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Windows Phone Series 7

February 17th, 2010

Named only as awkwardly as Microsoft can name a thing, the new Windows Mobile OS is out, and making quite a bit of a fuss in the gadget community. What strikes me is that virtually everyone on the major tech sites is raving about this, saying it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread–and virtually no one is panning it. Looking at all the major sites, I can’t find a single person saying, “I don’t like this.” Which is immensely suspicious, because somebody always hates something new, and it’s not like there’s nothing to criticize about the new mobile OS. It’s almost as if people feel obligated to give the product raving reviews, either out of guilt (I don’t want to seem unfair after praising Apple’s products), relativism (this is great because it’s far better than WinMo 6.5!), or simply because it’s not by Apple.

The WPS7 (seriously, what will become the shorthand for this thing?) is based on the Zune, using its interface style and including the DAP within the new structure. Notably, Microsoft doesn’t want these to be called “Zune Phones,” for obvious reasons. Not that the Zune HD was bad–it was Microsoft’s first good version of the machine–but it was way too little, way too late, after having established a very bad image for the brand name. They have not banished the Zune name, but they are definitely burying it somewhat.

Microsoft definitely did a several things right with this OS. The design elements are very well done, taking the best from the Zune and adding more good stuff. The elemental colors are a Microsoft standard, but they are done with a classy, understated elegance which is hard to dislike. There are cool animated transitions that dazzle, at least at first. Microsoft seems to be adding Office functionality, but not much is out on that yet–if you can view and edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint on this, it’ll be a huge plus (albeit difficult on such a small device). But Microsoft’s smartest move is making the phone integrate seamlessly with social networking features, bound to be a big hit with the younger crowd–the one especially into the iPhone right now. And that’s a big giveaway–this is not aimed at Microsoft’s usual business crowd, this is a broadside directly aimed at the iPhone’s user base. Centering the OS around activities, defined under ‘hubs,’ Microsoft is trying to make this a user-centric, experience-based machine.

So, is it as good as everyone is raving? One very telling point is found in all the praise. There are several recurring themes that are common to the gush:

It’s not the piece of crap WinMo 6.5 was. This should be damning with faint praise–almost nobody liked the previous version of the OS. A blind chimp with Tourette’s could have designed a better OS for a touchscreen phone. But the improvement is commonly touted as a big deal, though usually with the added note that, “it’s not only not a piece of crap, it’s actually pretty good.”

It’s got great graphics. Fair enough–a lot of people loved the iPhone for similar reasons. The thing is, the same people now in love with the eye candy were the same ones dismissing it with the iPhone. The iPhone persevered because it functioned well in real use, something that only a few people issue caveats about concerning WPS7.

Praise for the same things the iPad was knocked for. Many are praising the WPS7 for borrowing an existing (Zune) style and functionality, something the iPad was criticized for. Nobody is saying, “Oh, it’s just a phone version of Zune” like they’re saying that the iPad is just “an oversized iPod Touch,” despite both going well beyond the original models in functionality. Similarly, people are avoiding criticism of WPS7 for things they gnash their teeth at where Apple’s products are concerned. No multitasking? We’ll mention it, but not whine about it like we’re doing with Apple’s gear. No Flash? Oh, who cares? In fact, nearly all potential points of criticism are muted, where they were highlighted not just with the iPad, but with the iPhone since it was first announced. Paucity of apps? Lack of an SDK? No details on major elements of the product? These were major complaints raised again and again after the iPhone was announced, and yet no one seems to mind or care much with WPS7. Why not? Then there’s the ecosystem: a major complaint about Apple mobile gear is that Apple controls it. Well, WPS7, with it’s hub-rather-than-app focus, seems designed even more to lock in control by Microsoft–but nobody’s getting on their high horse about it. Why not? Why fall all over Apple for all of these things, and then just a few weeks later have no objections when Microsoft comes out with a product with the exact same features? just about the only criticism I can find about WPS7 across more than one site is for the name. Even under the incredibly positive hype when the iPhone originally debuted, there was still far more focus on the negatives than Microsoft is getting now. Is this an IOKIYM deal?

Praise for nothing new. “You can see how many emails and phone messages are waiting right on the main screen!” Um… that’s been on the iPhone forever, dudes. “It’s minimalist!” Same deal. “It has a touch screen, multitouch no less!” Uhh…“It has cloud computing!” OK, maybe all of this belongs under the “It’s not the piece of crap that WinMo 6.5 was” category.

Unreserved Praise without hands-on. In contrast to people hating the iPad despite testimony that you need a hands-on to appreciate it, people are gushing about the WPS7 without really experiencing it. From Microsoft’s “Mojave” campaign, we know full well that Microsoft is very good at making their product look 100% better under strictly controlled conditions.

Finally, one should note what is absent from the praise: the OS’s functionality and ease-of-use. Everyone is talking about the appearance and the features, but no one seems to be talking about what it would be like to use it. Nobody is saying that it looks like it’s easy to use. Nobody is mentioning the smart design of the menus, or how simple it would be to navigate. All this despite the essential information on that being out there in full view. And I think the reason is because functionality seems to be the major flaw in this device. It’s designed to look cool, not to function well.

This is where the iPhone excelled: ease of use. Turn it on and there are the buttons. Flipping the screen to the next page is easy to learn. That’s it–the user takes over from there by adding the apps that they want and arranging them how they like. The iPhone is designed to be easy to understand, easy to use. It’s designed to simply function and then get out of your way. Lest we forget (and it looks like people have), that was the revolution that the iPhone brought: smartphones made simple.

The WPS7 seems to be oblivious to the design philosophy.That stands out right away: both the iPhone and the WPS7 OS try to be cool, but the WPS7 OS tries to be cool for the sake of being cool, at the expense of functionality. That’s a big no-no. When Apple has cute animation features, it stays within the confines of functionality; for example, when you scroll to the end of a list on the iPhone, it goes a little beyond the end so it can “bump” against the bottom and spring back. That’s a cutesy animation, but it is also functional and stays within good design parameters. It’s a visual reminder that you’ve reached the end of something, and it doesn’t detract in any way. When you want to rearrange app icons, they shake. Again, cutesy, but functional–it tells you that you’re in layout mode. Look at almost every animation in any Mac OS, and you’ll find that it conforms to this basic philosophy: in some way, each animation dovetails with the function.

Looking at the WPS7 animations, I see something comepletely different: cutesy animations purely for the sake of looking cool. For example, sometimes you tap on something, like a name, and it moves in an arc to a new location on the screen. For what purpose other than to be snazzy? Not much. How does that inform you about what you’re doing? Not at all. Then there are the too-wide scrolling screens, with five or six times more content than can show on the phone at once, where you have to wipe back and forth several times to see what’s there. the number of panes is not standard for any area, so you’ll be constantly wondering how far it goes. Worse, there’s no index from which you can jump to the part you want, nor any indicator to see what all the parts are. Then there’s the thing about a sliver of the next area being visible at the edge–which to me feels like a design flaw, not a feature. It’s a counter-intuitive way of handling what is essentially a bad design idea: presenting too much information in too small a space.

Then how about navigation? The WPS7 seems to have a steep learning curve–you have remember what’s buried in the too-big panels and get accustomed to a non-linear fashion of moving around. It does not look like the simple, easy interface that makes the iPhone stand out. Again, that was it’s big point–before the iPhone, smartphones were a dizzying maze of functions that took forever to learn. Most users didn’t access even a small percentage of the features for that reason. The iPhone was a hit not just because it looked snazzy–that was a plus, not the main point. It was a hit because it made using your smartphone easy.

People seem to have bought into the criticism that the iPhone depends primarily on eye candy, and Microsoft seems to have completely forgotten the simplicity part of the equation. While people who hate the iPhone or love social networking may be willing to accept WPS7′s design flaws, it could be that many will not. Or perhaps I am overestimating the apparent complexity of the OS. But I still ask the same question: why aren’t the tech sites talking about this? Does Microsoft get a bye simply because they’re not sucking as bad as usual? Is it the Apple guilt syndrome?

One last note: everybody is oohing and ahhing the animations now. Will they still be smitten when they’ve had to use this interface for a month or more? Like the “blink” tag, animated GIFs, and Flash animations, such overstated cutesyness is initially fun or even impressive, but after using them for a while, they positively grate on you. I can see the WPS7 animations doing the same thing–especially since they are not in the least bit functional. Hopefully, Microsoft will give you the ability to turn them off if you prefer.

As I’m sure someone will point out, this review will be suspect coming from me. I have a long history of liking Apple and not liking Microsoft, and own Apple stock to boot. So by all means, take this with a grain of salt–but that means to question it rationally, not to dismiss it out of hand. While I have been described as a “mindless” Apple fanboy, I beg to differ–my enthusiasm for the iPad has been expressed in great depth on this site in very specific terms regarding the design, function, and potential of the product. Far from just, “Oooo, something new from Apple, it’s gotta be kewl!,” I looked at it with the same initial skepticism I did with the Apple TV, with pretty much every Apple mouse that’s come out, and with Apple Mail app. If the WPS7 phone is much better than I think, please explain in terms as specific as those expressed above.

To help get a better idea, you might want to see this live demo, under less-controlled circumstances but still without letting non-Microsoft hands touch the device. Even with a trained and practiced Microsoft rep handling it, note how much trouble he has. Not a good sign. Microsoft does, of course, have 10 or 11 months to work out the kinks (huge lead time, that). Also note how the guy ignores a few specific requests to show features.

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  1. Solo
    February 17th, 2010 at 17:37 | #1

    This is defo an apple fanboy whinning about nofin. MS is finally getting something apple has been getting and you are here crying. People forgets apple bad side and only scream about their gud stuff. Same here now with wps7 so stop crying.

  2. Luis
    February 17th, 2010 at 17:56 | #2

    Solo: Mind reading the whole post before shooting your mouth off?

  3. Troy
    February 18th, 2010 at 07:10 | #3

    LOL. These are great times to be an Apple fanboy, Luis. Take it as a compliment!

    Reminds me of the late 80s, when Apple and its developer community was really firing on all cylinders and inventing the future.

    Micros~1 was sucking the wad trying to reshape the nasty mass of code that was MS-DOS into a competing OS and UE to Macintosh OS 6.0.x.

    Took them 10 years, but in 1995 people stuck with PCs could finally get a comparably usable system that Mac people had been enjoying since 1988 or so.

    As for Apple’s bad side, perhaps our interlocutor could enlighten us. I think they’ve been doing an amazing job since 2005 or so, and a pretty good job 1995-2005.

  4. Roger
    February 18th, 2010 at 07:55 | #4

    “you can see the tiles are alive, they’re moving” he said that a couple times… like it was a great thing… whoopty do. I love how the touch screen repeatedly refused to recognize his swipes and touches… and had a long delay. Heck, my Handspring Visor PDA had better response than that… and that was 10 years ago. Come to think of it, this device looks an awful lot like a Handspring – though with smaller (dysfunctional so) buttons at the bottom – and ridiculously large icons on the screen. I also like how busy and ugly the screens were and, as you pointed out, how nothing fit. Then there was how so little of the apps worked… yeah, yeah, beta and all that… but what the heck was he doing showing it to people publicly for in such a sorry state? It may be beta, but you can at least set up a little presentation that mimics what it will do (even if its not fleshed out behind the scenes). Embarrassing… or funny, depending on perspective. What a piece of junk! Give me a Treo any day over that… and better yet, an iPhone. Give me a break. How is this even competition.

  5. Roger
    February 18th, 2010 at 08:03 | #5

    @Solo
    yeah… “this is defo about nofin… People forgets… more gud stuff.”
    …Hay, da guy has gots eh pointy.

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