Better late than never: The Social Review Wrap Up

A fortnight after Telstra provided myself, and 24 others around Australia, a HTC Mozart 7 featuring Microsoft’s new Windows Phone 7 operating system, and I’m pretty much sold on the platform. This wrap-up post should have been completed by last Friday, however work circumstances and other commitments in the last week have hampered efforts to keep to the deadline.

Nevertheless, this post is not intended to re-tread the exhaustive insights of my earlier posts – I encourage everyone reading this blog to have a read over them at your own leisure. However, from the wonderfully slick interface, to the seamless Facebook integration, to the Zune music software,  to the Xbox Live gaming hub,  it is undoubtedly true that Microsoft has really bedded down the essential framework of a mobile platform that deserves to do well. 

The best of both worlds

Like the title of this post, Microsoft is late to the party when it comes to modern smartphone operating systems, but it has made an extravagant entry. It had to, really, given how woefully out-dated the Windows Mobile experience had become in the wake of Apple’s iOS juggernaut and, equally, Google’s runaway success with Android. The benefits of lateness are also obvious – Microsoft has been able to adopt the best aspects of the iOS and Android models, while carving out for itself an innovative, forward-looking approach that rightfully discards, completely, the slow Windows Mobile legacy.

What I mean by this is that iOS’s virtually lag-free multitouch experience – easily the industry benchmark – is replicated in Windows Phone 7. Scrolling, pinching, tapping, rotating – it all behaves smoothly and naturally, which makes any transition from the iPhone very easy. In fact, I can say with complete confidence that Windows Phone 7 is the only iOS competitor that I’ve used which matches the touch finesse of Apple’s products. This is actually a very important achievement –  one of the reasons why the iPhone has done so well is because its touch interface is very fast, fluid and natural which, in turn, makes it a pleasure to use. That’s one less hurdle for Windows Phone 7 devices to overcome amongst a sea of competitors.

A special mention does need to go out to Palm, which pretty much blew me away in January 2009 when it announced WebOS – the first true competitor to iOS, in my mind, because it got the touch interface right whilst leapfrogging Apple in other areas like multitasking. The problem is that Palm no longer exists in the Australian market which means we never saw the Palm Pre or Pixi; and Hewlett Packard, its new owner, is more interested in the intellectual property than making a solid effort at competing in the smartphone market. Thus I’m less inclined to think WebOS has much of a future beyond the United States and a few select markets in Europe, where sales have been less than impressive anyway.

Moving on, there are other aspects from iOS such as the centralised software marketplace for applications, an excellent music experience, a standardised & consistent user interface and a desktop-calibre browser which have been successfully adopted, for the most part, in Windows Phone 7. Those things just make plenty of sense, except to say that Internet Explorer on the phone is still based on Internet Explorer 7, which means standards compliance and JavaScript is not yet up to scratch.

The best part about it, of course, is that you get to choose which device you want. This is a continuation of the OEM model that previously existed with Windows Mobile and which Google’s Android has also adopted with increasingly rapid success. Better still, in my opinion, is that it avoids the issue of every man and his dog having an iPhone (recent reports suggest Australian smartphone market share for the iPhone is over 70%). What’s changed though is that device manufacturers cannot replace, redesign or otherwise modify the interface. Every Windows Phone 7 device will behave in a consistent manner – this is a win for users because as with Windows Mobile, and now Android, the manufacturers have a habit (for differentiation purposes) drastically changing the core operating system to the extent that each phone behaves differently from the next whilst uniform software updates from Microsoft and Google become impossible. So, it’s the best of both worlds – you get the device diversity of Android, with the consistency, slickness and frequent updates that are part and parcel of iOS devices.

Strengths of the platform

As touched on earlier, in rebuilding from scratch its smartphone operating system, Microsoft has done a good job in getting the essentials in place for possible future success. I’ll briefly list the main strengths, but what you’ll notice is that Windows Phone 7 is the first Microsoft product that seriously attempts to combine and integrate Microsoft’s popular products in one place. And it’s about time.

Interface

Again, Microsoft has nailed the interface. It’s not only innovative and sexy, but the touch performance matches the iPhone is almost every respect. What I like in particular is that it doesn’t look like some generic clone; instead, it brings something genuinely new to the table.

One of the words you’ve probably seen me use frequently is seamless – that’s because much of the functionality works exactly in that manner on Windows Phone 7. It’s difficult to describe it any other way.

Finally, I particularly like the keyboard because of its superior dictionary and word suggestion system. It does not suggest American spellings all the time, like the iPhone – and it allows you to add unknown words to the dictionary. Perfect.

Hubs

This naturally links with the interface, but it deserves its own separate mention because hubs are another unique approach in the smartphone sphere. Microsoft has attempted to move users away from static icon grids and instead sort everything into hubs. As I’ve described at length in my previous posts, the People Hub is the standout feature – just enter your Windows Live and Facebook details and your photos, contacts, friends and pictures automatically appear. What’s more, you can update your status, comment and like status updates of your friends as well as their photos – all from within the hub and without having to open a separate Facebook application.

Xbox Live

While not all games available in the marketplace are integrated with Xbox Live, a great many of the high quality games are integrated and the experience is second to none. This is a killer feature of Windows Phone 7 and I would go as far to say that its probably the best gaming experience on a smartphone to date. I simply don’t game on my iPhone, whereas the Xbox Live integration on Windows Phone 7 has made gaming rather addictive by virtue of the achievements and the social aspects inherent within Xbox Live. You can modify your avatar, message Xbox Live friends and your achievements add to your overall gamer score – it all happens within the Xbox Live hub in a seamless fashion. Put more simply: Microsoft gets gaming, and it shows.

Email

There’s not a lot more to say that I haven’t already said on this in previous posts. Email on this platform is bloody excellent. The only obvious feature that it’s missing is a unified inbox, but otherwise triaging is a breeze and very fast.

Microsoft Office

This is another hub on the device and its main strength is that you get editing of OneNote, Word, Excel and PowerPoint files as standard. OneNote is the standout application due in principal to its ability to sync instantly with OneNote 2010 on the desktop via Windows Live SkyDrive. The other three applications only sync with SharePoint server at this stage, which is great for corporate users, but not so great for consumers. That said, other major platforms require additional expense on third party apps to gain Microsoft Office editing capabilities.

Zune

I wrote a lengthy piece on the Zune software last week, but to summarise, I’m a big fan. Not only is the phone experience great but the desktop software is equally as elegant, following the same Metro interface conventions, while performing very quickly. It’s a breath of fresh air compared to the laggy performance and monochrome ugliness of iTunes. Wireless syncing is also a huge plus.

Weaknesses of the platform

Third party applications

With the exception of games, third party applications are still a weakness on Windows Phone 7 and that’s largely due to the infancy of the platform. So I see this as a temporary issue until Windows Phone 7 distribution really ramps up worldwide.

The potential in this area is quite significant mainly because the developer tools, by all accounts, are far easier to use for Windows Phone 7 than say, Android. The fact that Windows Phone 7 already has around 50 high-quality games from day one is a testament to that.

As you’ve all read, though, Twitter apps are still not up to scratch. They’re slow and often cause the phone to reboot. Over the period of this review, the developer of Twozaic, Bert Lagaisse, managed to comment on my blog regarding the performance of Twitter apps, which was rather surprising:

Hi Robert. I just want to let you know that you and your co-reviewer are right about performance problems that only seem to emerge with twitter apps. It’s a technical issue for all apps when they are communicating with twitter’s remote interface on twitter’s servers. Those server’s are often overloaded resulting in very slow replies or even no replies because of time-outs, or very strange and lots of different error replies. The errors are also very random, 2 succeeding calls to the twitter servers can result in a time-out error, and a quick direct reply after it. As a result the twitter app developers have a hard time to inform the user what exactly went wrong and why.

Another issue is that a lot of information that is shown on one screen must be fetched from the servers in multiple calls. In the first version of my app I did those calls one per one after each other, to not hammer the twitter servers to much. Other apps do them in parallel, which I’m doing now too.

Just some technical internals information to explain ;-)

Twozaic has since been updated to 1.3 and it does perform better than before, although I would still say that overall it’s just not as fast as competing apps available on the iPhone. I suspect that the problem may be due to the overheads of using Silverlight, rather than native code, but I’m not a developer so that’s open for debate.

I could almost live with the limited app availability if there was a proper Remote Desktop client and a Dropbox application, but neither of those are available. I rely on both for business purposes – and I’ve not heard any news on when these apps will be available. The only alternative is to use a VNC client but that’s inconvenient because I have to set up each PC to which I remotely login; not to mention that the VNC client in the marketplace is $19, which is highway robbery.

Stability

As hinted upon above, random device reboots are a bit of an issue. In my experience, reboots mainly occur with the Twitter apps, but I’ve seen them occur with other apps, particularly when resuming from standby. Furthermore, some Marketplace errors will not resolve themselves unless the device is manually rebooted. As a commenter said on an earlier post, reboots are very rare on iOS so this is something that Microsoft, along with third party developers, will need to work on.

Missing features

While copy & paste is arriving in early 2011, the platform still lacks multitasking for third party applications, tethering support, VPN support, Outlook syncing, Flash support, HTML5 support and a raft of other features which are now considered essential on smartphone platforms.

Like I’ve previously written, though, Microsoft has promised support for most of the above features in future updates. The question is how long we’ll have to wait – Microsoft doesn’t have the luxury of time given that it’s playing catch-up in this market.

Localisation

It’s fairly clear that Microsoft has done a poor job at localising its various services for people outside the United States. Bing Search has been stripped of most of its functionality, the Zune Marketplace is not available which also has the side effect of prohibiting access to the podcast directory in the desktop software, and for some inexplicable reason Microsoft allowed OEMs to control the keyboard languages available to the end user which results in certain quirks like the default currency symbol being the £ rather than the $.

Microsoft is the largest software company in the world. It shouldn’t be lagging behind in something as basic as localisation. Even if I want to give new search engines like Bing a decent test, I can’t because it’s hobbled for us. Not good enough.

The HTC Mozart 7

Coming from a well-built iPhone 4, I was surprised to find myself liking the HTC Mozart 7 – it feels sturdy in my hands and has nice rounded edges. It reminds me of the iPhone 3GS in many respects, which I think has a superior in-hand feel than the iPhone 4 which has sharp edges.

The screen is lovely, with an 800×480 resolution and bright, crisp colours. Fonts also looked great, but it has to be said that the iPhone 4’s Retina Display maintains the overall edge, especially in sharpness.

Battery life is a problem for this device, though. Telstra rolled out an update last Thursday to fix an APN problem which was draining the battery abnormally. Up until the update, 4-6 hours was the maximum you could expect. It did last all day on Friday, but I still wasn’t instilled with much confidence. The iPhone 4 will get me through a day without question, most of the time. I’m also not happy that Telstra waited until the final day of the social review to release the APN update as it’s hard to get a true idea of the improvements, if any.

Another annoyance I mentioned earlier in the review process was the touch-sensitive buttons being a nuisance. They still remain a nuisance despite two weeks of acclimating to the device – I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been thrown into Bing Search unintentionally due to random accidental taps of the search button.

Finally, the 8GB of onboard storage is completely inadequate these days. Considering the device is able to capture HD video, 8 megapixel photos, play music, download apps and much more, it’s laughable that 8GB is seen as adequate given that there is no ability to expand the memory without dismantling the device.

The Telstra NextG network

Without doubt, the NextG network is the best wireless network in Australia. I do get arbitrary blackspots in my house but competing networks get zero reception where I live, so some reception is better than nothing. Elsewhere, data speeds are quick and reception is crystal clear – there’s not much else to say, except that Optus and VHA have much catching up to do.

Would I switch?

There are two ways of answering this question. If we abstract the comparison to operating systems only, I would definitely switch to Windows Phone 7. I like the platform quite a lot, even though I appreciate that it has some limitations right now. iOS is simply getting boring – the same basic interface hasn’t seen any significant change since inception; and further, it’s very app-centric, whereas it makes perfect sense that Facebook is blended with your contacts at a system level as with Windows Phone 7.

But, when we look at the question from a device perspective, I simply cannot switch to the HTC Mozart 7 on a permanent basis. I said as much when I reviewed the Zune experience last week – I have 20GB of music that I want to carry with me everywhere, I don’t want to have to pick and choose albums to remove, or what apps I should and shouldn’t install. That’s needlessly limiting on my usage habits. I find the iPhone 4’s 32GB storage capacity small now, so I don’t see how I can realistically revert to an 8GB HTC device. Which is a shame, because had the Mozart featured a 32GB capacity, my decision would have been different.

What I will do, though, is switch back and forth on a regular basis to keep a closer eye on the progression of Windows Phone 7 until devices with larger capacities and/or expansion options arrive on the market next year, hopefully, at which point I will buy a different device. The best thing about Windows Phone 7 is that it has potential, it’s just a matter of Microsoft and device manufacturers leveraging that potential in a timely matter. One thing’s for certain: Microsoft is back in the game.

Special Thanks

I have to thank Mike Hickinbotham and the team at Telstra for inviting me to be part of this review process. They’ve all been a great help throughout if we’ve had any issues.  The review certainly opened my mind up a lot with respect to the intensely competitive smartphone space. I would certainly like to see a ‘follow-up’ social review in 12 months time that looks at a new Windows Phone 7 device to see whether Microsoft resolved the issues that my fellow reviewers and I noted over the last fortnight.

Also, a big thanks to all the people who visited my blog over the last couple of weeks. Hopefully you’ll stick around.

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