Windows Phone 8: Fundamentals & Feuds

Last year, myself and the other members of our IT team at work had a choice to make. We provide smartphones for most of our staff and do not have a Bring Your Own Device policy (though not for lack of trying on our team’s part.) We had been a loyal BlackBerry shop for quite a while but the Bold 9900 has been a massive disappointment with poor support and a failure rate approaching 50%. Yes, fifty percent. Our contract with Bell Canada (not my choice but let’s face it, all three big players in Canada are evil) was approaching the upgrade period where we could change phones in exchange for a re-up so I was tasked with finding us an option.

Our company had been having a rough year so that limited our choices. It had to be something that was considered reliable, not super low-end (after all, it’s another two years before we can upgrade again) and most importantly, it had to be free with contract. iPhone was out because they were too expensive and too fragile for our field scientists who often work in rough conditions to use (also, we’ll have Apple’s overpriced fashion accessories in this company over my dead body.) Higher end Android phones like the Galaxy S4 were out because again, they were too expensive and certain people in the company once used old 2.x phones and had old prejudices about Android from that. That left us with lower-end Android (which I looked at but had concerns about its ability to hold out two years of heavy use, plus see above), BlackBerry 10 and the Samsung ATIV S which is the only Windows Phone 8 device Bell Canada offers as they are deep in bed with Samsung.

There was a lot of internal debate between those last two choices. BlackBerry 10 is actually a joy to use and their phones are solidly made but we didn’t want to have to buy BlackBerry Enterprise Server over again (which you have to with 10) and let’s face it, BlackBerry is circling the drain, at least as a phone platform. I didn’t want to hitch our wagon to something that could be dead within two years, forcing us to make an emergency on-the-fly switch to something else so I recommended Windows Phone 8. After way too many months of internal debate, we finally settled on the Samsung ATIV S. Since then, Windows Phone 8 has experienced a pretty big surge in worldwide adoption (largely at the expense of the iPhone) so I felt good in my recommendation.

I’ve had my unit of the ATIV S for about two weeks now. We will start rolling them out to the company soon but IT got ours early to familiarise ourselves more with them, to find a good case (which I have, on eBay no less) and to prep introductory and training materials. I had a demo unit last Summer as well but had to pass it around to a few people so I didn’t get much time with it. I’ve already dealt with plenty of jokes and snide remarks from (mostly) Apple cultists about my being stuck in the “phone ghetto” because I dare to use the thing that’s not fashionable right now. I expected that and it just cements why I don’t want anything to do with Apple’s “community.” That said, Windows Phone 8 (referred to from now on as WP8) wouldn’t have been my first choice if I had by druthers, that would have been Android hands down because I don’t like walled gardens which both iOS and WP8 are. But work pays for my phone and try as I might, I can’t justify taking over an almost $100 per month rate plan to myself, just to have my device of choice. My girlfriend has a WP8 phone (a Nokia Lumia 920) and I always found it pretty slick so I thought this would still suit me quite well. Plus let’s be honest, even the lowest end Android phone is better than BlackBerry 7.

My experience with WP8 so far has largely been positive but there’s some boneheaded fundamentals that are missing and some other things that have been gimped because of dumb feuds. The good part is all of them can be fixed.

From a usability standpoint, I actually love WP8. Despite loathing the Metro environment on the desktop, the tile environment is a joy on a touch screen. The interface is intuitive, responsive, doesn’t waste a lot of space (which iOS in particular does in spades) and is very customisable while also being simple. It’s frankly a master stroke of UI design and I think it will be easier to teach this phone to non-techie users at work than BlackBerry ever was. I’ve also used nothing but BlackBerry since 2005 and was not pleased about having to give up my physical keyboard. After using WP8’s touch keyboard for a couple of weeks, I can now bang out e-mails almost as fast as I did on my BlackBerry. I do make far more typos because of my fat hands and that the space bar is too small but the self-learning autocorrect is amazingly good and nails the right word well over 85% of the time now. iOS’ autocorrect is embarrassing by comparison. I’m now completely used to it and am not longing for a real keyboard any more.

WP8 has always been at best, an experiment for Samsung, likely done in the interests of keeping a healthy relationship with Microsoft for their PC business. They are the world’s biggest Android manufacturer by not just a country mile but several hundred light years and the ATIV S shows WP8 is clearly not where they’re putting their A-team efforts. It’s basically the guts of a Galaxy S3 with the buttons moved around and a different OS on it. Thing is, the Galaxy S3 is actually a great phone so this isn’t a bad thing. The screen is nice, it’s light yet solid and though the camera can’t hold a candle to any even mid-tier Nokia, it still does the job nicely. It’s not the most powerful WP8 device and lacks some really nice functions like the FM Radio that’s built into the Lumia (which I’ve been told is only disabled in software for no good reason) and some of Nokia’s value-added OS enhancements but it’s a solid contender.

The OS’ core features are also pretty solid all around. The internal mail client hooks into Exchange easily (I should hope so) and works well and Internet Explorer’s mobile edition is fast and smooth, though I do wish alternative browsers were available like there are on iOS and Android. It can also hook into multiple calendars and contact lists and aggregate them all in one place which is fantastic as I have both work contacts and ones from my side business I need to frequently access. I really like how well it hooks into SkyDrive (soon to be OneDrive, Microsoft’s far better alternative to Dropbox) and especially how it can automatically back up photos and videos you’ve taken whenever you’re in wi-fi range. The internal music player works nicely, though I feel there could be more efficient ways to navigate your music collection. A big draw for my employer was the fact that every WP8 device has a miniaturised version of Microsoft Office on it, allowing you to not only view but also edit Office documents you get as attachments. Yeah, nobody’s going to want to edit a big spreadsheet on their phone but when you’re in a pinch, having that ability is a life saver. Also, it’s a small thing but the daily Bing photo on the home screen is awesome.

From an app perspective, the WP8 store has the same problems with discoverability and being filled with garbage apps like both iOS and Android and BlackBerry too for that matter. This is a problem Microsoft has not solved as the number of apps in your marketplace is a key marketing bullet point and they want everything they can get. Honestly though, as someone who wants good apps that do what I want reliably rather than whatever the fad of the day is, I’ve got everything I need here. HERE Drive is a top shelf turn-by-turn GPS app (and free if you don’t need international maps) and I’ve found good stuff for MyFitnessPal, Evernote, Rdio, Songza, podcasts (I use Podcatcher), Twitter (I use glƏƏk), my bank, weather, Urbanspoon and WordPress, all of which work well and take full advantage of the Metro UI. There’s also solid Facebook integration according to my girlfriend but I don’t use Facebook so I wouldn’t know. Gaming’s a bit more of a wasteland. There’s plenty of good games on WP8 to be sure but more of them are older ones and little of worth is coming out for it right now. As someone who thinks most mobile games are crap and keeps a 3DS and Vita in my bag, the meager selection on WP8 is enough for me but if you’re a big mobile gamer, that may be a problem for you. In the end, most of the people being given these phones at my work won’t use anything that isn’t built into the OS anyway.

So far, so good right? Well, this is where things start to fall apart a bit.

The biggest problems I have with WP8 are dead simple fundamentals that Microsoft seems to have missed, despite this OS having been on the market for some time now and being in it’s second major iteration. I have three separate e-mail accounts on my phone, work, personal and my side business. When I found out that WP8 wouldn’t let me set different notification types for each one (I had the first two do nothing on my BlackBerry while my side business made a tone), I was sure I was just missing something. I spent hours digging around the Internet, sure that there was a way to set different notifications for different accounts. I mean, I was doing that on my BlackBerry back on OS 4.3 in 2008. Nope, can’t do it. You have to have the same notification type (both vibration and tone) for every single e-mail account or none at all. Worse still, you can’t have separate notification types for different apps either. So if you have multiple social networks you want to receive notifications for, they all have to notify you the same way. Even worse than that, there’s no quick way to just silence the phone, either at bed time or at a place like a theater. If you have either the ringer or vibration turned on, all you can do is switch between vibration or vibration and ring. To silence the phone, you have to go multiple screens deep into the settings menu and turn both options off manually. There’s no shortcut to these settings and due to restrictions at the OS level, there are no third party apps that can handle these problems for you. This is a maddeningly stupid omission. I know that most people don’t have to manage multiple e-mail accounts on the same phone but many business people do and phones from a decade ago were doing this easily. Why has this been left out of the second major iteration of Windows Phone?! At least you can pick your own tones for the options that are available.

Notifications themselves are a mess too. On iOS, Android and even my old BlackBerry, notifications were instant. If I got a mention on Twitter, the phone let me know often even before my desktop client did. On WP8, notifications can take up to 15 minutes to reach the device, apparently due to the way Microsoft handles the infrastructure behind them. There is no way around this and no way to speed it up. glƏƏk just recently added the capability for real-time notifications, something that required them to build their own infrastructure using Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform and which you have to pay extra for. You read right, you have to pay extra in order to get a feature that’s a top line expectation on any other mobile platform. This is inexcusable. This is 2014 and once again, this is something BlackBerry had solved a decade ago.

It’s these little annoyances and more that can add up to a really frustrating experience. Why do I have to continually mash the back button to make sure all my apps are closed? Yes, an upcoming update has added a quick close option but why was this not always there? Why do Live Tiles (one of the greatest UI features of WP8 where tiles on your home screen can update with relevant data from the apps themselves) sometimes not update or only update at random times? Why do you have to go deep into the settings menu to toggle rotation lock (which also was only just added in the latest update?) For that matter, why can only certain parts of the settings menu get shortcuts made to them? Why is Windows Phone the only platform with no Collection menu for Xbox Music (which renders the Xbox Music Pass almost unusable on Microsoft’s own mobile platform?) These are all things that are inconsequential on their own but in concert, can drive you mad, especially when there’s no way to work around them (well, except for the music problem but that involves using Rdio which has its own issues.)

Without a doubt however, the biggest disappointment of WP8 is the result of a stupid feud. In the last several years, Microsoft and Google have been butting heads, principally over patents related to Android which Microsoft claims they own and extracts a lot of revenue from. A number of large tech companies abuse the broken patent system to this end but as a result of this “Android tax”, Google doesn’t particularly care for Microsoft or their users. As a result, they’ve systematically both refused to support WP8 and have gone out of their way to make the experience with the platform as miserable as possible for users of Google services. Late last year, Google disabled ActiveSync capability for Gmail and non-paying Google Apps users, meaning that if you have accounts through these (both of my non-work e-mail accounts as through free Google Apps), you can’t get real-time syncing of e-mail and are restricted to a minimum of a 15 minute delay. Google has also thrown up arbitrary roadblocks to Microsoft’s attempts to make Metro apps that plug-in to Google’s services (including a frankly kick-ass YouTube app), basically waiting until the apps are done, then coming up with a bullshit reason for yanking their authorisation, then endlessly stonewalling re-approval so it basically never happens. This despite Microsoft having developed their own, fully-functional Android apps with no help from Google whatsoever.

It’s childish, it’s anti-competitive and it punishes users who otherwise give Google money through ad revenue but happen to use a phone platform Google doesn’t like. This is a tricky problem because Gmail and other Google services are immensely popular, yet you’re locked into a frankly gimped experience on WP8. I frankly couldn’t give a shit about the stupid feud between these companies. Your squabbling over patents (most of which neither of you should have gotten in the first place) is your dumb business problem, not your users’ problem. Stop acting like billionaire babies and sort your shit out.

Sadly, the Gmail problem is one I’m still trying to figure out a solution to. Switching to another e-mail provider is a huge headache and Microsoft’s Outlook.com has come a long way but has some fundamental frustrations with it I can’t accept (for example, only being able to login to one account at a time on a PC.) Truthfully, little personal e-mail is so urgent that I can’t wait 15 minutes to find out about it. I’m a person who will go to great lengths to make a principle fight though and this has shown me that Google can’t be trusted to provide trustworthy services for free (and hey, they’re free so I’m in no place to make demands) so I may still move off it anyway. As for the lack of Metro apps, I’ve found some third party solutions (like MetroTube for YouTube, though it seems to have largely broken recently) and since WP8’s popularity is growing rapidly, hopefully the install base will eventually get big enough that Google can’t treat it like a red-headed stepchild any longer.

So I’ve now complained a lot but what’s the upside? All of this can be fixed with software. Windows Phone 8.1 is coming this year and will be a free upgrade to every current WP8 user which is fantastic. Unfortunately, Microsoft is pulling their usual boneheaded move of being tight-lipped about the update, talking about nothing that’s coming in it and we probably won’t know the extent of its improvements until much closer to launch. They have vaguely promised complete overhauls of several OS components (notifications among them) so I hope to see all or most of my issues addressed. Looking at some WP8 forums, I’m clearly not the only one with these problems and if anything is going to bring this platform from a distant (i.e. sub 5% of the market) third place into some resembling a serious competitor for Android and iOS, it’s going to be responding to user feedback. I also think this 18 month update cycle Microsoft is on is way too slow, especially with iOS doing full revisions on a yearly basis now and Android seemingly doing massive improvements in simple point releases. Rapid iteration is key, as is forcing carriers to not hold updates back for months on end. If Apple can get this figured out, so can Microsoft.

I’ve railed on WP8 quite a bit in this post but there’s two important things to note. Firstly, all the problems I’ve mentioned add up to a lot of frustration but they’re all minor in and of themselves. If even half of them get addresses in Windows Phone 8.1, it will still be a huge step forward. Secondly, most of these are what I call “me problems.” I’m a power user, an enthusiast, hence why Android was my first choice for a mobile platform. The thing is, 95% of the other people at my company who will get these phones are not power users. They have basic needs and require a device that can meet those while being easy to use and reliable. WP8 has those particular fundamentals down pat. The platform is fantastic for those who just want core stuff done really well while having some flexibility added through apps. It’s not built for power users and while I still think some of the current omissions are inexcusable, they nonetheless don’t affect a lot of people and I have no doubt Microsoft knew that. I would argue that Microsoft should have designed WP8 first and foremost for power users because when you’ve playing catch-up, those are the people who will be your biggest evangelists. The people who walk into a store knowing nothing about smartphones but who only have basic needs will probably walk out with an iPhone or a low-end Android device. They’re only going to consider WP8 if someone in the know recommends it.

As it stands right now, I think WP8 is a great platform with a lot of potential but which needs to fix some core deficiencies to be truly able to compete with the big boys. These fixes are all possible too, they just need to make them happen fast. And for goodness sake guys, both you and Google need to get your heads out of your asses and start thinking of your users instead of your ill-gotten patent portfolios. Nonetheless, I still feel confident in my decision to recommend it to my employer for our new fleet and I think it’s going to work out great, assuming Samsung’s hardware doesn’t let us down. As we all know, Microsoft does nothing for the short term and less than 5% market share isn’t going to stop them from spending WP8 to success. Unlike BlackBerry, this platform’s going nowhere any time soon, despite its stumbles. They just have to work harder than they are to catch up.

You’ve got a good thing going here Microsoft, now make it great so more people get interested.

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