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Airing of WP7 Grievances

February 8, 2011

For a couple months now I’ve had the Windows Phone 7 (Samsung Focus).  For the most part I enjoy WP7–and if they can fill in some missing features with software updates, it has the potential to be every bit as capable as my previous iPhone.

WP7 has a slick interface that slightly differs from the icon-based Apple and Android phones, most notably due to the “live tiles,” which are essentially larger icons that display the app’s pertinent information, such as weather, the number of new emails, etc.  They are somewhere between an icon and a widget.  This allows you to get information without opening the app.  The tiles may show anything, even pictures (AP News shows images from news stories).  The UI is responsive, and I like the general look and feel (although the color theme options are limited to sickeningly-bright colors).

While the phone is mostly a positive experience, as the title indicates, the remainder of this post will gripe about stuff I don’t like; some are fixable and others might just be quirks that live with the phone forever.

Phone Features

The initial iPhone shipped without features that came in later software updates.  Like iPhone, WP7 left out some of the same initial features, and some of them are planned soon.  The next update is slated to contain cut-and-paste and performance improvements–it’s supposed to arrive in first quarter or even half of 2011, depending on who you believe (it was initially rumored for January but that didn’t happen).  Cut-and-paste is the main feature I miss so far.  There’s also multi-tasking, which I miss less (and likely contributes to battery drain), and I don’t think it will come with the next update.

Email actually works more reliably for me than the iPhone, but I’m missing threaded messages, especially for work emails where discussions get lengthy.  There’s also no unified inbox, which I probably wouldn’t use, but the option would be nice to have.

The tile page is nice, so too bad it’s limited to a single page (it can include whichever subset of apps you’d like to appear, and a separate page lists all apps in non-tile form).  I wish for multiple tile pages, so I can organize them in groupings, similar to the way iPhone now lets you organize icons in folders.

As for features lacking in WP7 that were always on the iPhone, the main one is visual voicemail.  It’s seriously disappointing because once used to it, it’s hard to go back.  In fact, I haven’t even enabled my voicemail account as a result.

The phone inexplicably blocks installing ringtone files.  This must be some attempt to require buying them through phone companies or something like that, but it’s a bit ridiculous to disallow audio files of my own choosing.

Another oddly missing feature is the lack of contacts syncing between Windows and the phone.  The phone can sync contacts with Hotmail, but it was surprising that it couldn’t sync directly with Windows contacts.  I had to first export my Windows contacts to a file, and upload it to Hotmail before I could get them on my phone.  I like that my contacts are now stored online instead of a single Windows machine, but it seemed like this could be easier.

It’s annoying that the phone doesn’t honor the timeout setting for the lock screen.  On an iPhone, with a five minute lock setting, after turning the screen off you still have five minutes to use it again without requiring a password.  On the WP7, the lock screen timeout only acts like a screensaver.  Anytime the screen shuts down manually it still requires a password, even within the timeout period.   For someone like me that fidgets with my phone and frequently toggles the screen (sometimes accidentally), I am excessively entering my password.

It might be worth mentioning features that aren’t really expected of the phone, but could be easily implemented.  For example, Windows Live offers a Dropbox-like online storage service. The phone can automatically use this service to sync photos, both from and to the phone.  While this is great, I wonder why not go further and offer a Dropbox-style app to access files other than pictures?  All the services already exist, but there’s no way to use it.

On the same topic, it would be trivial for Microsoft to implement a Twitpic clone using Live, i.e. a way to share single images with other web services.  My pictures already sync to the cloud, but if I wish to post a picture to Twitter, I need to upload it (again) to a third party service such as Twitpic.  Why didn’t the phone just provide an API to get a tiny URL to any of my pictures?  All the infrastructure for this exists, but without enough forethought to integrate it together.

Buttons

The strangest thing about the phone is the three required buttons:  home, search, and back button.  It wouldn’t be totally strange if they had some consistent purpose, but since it’s up to the developers they end up being a free for all.

First, the home button works like you’d expect if you’ve used an iPhone, it brings you back to the main tile page.  What is less obvious is that it may leave your app running in a sort of sleep state (may being a key word, as discussed below), so that you can browse back to the application using the back button.   And the back button has to be the wonkiest thing about the phone.

The back button is contextually aware, meaning its behavior depends on what you’re doing and/or what you’ve already done.  For example, in the Explorer web browser it does what you might expect, returning back to the previous page (anything with multiple screens or navigation behaves the same).  But what if there was no previous page?  Then it quits the app, returning to what you were running previously.  This might make sense, but it becomes really annoying under some situations, like when returning to Explorer after doing another task, and finding that your browser history is lost, and this button instead takes you right back out of the app.

The back button also means that there are two different ways to exit: the back button which quits, and the home button which is supposed to leave the app in a state it can resume.  However, whether the state is saved in either case is totally dependent on the app’s choice.  This means that each app behaves differently, and since it’s more work on developers to save state most don’t even bother, basically quitting either way.  The bottom line is that when exiting, you don’t know what you’re going to get.

The search button, like the back button, is contextually aware.  Unlike the back button, it’s not available to 3rd party use.  Meaning that in most cases it takes you to Bing for web searches, but if you happen to be inside one of the built-in apps that support searching, it instead takes you to a different search page.  Due to the resulting inconsistency, I rarely use this button because I don’t trust it.  It is rumored that future versions may make this button available to apps, and at that point I expect total chaos.  Even existing apps don’t present their searches in consistent ways.

Apps

A big gripe so far is the lack of quality apps.  This isn’t the fault of the phone or OS, this is because Microsoft joined the game late.  Developers probably prefer to reach more users by targeting the Apple or Android phones, and… it seems like writing for Microsoft platforms is for big corporations and governments, not trendy developers.  The result is that WP7 apps feel like the dregs.  Some of the well-known apps such as Netflix, Yelp, Seesmic, etc. exist, but even these feel like afterthoughts, with features missing that are included on their other platform versions.  And you can tell by the lack of design in the tiles and UIs that Windows developers don’t tend to put the same care into appearances they do into the sexy Apple devices.

Some apps that I miss from iPhone: Dropbox, Evernote (even though Microsoft offers a good replacement with Onenote, I still have Evernote content I’d like to access), Amazon (Note: Kindle is a recent addition but there is still no store browser app), Bloomberg, Readitlater and/or Instapaper, and a decent sport news app (Sporstactular or ESPN), voice navigation (Mapquest works pretty OK on iPhone, and although not perfect it was free), Mint, dictionary.com, Wikipedia, a free RPN calculator, some free photo enhancers (HDR), free texting.

It’s a bit lame that there’s no good IM client, especially considering that Microsoft has its own IM protocol and network–at the least I’d expect MSN Messenger.

I could go on, but I think the point is made.  Stuff I began to take for granted on iPhone just isn’t coming out for WP7.  Hopefully WP7 will gain enough market-share to entice these and other missing apps or decent clones to appear.

Related to apps, the Marketplace search has the annoying habit of showing all types of items such as songs and albums, and there’s no way to limit search to only apps.  And it’s surprising how many songs titles have potential app names, for example I found more songs with Wikipedia in the title than apps.  I’d like a way to include only apps in the search, and luckily there’s replacement marketplace search programs that do a better job.  Also, Marketplace happens to be the one app that frequently and inexplicably crashes the phone.

Epilogue

This has been a lot of whining for one article.  But I don’t dislike the phone, it’s mostly very nice.  I want it to succeed, and I am happy to see a viable alternative to the existing smart phones.  Microsoft felt pressure to come up with an answer to the iPhone and Android, and they made a pretty good shot.  There’s some rough edges, some missing features, and a dearth of killer apps, but these can be fixed with time.  While Microsoft claims adoption has been good, the fact that they’ve been shy about numbers suggests otherwise.  I hope that Microsoft stands behind it, and continues to improve and evolve it with software updates.  They need to give it enough support and longevity for developers to have faith in it enough to be a contender.

Update 2/13/2011

I just realized that although there are about 13 or so settings to tweak the camera (like resolution, ISO, dynamic range, contrast, saturation etc.), as soon as you quit the camera it forgets all the settings! One setting is anti-shake, which I find useful because it’s so difficult to keep the phone still while pressing the side button that snaps the picture. Now I have to enable it every time in order to get a decent picture.

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