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Windows Phone 7, better late than never. Really.

I’ve been developing software for portable devices for a long time. And I’ll never forget the first time back in 2003 to build a stock control application for a local retailer using Windows CE 3. The project was a success although to be fair, the customer was never totally happy with the hardware as it was invariably too big and too expensive and the operating system which was too clunky and too slow and unstable.

If you wanted a portable “in the field” or “in the stockroom” rugged portable computer it was going to be a Windows CE machine with some custom software developed for it. For personal use if you wanted to get your email on the go you needed a PDA or PDA/Phone combo which allowed you to (if you were lucky) dial into the office to download your email and perhaps allow you to chicken-peck a reply using a stylus or flimsy keyboard. It was an exercise in frustration and annoyance.

Being an early adopter though has its advantages. HTC in its early days (2003 to 2008) used to make a variety of innovative (and dare I say, trailblazing) devices which were amongst the first to market with usable software, decent technical specifications and the latest wireless technologies. While other manufacturers were struggling with their own closed operating systems, Windows Pocket PC and Windows Mobile emerged as the techno-user’s weapon of choice, allowing one to download and install a variety of applications from rudimentary SatNav to Office, file transfer and instant messaging applications. I developed a very quick application back in 2005 which allowed me to send emails to my customer whenever I was late for a meeting – and later, with a GPS tag showing my location. It frankly amazed my customers, “How did you send an email while you were on the motorway?” and won me business as the go-to-guy for mobile innovation.

I was bemused therefore at Microsoft’s recent Windows 7 keynote in which this same “I’m late” feature made it’s way into Windows Phone 7 along with a whole raft of other features which claim to allow us to get on more with our lives and spend less time with our devices. Microsoft’s adverts show people glued to mobile phones at inappropriate times and try to send the message that with a Windows Phone in your life you’ll be able to get in, get things done and put the phone away quickly. Perhaps Microsoft didn’t realise the underlying subtext; that people are glued to their smartphones because there are things in the phone that interest them. Contact with friends, their media, their work and so on.

From 2003 to 2007 I was occupied with producing line of business applications and a variety of mobile applications; some were for some pretty big household names and some where working together collaboratively with other small software companies to deliver rather large mission critical projects.

All of these projects had in common one thing. And that thing was the same thing in common with HTC devices over the same time period. All of the projects had user interfaces that tried as hard as possible to hide the underlying operating system and present an interface that was actually usable. People buying Windows Mobile devices over the past couple of years typically had a device running HTC’s TouchFLO interface – a dashboard which replaces the built in Windows phone feature with a larger more finger-friendly skin, weather, stocks, calendar and other widgets. You see to Microsoft a mobile device, phone or tablet needs to be full-fat  Windows on a smaller screen.

On the 9th January 2007 the entire industry changed on the spot. It was a day that has changed the entire way that the world thinks about mobile devices and it signalled the beginning of the end for Microsoft’s mobile platform. It was the announcement of the first iPhone – a capacitive (highly responsive) phone/PDA with multi-touch screen and a well thought out crisp and properly sized user interface. Those of us who had been using Smartphones for years may not have given Apple the credit it was due for this innovation at the time, since the original iPhone (like the current Windows 7 phone) was missing some pretty obvious things – copy and paste for example.

But over the past three years, Apple has shown that mobile computing does not require heavy-handed configuration, a stylus (or long fingernails) or a tiny finger-pecking UI. Palm’s WebOS came and went (shame really, it was quite promising!) and despite Google’s rather fragmented Android platform coming to the scene, it has been a rather one-and-a-half horse race.

Until now?

I was recently discussing the latest Windows 7 Phone with Danny Tuppeny, a fellow programmer and he rather likes the Windows 7 Phone. So do I – finally Microsoft has caught up with the notion that software needs to be designed for portable devices and not just scaled down Windows.

In our discussion I said the following:

I’m not totally convinced by WM7 although it is original and has some unique features. What gets me is the general design and UI of the whole new ‘Windows Live’ theme. It wastes space unnecessarily and makes performing straightforward tasks just that little bit harder than it really needs to be.

And in response, Danny suggested a whole heap of improvements by which Windows Phone 7 makes things easier to save time, specifically;

  • Calendar appointments on the lock screen and home screen
  • Using the camera without unlocking the phone
  • Voice commands without unlocking the phone
  • Pin contacts to the home screen
  • Email count on the lock screen
  • Hardware search button

However all of those features I’ve had since 2005 on earlier versions of Windows Mobile. And his excellent article otherwise missed the point of what I was saying. That is, that the style of the new Microsoft “Windows Live” theme wastes space – lots of space.

I stepped off the ‘adding features’/’hardware specifications’ bandwagon and onto the ‘portable appliance’ one in 2009 with the iPhone 3Gs and I haven’t looked back. In December of 2008 I bought the HTC Touch HD – an iPhone-thin behemoth of a powerhouse phone with an effectively “retina” high resolution display and all of the above features in it. However it wasn’t without it’s problems. For instance on opening the box it came with a sticker on it that said, “Please remove from trouser before sitting down” – in reference to the creaky screen and within three months when numerous bugs surfaced with the underlying operating system (HTC used an old version of Windows Mobile 6), HTC refused to issue updates and support the new flagship Touch HD, effectively declaring it obsolete just three months after it was released. Needless to say I was completely disappointed with both Microsoft and HTC for their rather treacherous customer service. The whole ownership experience was not “joined up” as HTC told me I had to get support from the carrier (I bought the phone for £500 from Expansys direct without a carrier) and if I had bought it from a carrier it would have been bogged down with so much crapware that the device would have run like an old dog out of the box (as has been the fate of so many carrier-subsidised Google Android phones of late). Since Apple control both the hardware and software and treat the mobile networks/carriers like utilities, the user experience is solid from the moment you open the box until the time you trade up. As long as you’re within warranty of course, and Apple give a year with each device anyway. Unlike HTC.

Now brings me to the crux of my discussion with Danny, that is: “What gets me is the general design and UI of the whole new ‘Windows Live’ theme”. I wasn’t saying that the new Windows Phone 7 sucks – it doesn’t. I think it’s a great leap forward and for a version one device it only makes me excited to get started with the platform. I’ve already been called by a lady from Microsoft three times to ask specifically for my old Windows CE solutions to be upgraded to Windows Phone 7. Smart thinking on behalf of Microsoft there, calling up all the old time ISVs! I don’t recall the last time Apple asked me to develop for their App Store. The proven commercial value and convenience of the App Store has me going to Apple.

So what of this Windows Live Theme? The titles are too big, the font is not readable without glasses and/or getting up close to the screen, the colours are poorly chosen and the icons aren’t immediately obvious. Take this meeting screen for instance, and the day agenda calendar view that it spawns from:

imageimage

What a waste of space. The UI is dreadful, particularly when it comes to line spacing and font sizes.

Want to check your unread email? No problem, but you can only see four emails at a time before you have to scroll:

image

And to coincide with the crap user interface design elements, Microsoft have decided to take the rather neat and tidy MSN Messenger for Windows interface from a small contact list and instead are now doing this:

image
Adverts? I don’t need no stinking adverts.

And while I might have six monitors on my desk, I feel that dedicating the best part of one 24” monitor for Microsoft’s new Messenger interface is asking too much. Note the rather ridiculous main navigation section (just under my portrait) which is the same or similar style to that used on the Windows Phone 7. And take a look at all that wasted space on the right hand side. Whilst only four of my contacts were online at the time, there are a great deal many more who are offline and hence hidden. Consider also that a web browser taken to www.facebook.com shows more updates in less space than the MSN window merely copying Facebook content does. This is my point – Microsoft’s new “Live” design might work well for Xbox and Media Centre but they’re repeating the same darn mistake that they have done for the past ten years. The same mistake that drove Ray Ozzie, the senior MS Hardware engineer to leave Microsoft – effectively giving up the golden CEO seat in the process. Why? Because Microsoft have a tendency to engineer one approach that works and then they mass produce that approach and splash it everywhere like a round peg hammered into every hole no matter the size.

Steve Jobs criticised Microsoft’s past decade of devices through the subtext of his most recent “Back to the Mac” keynote speech. He explained that people don’t want to use devices vertically as it makes your arms tired (someone please tell HP that nobody actually uses their touchscreen laptops) and Windows isn’t designed for touch. Microsoft did a good job with Surface and Xbox and this time around Microsoft are stipulating minimum hardware requirements to their vendors (whereas before anyone could get a Microsoft license and could ship Windows CE/PocketPC/Mobile on a real turd of a device). Microsoft think in terms of software and licensing – not in terms of user experience. And this neglect has largely given Steve Jobs the perfect opportunity to have a three year monopoly on technology that (non-geek) people actually want to use.

If you’ve read this far, well done. It’s not often that I rant on my blog and I usually try to make it more entertaining when I do. But whilst I am incredibly happy to see another horse put up for the race against the iDevices and the seemingly disorganised swathe of Android devices of various shapes and sizes, I’m a little disappointed that Microsoft have taken the “more is less” approach to user interface design rather than the “less is more” approach like Apple have done.

I’m rather hoping for (OSX style) widgets to make it to a future iOS version as the Apple lock screen could do with some of the useful home screen widgets that all other Smartphones have enjoyed over the past decade.

And whilst I’m not holding my breath, I can say that the forthcoming mobile devices and ‘appliance computing’ arms race is going to be rather exciting over the next year which promises an array of Google (and possibly Windows) tablets and possibly an unexpected HP WebOS phoenix rising from the ashes of Palm

These are my opinions. You’ve probably got some of your own, please comment below and let’s chat about what’s on your mind Smile

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