Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

That Windows phone

I’m on record as saying that Microsoft really needs its new phone platform, called Windows Phone 7, to succeed. It’s not that the loss of revenue from the declining sales of its old Windows Mobile phones hurts Microsoft much, but rather that it needs to be seen to be competent in a really important market.

Since the first iPhone, smartphones have come to challenge laptops for complexity and, in some cases, capability. Ten years ago, Windows on the desktop faced a small challenge from Linux and a larger (but still relatively small) one from Mac OS X. Now, despite the rise of the easy-to-install and use Ubuntu distribution, Linux is still very small on the desktop, but OS X is increasing strongly, up to about ten percent of total PC sales. But the interesting change is in the hardware: starting with the iPad, we are seeing devices using phone operating systems which are expanding into the space normally occupied by laptops. That’s a threat to Windows, not because of the iOS operating system, but because of Android – which is, of course, a version of Linux – becoming available in large numbers on slate-type devices and challenging Microsoft’s hold on the desktop and laptop operating system market. So, the question for Windows Phone 7 has got to be – not “is it good enough to sell?” but “is it good enough to keep Android out of the market, or at least out of the slate and tablet market?”.

Enough context. Microsoft lent me a review phone running Windows Phone 7. The phone is a HTC Trophy, and it comes in the “all screen, few buttons” format pioneered by the iPhone. Many sites have done in depth reviews of every aspect of the software and I’m not going to repeat that here – try this one if that’s what you’re after. I’m more concerned with the phone’s usability and its ability to grab mindshare from its competitors: iPhone and Android. (I’m also slightly hampered by not having a Vodafone SIM. The Trophy is Vodafone-only.)

The “out of the box experience” isn’t bad. Most of the accessories are in plastic bags that make it hard to figure out which is which; just open them all. There’s a few leaflets including quite a long software licensing agreement. I don’t know anyone, lawyers included, who reads these things, and I’ve often wondered what would happen if they said something truly outrageous. Maybe they do. As per usual with a new phone, I plugged it in for a few hours before trying it out.

The phone itself is quite good looking. It has a large, silky screen with three obvious buttons at the bottom – back, Windows and search. There’s a hardware power button on the top edge of the phone, a volume rocker on the left hand edge and a camera button on the right hand edge. The phone feels reasonably solid, but the rear cover is flimsy. You shouldn’t need to open that often, though.

As an aside, I’m really not convinced about the Microsoft advertising which implies that people spend longer than they want to on their iPhones, and will be able to get in and out of their Windows phones more quickly. It misses the point that the iPhone is seductive – people spend time on it because they want to. If Microsoft’s phone doesn’t have the same effect, Micrsooft will lose.

The first time you turn it on the phone runs a wizard for setting up email and presumably access points for data, messaging etc. Once through the wizard, the first thing to see is the phone’s main point of innovation – the main screen with “tiles” and “hubs”. These are rectangular areas of display, configurable, giving access to the various areas of the phones functions. Flicking this screen sideways gives you a more normal-looking menu with small icons and text. The tile effect is quite interesting and I could probably get used to it as a way of launching programs on the phone.

There’s a lot of eye candy in the interface. Items whizz in and out, often through an apparent third dimension. Some tiles are animated even when they aren’t in use. I find that all a bit off-putting, but maybe that’s just me.

There’s a marketplace-cum-app store, as you’d expect, with a lot of applications behind it. I’m happy to see that there’s now an official Twitter app, which looks much like Twitter on other platforms.

A really odd thing about the phone is that it doesn’t support “hidden” wi-fi networks, i.e. ones that don’t broadcast their names. Microsoft has said that that is is deliberate. That seems an odd decision to me, since the main user base you would expect for a Windows-based smartphone would be corporates, which often hide their wireless networks. Even some home networks are hidden – such as mine – and Microsoft’s answer to that is to reveal your network. Presumably Microsoft could fix this lack, and they’ll need to if they want to make serious headway with the phone. Or perhaps they will just try to get the world to reveal all its hidden networks, but, frankly, that isn’t going to work.

With Windows Phone 7 Microsoft has certainly proved that it can make a modern smartphone platform. Is it good enough to stem the flow to Android? Possibly; it’s at least a credible contender and many IT departments are more comfortable with anything Microsoft than alternatives. But the real question is whether it can prevent Android devices from leaping from smartphones to tablets in the enterprise. And it’s too early to say on that one.

posted by colin at 10:51 am  

1 Comment

  1. Macs have never reached 10% of PC sales. Maybe within the US they managed it, but worldwide they have remained at about 3% for over the last decade and a half.

    Comparing the beginnings of Windows Phone 7 and Android, the latter was not auspicious at all. But its open nature allowed for feverish competition among alternative handset makers, which is why after just two years it has managed to match, and then surpass, the Iphone.

    Windows Phone 7 is not as open. This restricts the handset makers’ ability to compete with each other in adding custom features; they have to wait for all the new features to come from Microsoft. And Microsoft is simply not a fast-moving company any more. So ultimately, Windows Phone 7 will not be able to keep up.

    Comment by Lawrence D'Oliveiro — 26 October 2010 @ 7:36 pm

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