This weekend I switched back, once again, to Windows Phone from my ICS packing Galaxy Nexus. Previously, I had switched to Windows Phone from my Froyo ( can you believe this phone was launched in the US with Froyo? ) Infuse 4G. I seem to always switch away from Android eventually, and I haven’t been sure why, until now. This is not meant to be an Android hate fest, I don’t want to say I hate iOS, and I don’t hate any OS. I am a huge fan of iOS and Android, nor am I a fanboy of any camp ( any more ).
I think that Android is an excellent implementation of the vision for which it was designed. iOS was the first and is still the leader in its category. Both of which are largely cut from the same cloth. Who copied whom, I’ll leave for history to decide. For the my purposes, however I am happier with Windows Phone, and I have finally figured out why.
Windows Phone is Designed Around Use Cases
As I was transitioning between my various Android handsets, my iPad, and my new Lumia 900, I kept thinking about what it was in Windows Phone that kept causing me to want to use it. The browser is merely sufficient, the hardware is technically behind the curve ( while the phone hardware as a package is superlative, hats off Nokia ), and the OS is, well… different. One of the core things, which was immediately apparent, was that it didn’t take long for me to get to what I wanted to do with the Lumia from the live tile home screen.
I don’t subscribe to the “Smoked by Windows Phone” campaign, I think that was stupid and wrong. Android is typically faster in specific areas, like time to app launch, etc… iOS smokes both of them in scrolling and touch screen responsiveness as well as time to app readiness on the newer iPad2/3 and iPhone 4S. Windows Phone’s speech to text is great, but not comprehensive; Android’s speech to text is better than Windows Phones, Siri’s voice recognition is marginally better than Androids, if only because of her witty retorts.
Despite all of the shortcomings I have just described, I still prefer Windows Phone. For a few months, after I started with Windows Phone 7 on my Focus S, I started to think something was wrong with me for liking it. Maybe I was a “feature phone” kind of guy after all. The tech media kept telling me that Android and iOS are better because of their broader app selection, more sophisticated chips, hardware, etc… I could readily agree with this assessment, after all, Windows Phone doesn’t have NBA Jam, or Angry Birds Space. The more I thought about it however, as far as I am concerned, I prefer to use my phone for communication first, and apps second. Being presented with a grid of apps, or strange widgets, or the wrong panel of the launcher were all in the way of simple communication.
When I use Windows Phone, it is clear, I press people for communication, me for updating my social networks, phone for calls. This simplicity, and clarity; that is what keeps drawing me back. It isn’t that Windows Phone is faster in any way than Android and iOS, not that it is slow. It is that each specific task that I want to do with the phone has a well defined path, is clearly encapsulated, and is a complete end-to-end experience with no cruft. It isn’t chaotic like the Android intent system, leading me all over the place from app-to-app, it isn’t ridiculously siloed like iOS. Things that should be combined, like Facebook and twitter are grouped together. Games are all in the same place, and share a coherent experience that is clearly differentiated from the other flows for when I want to play games. Music, podcasts, and audio are all together, unified in their Zune experience, which also is differentiated from the game flow, and the social flow.
Android and iOS are Designed Like Desktop/Tablet OS’s
Once I began to think about use-cases, I started to see how ill fitted Android and iOS were for the phone. I started to put devices into categories based on these use cases, to try to figure out where they go wrong.
When using my desktop / laptop, I am consciously sitting down to perform some fairly complicated task, I expect to have to make lots of decisions to perform that task, and I do not mind the complexity of the windowing system.
When using my tablet, I am typically settling down to enjoy some content, a game, a book, a fun diversionary app, or I am attempting to use a productivity app, for which I could perhaps perform the task on my desktop / laptop. I don’t mind actions taking a little extra time on my Tablet, I am expecting to explore and engage in an experience.
My phone is different. I am not typically trying to explore. I am trying to find a restaurant to eat at right now, or I am looking for my friends house and I am wandering around trying to read street numbers. I am buying something and need to compare prices. I am trying to call someone to have a conversation. In short, most of what I am doing with my phone is immediate I don’t want to browse.
The grid of apps, is really nice for presenting an experience, it is an invitation to browse, to wade into an entire universe of possibilities. A bunch of apps is great for when I want to spend time looking around, like window shopping. I don’t necessarily know what I want to do, I just want to be entertained.
I don’t really need apps on my phone, I need the workflows that are in those apps. I need the restaurant information inside of the Zagat application, I need the directions and augmented reality that is inside of google/bing maps. I need the social graph that is inside of Facebook to find out if my friends are busy this weekend. I need the content of the twitter app to find out what is going on right now. As far as exposing that, some apps for Windows Phone can do this with their live tile, for other, well designed Windows Phone apps, there is a clear use case for the application, and it brings as much content to me as it can to assist me with doing something right now.
Windows phone isn’t perfect, there are still quite a few missing use cases that I would like to see fleshed out, like the augmented reality directions, or a better workflow around photo sharing.
When you think about things in use cases, you actually start to see that the multitasking system that Windows Phone employes is correct. It is only broken if you are looking at it as you would look at Android or iOS, or if you are comparing your mobile computing environment to one that is less mobile. Windows Phone is better thought out than its competitors. Once you let go of the fact that you believe you want your smart phone to be just like your desktop/laptop/tablet, then everything will be fine.
So what if Windows Phone doesn’t have many quality apps, for most of the things I want to do, I am covered. As they add apps, so much the better, I only hope that the developers think about how their users will accomplish tasks in real-time with the applications they provide, and don’t fall back on the Android and iOS way of sticking a bunch of data into a silo and expecting the user to poke around to find it.
Windows 8, in its current incarnation is half-mistake, in my opinion. For the designers to take UI and a set of interactions that are successful for phone use cases, and apply them to a desktop OS is to turn something useful into a chaotic chimera. I believe that Microsoft is not allowing for as much richness and complexity as the interaction patterns of a stationary computing experience should provide by implementing the Metro interface on the desktop.
In the legacy interface, they are just screwing up what was working. It makes sense for them to take the same approach as they allowed the Windows Mobile team to take. Think about the use cases that people are likely to encounter when they are attempting to accomplish something with their desktop/tablets. You may not be able to unify the interfaces, it is OK. Apple is falling into the same trap, it is leaving a massive opening for someone to do something awesome with the desktop computer…. Canonical are you listening?
Let it go, the desktop paradigm is dead. Stop worrying about how things used to be and learn to experience Windows Phone for what it is. A beautiful breath of fresh-air, a new way of thinking about mobile interaction. Hopefully Microsoft doesn’t screw it up. If their marketing is any indication, I am worried about the future. If they leave the Windows Phone team alone, and allow them to keep doing what they are doing, things will be great.