Windows Phone 8: What Nokia and Microsoft MUST do
You - Ballmer, Elop - yes you. Pay attention
Analysis Next week, we're expected to get a sneak preview of Nokia devices based on Windows Phone 8 at a special publicity event in New York. Here's a view on what Microsoft and Nokia need to deliver - based on something a bit unusual: the user experience.
I find there's a yawning empty chasm in consumer technology coverage. You can find gadget blogs with dozens of pages per device review, lovingly detailing the chip cores and bus speeds. Elsewhere there is an abundance of professional market analysts with opinions4u - some of whom are very good. But they have something in common. Hardcore gadget sites rarely have the time to spend long enough with a device, and depend on it in critical personal situations.
And you'd be surprised how unfamiliar many professional market analysts are with the products on the markets. They may paw gingerly at a new product, in tightly controlled situation, for a few seconds, before pronouncing on the fate of the company. Some don't even have TVs at home. I believe there's a lot to be learned from close observation of people's interaction with a gadget or service - and absolutely no substitute for using it yourself. Usability has always been a hallmark of El Reg and Reg Hardware coverage from pre-history.
What follows is informed by this: it's based on several weeks of using Lumias as my main phone. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the platform today, of Nokia's implementation of it - and what can WP8 deliver to enhance the strengths, and fix the gotchas?
Did the Lumias shine?
Last November the Lumia 800 was touted as Nokia's comeback phone. The epithet was even more widely used for the 900. And both were, sort of. In each case, it was the first Nokia phone since Android devices flooded the market that could be described as "competitive". It at least made people think about a Nokia as a purchase. For people who trusted Nokia's brand it was pretty exciting.
But the Lumia 800 and 900 are not premium products. The message I received from Nokia's carrier partners - who it must be stressed, have an abundance of goodwill towards Windows Phone - was that pitted against the Samsung Galaxy, the Lumias didn't cut the mustard. Nokia's best didn't have the top-line capabilities or the vibrant apps marketplace.
The Galaxy II consequently carried off the Christmas market and has shown no sign of flagging. While reviewers gushed about the one-piece industrial design, this didn't add to the punters favourable impression of the Lumias, which were smaller, duller and less likely to answer the question "Can it do X?" in the affirmative.
How could this be?
I'll start with the positives, which Microsoft and Nokia must expand on - before listing the negatives, which they must address. Some aspects are platform related, others are Nokia's design and implementation.
What's great about Windows Phone?
Undoubtedly the greatest asset Microsoft had in creating WP was the freedom to be able to design from scratch. The iPhone had been a sensational success, and Android provided a workable derivative, a decent copy. How about doing something different - and designing a product around social interaction?
That's what Microsoft attempted to do, and I think it's largely succeeded. The shining asset of WP is that it's people-centric. Each contact card gathers their activities, whether it's interactions with your or social media broadcasts. So you can quickly see recent calls, text messages, emails, or social network activity from Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. The 'People' hub does a decent job of aggregating contacts. Individuals or groups can be pinned to the home screen.
This makes the app-centric design of Android and iOS look quite clumsy, and while social media aggregators abound, none integrates as well with phone activities (calls and texts) - if they integrate at all.
This is a solid base on which to build. Alas, for the first generation of Lumias, the good news largely stops here. The user experience in WP today, I found, is sub-par in several ways.
A rough ride
While the people-centric design is undoubtedly a plus, and a major differentiator, much of the benefit is negated by the way Windows Phone handles applications. WP uses the 'tombstoning' Apple introduced into iOS, where an application is frozen when sent into the background. There are good reasons for this, and it's fine if the application doesn't really need to carry on in the background. But some, such as Skype and Sports Tracker, very much do. The WP versions of these two apps, quite ludicrously, don't: they're little more use than a branded splash screen.
Where I found this to be particularly painful was the time required to bring a 'tombstoned' application back to life: this was the greatest drawback of using a Lumia. Twitter applications took between seven and ten seconds to restore. This has been ameliorated a little in the latest official Twitter client, but it's still a good four or five seconds before you arrive at what you came for.
If you switch away from Twitter, and one of its great uses is for sharing links, so there's a good chance you'll be jumping into the browser, then you're faced with that long delay once again.
Pitted against a two year-old iPhone or a recent Blackberry, it's really quite dismal. Delays that might have been acceptable in 2009 really aren't today - the market won't tolerate them. So niftier handling of applications on the new OS is the single thing I'm looking for.
Not everything Microsoft thinks is startlingly innovative really has much use. The Live Tiles, which it promoted more heavily than anything else when WP first launched, are fairly useless. They're too small to be useful, and too tied to a multitasking model that starves them of new information. But Windows 8 promises different-sized tiles for app designers, so there's hope.
For pity's sake let us reassign the damn Bing button
The other factor that becomes apparent in quite a subtle way is one I've already alluded to, which is the 'magazine-layout' design of
Metro Notro. In this design, the text itself is the button. Now, some words are quite long. Which means the 'button' is enormous, and because the glass and case don't (yet) miraculously expand to fit the text, large buttons suck space available to applications.
The valuable portion of the screen is much smaller than it should be. Another factor is that what looks really, really cool is the contrast between these large title and action fonts, and the smaller fonts used for app content. That makes the first problem even worse. As Rafe Blandford at All About Windows Phone notes, this is an aspect of the 'design language' that leads to sub-par applications.
When buttons are words, there isn't much to click
Microsoft really must stop being so enamoured of its own cleverness here, and begin to take this seriously. It's promised new screen sizes for WP8, but it needs to think about the proportions of screen elements so that
Metro Notro applications will not always be thought of as second-class citizens. There's a danger they will be.
For me, there's no other single major 'gotcha' to the first generation of Lumias, it's more a case of little niggles. Most of these are explicable by platform immaturity, and the haste in which Nokia had to throw something at the market. When I reviewed  the Lumia 800 nine months ago I described WP as "somewhere between iOS 2 (2008) and iOS 3 (2009)". And boy, is this true. Alas, most people who plumped for an 800 last Christmas, thinking they were buying a mature product, will have been surprised by these annoyances.
For example, the volume keys currently control both the ringer volume and the music playback volume. If you switch between a quiet environment where you don't want a loud ringtone to annoy people, and a noisy one (such as a Tube train) in which you want to hear your music, you'll know how annoying this is. The utterly fatuous Bing button, one of three mandated by Microsoft on all Windows Phones, can't be remapped  to another function.
Searching for items on the phone might be useful, and consistent with 'Search'. And on the Lumia, it's pressed by accident. Almost every time I turn the phone into landscape mode to compose a message, it's accidentally activated. The ringtones are rather too quiet, Microsoft's web browser is barely acceptable on a modern device, and it's almost impossible to edit text in the middle of an edit box. All these are signs of immaturity and perhaps, too, lack of usability testing in real world environments.
Battery life has improved somewhat, but is still poor, and so far I haven't found a case for the Lumia that tempers its sharp corners. Nokia is besotted with this one-piece design, but I consider it something of a handicap. Nokia's great, inventive design tradition should be an asset.
As the excellent AAWP site notes in a recent podcast, the first generation devices "haven't been true Nokia devices", they were largely outsourced. The Lumias we hope to see in New York next week will have been through a much longer 18 month development cycle.
And yet Microsoft has much work to do on the PC client side of Windows Phone. Having designed the system around cloud services, this seems to have been an afterthought. The Zune Player is barely adequate, and more about directing users to its music services. Well, Zune is apparently destined for the dumpster , we’ll have to see what replaces it.
The most troubling drawback of Windows Phone I found is also the least noticed: its contacts management. It lurks there like a sandbank awaiting to run unsuspecting ships aground. While WinPho is quite miraculous at sucking in contacts from an iPhone, Blackberry or an old Nokia, and then populating them with social networks feeds of those contacts, it does so at the cost of coherency and user control.
In my Windows Live address book now are eight versions of almost every contact, helpfully "linked". There’s a web interface via Windows Live to manage these, but it’s so clunky, amending and consolidation is impossible. It’s so difficult to do something as trivial as add a photo to a contact via the web user interface, it’s not worth bothering.
Now call me old fashioned, but data integrity is pretty important. I want to be in control of my data, rather than rely on some magic cloud and hope for the best. Windows Phone doesn’t even try to give you the illusion that you’re in control. Cross your fingers, and hope for the best.
Many pundits have declared the smartphone wars over, but for me, there's something not quite right about this conclusion. Nokia and RIM certainly have a colossal task to persuade punters of their relevance, but the market is being served by largely identical devices with little thought applied other than "bigger! faster! runs out of power even sooner!" Such a marketplace rapidly becomes a commodity one.
Last February, when I noted how WP was struggling, how imaginative bundling and cross-industry deals could transform the picture (see No.5, here ). Will today's operators wait for OTT players like WhatsApp to eat their lunch? In its PureView camera, Nokia has the kind of feature so dramatically superior that it can start to get talked about again. So in many ways, from bundling to design, the smartphone wars haven't really started yet.
And remember too, what contributed to the fall of Nokia and RIM also works in their favour. A market leader can rapidly lose the affections of the public, given the lack of long-term lock-in, and short-term (compared to enterprise IT) contracts. Samsung has already shown its hand, with a Windows 8 device with a 4.8inch screen, giant 2200mAh battery (slightly ominous, that) promising "more of the same".
I'm looking forward to NYC next week - the market needs some innovation. ®