Blog: Can someone please help me ‘get’ Windows Phone 7?

Jonathan Morris
October 11, 2010

I am really struggling with Windows Phone 7 and I’d like to think that I’m not dumb when it comes to embracing new technology. Or am I?

Earlier today, I went along to see the launch of Windows Phone 7. As I walked into the main theatre for the presentation, simulcast from the USA, I overheard a number of journalists and bloggers joking about how Windows Phone 7 was doomed even before it launched.

You see, no matter how impartial we all try and be, a lot of people in the industry had already made up their minds long before today, probably since attended the original announcement at the start of the year in Barcelona.

Today was really nothing more than a way for Microsoft to unveil the handset range and give a date when the handsets will go on sale. This bit was certainly impressive; almost ten handsets launched, with most on sale within ten days and every single UK operator signed up.

But what of the OS? I hated Windows Mobile, but so did almost everyone else – bar a few hardcore WinMo fanboys. Microsoft even read out quotes from the press on how bad Windows Mobile was, using it to explain why they went back to the drawing board last year to begin work on what was launched today.

If press cuttings weren’t enough, they then sent on Stephen Fry to wax lyrical about how much Microsoft has done to reinvent itself, saying we should all give them a second chance. Suddenly, I felt guilty for holding my views and figured that I must give this a fair crack of the whip.

I couldn’t wait to see the handsets, but quickly realised that with the very strict specifications laid down by Microsoft, every handset looked very similar to the next. Even the handset demonstrators could be excused for getting them mixed up. Well, at least the HTC models, given Samsung and LG opted to release only one phone each, for now at least. By the end of the year, the range will be expanded with other players eager to enter the market and soak up sales from the early adopters.

The most impressive phone had to be the HD7. With its giant 4.3-inch display, it’s the natural progression of the HD2 (that would have sold so much better if it hadn’t been lumbered with the old Windows Mobile). But, in a few days, you’ll be able to get the Desire HD, with all of its Android 2.2 goodness and the latest version of HTC Sense.

HTC, and indeed Samsung and LG, are not even allowed to do anything to change the look and feel, let alone add things like Sense or TouchWiz, and there are even rules on what can be done on the outside. That means no new icons or fonts, and most definitely no modifications to the core applications – whether it’s the browser or simply the screen that shows an incoming call.

This has left HTC to put a portion of its Sense applications on the phone as part of dedicated HTC Hub, accessible via an icon on the Start screen. That means there’s very little to set it apart from the LG Optimus 7 or the Samsung Omnia 7, which has its aptly named Social Hub to let you share media with a range of social networks. LG has thrown in support for DLNA compatible devices to share media.

Leaving aside the customisation (or lack thereof), the bigger problem was that the user interface just didn’t click with me. When Apple launched the iPhone, I got it straight away (who didn’t?). I’ve had no problems with Symbian, Palm OS, Android, bada, Maemo or WebOS – or any of the computer based operating systems, for that matter. For all its faults, I still ‘got’ Windows Mobile 6.5, despite cursing it for making it so difficult to do basic operations and requiring a stylus to do anything with any accuracy.

So what of Windows Phone 7? It’s almost too simple. Does that make sense? There’s almost certainly no need for a manual (and Microsoft has included links to its website for video tutorials and other guidance), but that’s because it doesn’t feel like there’s actually that much you can do on the phone. A comment echoed by many people talked into buying a Vodafone 360 handset.

Vodafone 360 is a platform that appears to have a few similarities with Windows Phone 7, at least in my mind. The other platform is WebOS. Palm has been sold to HP, making WebOS a platform that may adapt for things like tablets, while Vodafone ditched its handsets after incredibly poor sales and a lack of apps. Not that this automatically means the same will happen again now, of course.

When I get to the Start screen, it’s just like VF360. A series of panels that are ‘live’ but never quite show you all the information you need. Part of a photo or a Facebook status cut short by a few rather words, forcing you to open up the website to read in full. When you’re in an applications, it becomes scarily like WebOS – with menus that offer very few options. If you don’t like the screen layout, tough, because you can’t change anything on the phone besides the colour scheme, or swap between light and dark modes.

Although the marketplace isn’t officially launched yet, I still expected to find at least one Twitter client, or a proper Facebook app. There’s neither. I read elsewhere that there will be around 2,000 apps by launch day (October 21st) but if two of them aren’t apps for the two most popular social networking sites, I’m really not holding out much hope for the success of the platform. And let’s not mention Angry Birds, okay?

As a Google user, the phone happily synced my mail and contacts, but ignored my calendar. Microsoft apparently expects me to use Windows Live for that, but I don’t – and I am not switching service just for my phone. What’s more, after setting up a new account it then told me to connect via a PC to activate the account and set up my Xbox LIVE details. I can only hope that this is another quirk linked to the fact that the full range of services aren’t live yet.

And don’t even think about connecting the phone to a Mac either, as it won’t do anything but charge the phone. If you don’t own a Windows PC, you really don’t want to get a Windows Phone until Microsoft decides to add support for OSX, just as Apple brought iTunes to Windows. There’s also no Bluetooth file transferring, no cut & paste (that is coming in a promised update in early 2011) and a bunch of other restrictions designed to keep the phone at maximum performance.

And, I have to admit, the restrictions work as designed. At no point does the phone ever lag or stutter. Perhaps the fact that Apple has done so well with its locked-down operating system, this is exactly what Microsoft is be trying to replicate.

It has created a phone to appeal to the 300+ million people who have bought Windows 7 for their PC since last year, the millions who use Xbox LIVE and those people who enjoy music with Zune.

And it has, perhaps even more wisely, created a phone that offers up all of the services a PC user might want access to, without ever having to learn about how to use a ‘complicated’ smartphone.

And this might be why I don’t ‘get’ it. It’s simply not there to be ‘got’ by people like me.

If I’m after an operating system like any other, namely one that I can customise and hack about with, I am exactly the type of user that will not get Windows Phone.

I’d need to be someone heavily hooked in with Microsoft and its many applications and services, such that I couldn’t do with anything else other than a Windows Phone.

Sadly, herein lies a problem. I used to be that very person, about five years ago.

It’s not that I don’t use a PC anymore. I do, and it even runs Windows 7 Ultimate. The thing is, for convenience, I’ve moved all of my data into the cloud – with Google (and long before there was anything called Android).

I started with a Gmail account for its cavernous email storage andawesome spam filtering, then added contacts and – more recently – appointments. To save money on using Microsoft Office, I’ve switched to Google Docs and Open Office. Facebook and Twitter has always been in the cloud, so it no longer matters what platform I am using.

For Windows Phone 7 to succeed, it can’t just sell itself as a ridiculously simple and user-friendly UI for accessing data that can be accessed on every other mobile operating system. It needs apps and games, and these don’t seem to be there from launch.

To get a phone now means buying into the platform with your fingers crossed, not knowing if it will be able to catch up on the huge lead enjoyed by Apple and Google. Even Symbian is in a stronger position.

I have been given a handset to review and I fully intend to use it thoroughly over the coming days before even attempting to start writing a review. To do so now would be completely unfair as I struggle to get to grips with what Windows Phone 7 is about, while everyone around me now seems to have been converted.

My fear is that the OS should have clicked with me the very first time I saw it, and it didn’t. The question is, is that my fault or not?

Update (12th October)

You can in fact sync your Google calendar data, but it’s not enabled by default! Only by going into settings and my Google sync settings menu did I notice that there’s an extra box for calendar sync that isn’t ticked automatically. Secondly, I’ve now located Twitt on Marketplace (I’m sure it wasn’t there yesterday) and it’s working well. It may well be not the only Twitter client to be released by launch day either!

Update (13th October)

Microsoft has accidentally let slip that it will be releasing Windows Phone Connect for Mac, allowing synchronisation of data via iTunes/iPhoto. We were shown it yesterday at a workshop, but can’t write anything about it until it’s officially announced soon. Why Microsoft would want to keep such a thing like this secret is beyond me!

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