• The Battle For Third Part One | Windows Phone 8

    Like most geeks, I'm really fascinated by Windows Phone, the little phone OS that could from lil' old Microsoft. I reviewed one of the original Windows 7 handsets back in 2010, played with it again when Mango (7.5) was released, and now that Windows 8 is out, I thought it was time to spend another month in Metro. I've got a second phone for work, so this was a good opportunity to use WP8 day to day, and really get to know it.

    The handset

    For the last month I've been using the HTC 8X - a gorgeous little handset. It's thin, curved back has a slight rubbery feel which makes it lovely to hold - and makes me reminisce of simpler iPhone designs of days gone by. I love the look of the iPhone 4, 4S and 5, but I hate the feel in the hand, and since the 4, I've used a case around my iPhone to give it grip. No need for a case here.

    The big ol' screen is 4.3-inches at 1280×720 pixels, which gives it a higher than Retina pixel density, so everything looks gorgeous. The one fault is the camera, which doesn't compete with the images of the iPhone 5, or even the HTC One from last year. Sadly for HTC, whenever anyone spotted me using the 8X they asked "Ohh, is that the new Nokia phone?"

    Point is, it's a damn fine bit of hardware, but I'm not here to discuss the hardware - i want to talk Windows Phone 8.

    The Good

    Windows Phone is still the most unique and arguably the most beautiful phone OS around. The OS glides and bounces with as much care as anything from Cupertino, and the built in apps - email, calendar, and IE are just a joy to use. Email and Calendar in particular are probably the best on any platform - fast, beautiful, simple. Email conversations pop open and shoot off with great animations. This was particularly great as I've been using WP8 as a work phone, so Email and Calendar have gotten a work out.

    Email and Calendar

    I made fun of the Facebook Home screen over the weekend, but WP8 has been doing something similar for years, and it's absolutely gorgeous. By default, your lock screen will update daily with stunning images from Bing search. The Music App will even download high quality images of the artists you're listening to for the lock screen - it's all really beautiful.

    Lock and Home Screen

    While Music Plays

    WP8 has addressed a lot of my complaints with WP7 and 7.5 The ability to resize tiles of the home screen sounds trivial, but adds a hell of a lot to organising power to the OS. The live tiles are fun too, its great seeing your next appointment visible on the Calendar tile, and the last thing your partner said on any social network in a People tile.

    There are some really wonderful 3rd party apps too. Ebay, Facebook, Pandora and Foursquare have all looked beyond the standard "list of text" UI and created some great little apps - I wish more indie WP8 took inspiration from these bigger apps.

    Finally, I love that data detectors are there in Windows Phone. Data detectors are that great bit of code that turns dates and phone numbers into clickable items for calling or creating appointments. Android doesn't have them, but WP8 does.

    The Bad

    The biggest drawcard of WP8 is also its biggest flaw; That minimal, flat, metro interface. Sure, it looks great in screenshots, and it's a welcome change at first - but eventually the lack of chrome makes navigating the phone frustrating. iOS may be looking a little cutesy these days, but at least you can spot exactly what you're looking for with a quick glance at your screen. Compare the settings app of iOS and Windows Phone:

    The wall of text that's the default view in WP8 means your always working harder to find the thing you need. That cute little plane icon in iOS may look a little naff, but there's no mistaking what it's for. For everyone praying that iOS will lose its skeumophic flair, WP8 is a reminder that flat is not always better.


    And after two years of complaining, I still can't believe there's no way of forcing all the app tiles to be a certain colour (or as WP8 calls it, accent). It's just so annoying having a screen of blue tiles and one little green one, or vice versa.

    Choose Your OCD Adventure

    The Missing

    There are still so many apps missing from WP8. There are the massive omissions, most notable for me were Dropbox and Instagram. Now I could find work arounds, there's nothing wrong with Microsoft's Skydrive for instance, but who really wants to switch? I have 50gig of files in Dropbox, and Instagram is one of my favourite little apps to browse on the bus, so until they're on WP8, I can't use it as my only device.

    More importantly, there's a real lack of decent 3rd Party Indie apps, the apps that make iOS and Android such amazing platforms.

    There's a few great indie apps like Rowi (an excellent, smooth, responsive twitter client), 4th and Mayor (a similarly beautiful foursquare app) and Baconit (a lovely reddit app, possibly the best way to browse reddit on any phone). But beyond these, the Marketplace is a ghost town. Apps I had installed a year or two ago were now abandoned. Where's an AFL app that matches Footy Live, a forum app like Tapatalk, a Podcast app that works?

    Rowi and Pandora on WP8. Diamonds in the Rough.

    So many indie apps have an icon that looks like it was put together in MS Paint and a UI that uses the bare minimum WP8 framework. Worse still, so many apps simply don't work. I tried a bunch of apps whose only function was as a Simplenote notebook, and none of them synced with Simplenote. I tried a bunch of Podcast apps that would not download podcasts, or if they did, they'd wipe their library at launch, or just crash, or not play audio. All functions that seem vital to a podcasting app.

    Because everything looks the same, you're left wondering which of the podcast apps kinda work the best (or crash the least) the one that looked like a list of text or the other one that looked like a list of text. And WP8 has a "swinging door" transition that many indie devs abuse, so browsing certain apps actually made me feel a tad motion sick, as the menu swung back and forth at every tap.

    One of the first apps I install on any phone is Tripview - and it's available for WP8, but without any of the live data that came to the iOS and Android platforms in February last year.

    When I asked Nick Maher, the developer of Tripview, why there was no real time data on WP8, he explained he "really enjoyed doing the WP port, it's a good platform with a nice development environment. It's just a little hard to justify the time spent. In a year of sales, it's paid for maybe a week of development time."

    Tripview's install base is an interesting case study. Although Tripview is a one-man indie operation, Nick is lucky enough to have his App advertised for free on every bus, train and ferry in Sydney. The combined install base for the free and paid versions of his app are roughly 1 million on iOS, 300k on Android, but just 10k on WP. To be honest, I was surprised WP8 had cracked ten thousand in Sydney.

    Russell from Shifty Jelly had a similar response to why they hadn't ported Pocketcasts to WP8. “It's a well made OS with some supremely passionate supporters, but Shifty Jelly is too small to chase a platform hardly anyone is currently on. I have no doubt that Windows Phone has a future but it has no present.”

    One wonders how it'll find that future without a decent user base to build on though.

    The Uncanny Phone Valley

    So after a month of solid WP8 usage, using it as my daily work phone, I'm in a strange position of thinking the platform is better than ever, but i hate it more. WP7 was simply unfinished and easy to dismiss. WP7.5 Mango showed promise, but was still far from being a viable everyday smartphone. Windows Phone 8 is now such a good operating system, but it's let down at every turn by awful apps and it's own minimalist style. For me it's fallen into an Uncanny iPhone Valley. It's so close to being a daily usable phone, that it frustrates me even more whenever it reminds me it's not. And it reminds me all the time.

    Microsoft have taken third place in the Smartphone OS market, but if they want to close the (massive) gap between their OS and iOS/Android, they still have a tonne of work to do. But I really don't know what Microsoft can do at this stage - I'm sure they can persuade their bff's at Facebook to port Instagram to WP8, and they can probably build their own excellent podcasting app, but are Microsoft big enough to fill every niche out there to make up for the Tripviews and the Footy Lives and Flipboards missing from Windows Phone?
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