Back in February I upgraded from a dated-feeling iPhone 3G to a htc HD7 running Windows Phone 7. At first, all seemed well – excellent in fact. The OS is fresh, slick and clean looking, and is capable of presenting information in a beautiful way. Compared to the cluttered display of the iPhone with its top status bar and chunky navigation/title bar, Windows Phone apps have a spacious feel, and animation is used heavily to make the experience feel fluid and responsive.
However, over time some annoyances in the OS became too much to bear:
a) I found a number of areas of the system that don’t remember what has been typed into a textbox if you put the phone down and the lock screen activates. This includes text messages and status updates. Incredibly annoying if you’re in the middle of typing out a Facebook update and get distracted before having chance to hit the submit button. Both Android and the iPhone have this one covered, as did a late 1990s Nokia. How can anyone develop a smartphone OS without taking into account basic usage scenarios like this?
b) My single biggest annoyance with Windows Phone 7 is the way it behaves when navigating between applications. Unlike Android, the back button doesn’t just take you back up through screens of the current application, it allows backwards navigation through multiple applications. It sounds powerful, and technically it is impressive but it’s horrible to use in practice.
There’s no forward navigation to go back the other way, and you can’t rely on the homescreen to switch (tapping the live tiles) because doing so always reloads the app from scratch and forgets where you were previously. This isn’t a bug – Microsoft say it should work this way in the usability guidelines. When you’re trying to switch between two applications to accomplish a single task it becomes a usability nightmare. To top it off, Microsoft tried to make the poor old back button work as the browser back button, which causes even more problems. If you want to dial a phone number off a web page, you’re going to need a pen and paper to get the job done.
How Microsoft can ruin all their hard work building a great user experience with a duff navigation paradigm like this is incredible. In trying to understand this, I thought maybe it was a stopgap until the full multitasking arrives with the Mango update, but from what I’ve seen so far this is not the case.
In Mango, home screen tiles still load applications up back at the home page rather than the state they were in when last used. This is the case even if the application is still running. Also, I believe the back button still works the same way. Mango allows you to hold down the back button to trigger the great-looking multitasking interface, which then does allow you switch between applications and retain their navigation state, but holding down the back button will be irritating when it should be the default.
By comparison, the iPhone uses on-screen navigation buttons and this works perfectly, although it has the disadvantage of using quite a bit of precious screen space. Android has a physical back button and it works brilliantly, even catering for those pesky edge cases like opening a link in a browser from an email – the back button is clever enough to return to the email client if the back button is used in the browser window that was opened from the link.
c) when Windows Phone 7 was new it was inevitable that there would be a lack of third party applications, but eventually I ran out of patience waiting for some essentials. The UK version of the Amazon app still hasn’t launched, the eBay app is horrible to use, and Spotify is still not available. Angry Birds was delayed again and again, and then eventually launched at a price far higher than other platforms.
d) hardware quality. Sadly, I didnt get chance to use Windows Phone on another handset to make a comparison, but the HD7 is hopeless. The sharp edges at the top and bottom make the phone uncomfortable to hold against the ear, and they chip very easily. The grills get dirt and fluff trapped in them and are almost impossible to clean. The touchscreen accuracy is horrible and typing is an absolute chore. In bright weather, reflections on the screen are so bad that it’s regularly unusable – a common problem with htc handsets it seems.
One of the reasons I bought into Windows Phone 7 was the anticipation of watching the platform grow, with updates and added functionality being delivered regularly. It was impatient of me not to wait until Mango shipped before dumping the phone, but my annoyances with the platform became too much to put up with. Microsoft’s strategy of pre-announcing became so frustrating – Joe Belfiore would jump on stage and show off handsets running Mango, with Angry Birds and other unreleased applications installed. I found that particularly hard to stomach. Just finish the stuff behind closed doors, ship it and then tell me about how great it is when I can actually get the update and buy the apps myself.
With the exception of the Nokia deal, Windows Phone 7 has been getting hardly any press coverage in it’s own right. In fact, if it weren’t for Nokia, Windows Phone 7 would be dead. With that in mind it starts to become easier to understand why Microsoft spent such a huge amount of money on the Nokia deal. The question is – will the brand be enough to save the platform? It’s a legendary name, but is also a tarnished brand after taking a hammering from Apple and Android over the last few years.
My recommendation is to avoid Windows Phone 7. When Mango ships it might be enough of an improvement to warrant another look, but it’s a dead end until sales of the platform ramp up significantly when Nokia start shipping products.