alternatives, namely their MeeGo platform or Google Android. MeeGo, for all its open source goodness, hasn’t really experienced the same amount of traction that Android has and has firmly been in the realms of “curious experiment” for the past year, even if Nokia is only admitting to it today. Android on the other hand would’ve made a lot of sense, however it appears that Nokia wanted to be an influencer of their new platform of choice rather than just another manufacturer. They’d never get this level of integration from Google unless they put in all the work and then realistically that does nothing to help the Nokia brand, it would all be for Google. Thus WP7 is really the only choice with these considerations in mind and I’m sure Microsoft was more than happy to welcome Nokia into the fray.
For a developer like me this just adds fuel to the WP7 fire that’s been burning in my head for the past couple months. Although it didn’t take me long to become semi-competent with iPhone SDK the lure of easy WP7 development has been pretty hard to ignore over the past couple months, especially when I have to dive back into Visual Studio to make API changes. Nokia’s partnership with Microsoft means that there’s all the more chance that WP7 will be a viable platform for the long term and as such any time spent developing on it is time well spent. Still if I was being truly honest with myself I’d just suck it up and do Android anyway but after wrangling with Objective-C for so long I feel like I deserve a little foray back into the world of C# and Visual Studio goodness and this announcement justifies that even more.