Windows Phone 8: What Nokia and Microsoft must do

You - Ballmer, Elop - yes you. Pay attention

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.

Nokia Lumia 900 Windows smartphone

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.

Nokia Lumia 900 WinPho 7 smartphone

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. ®

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