A Turn of Events
In April of this year, my HTC Touch Pro 2 cell phone developed free will and decided it would only perform tasks it wanted when it wanted and the wishes of its owner - me - would only be worth consideration after prolonged pleading and eventual physical aggressiveness. Its just as well since the Windows Mobile 6.5 operating system it was running was getting long in the tooth a while before the hardware itself revolted. I had been thinking of getting a new phone for months and the opportunity finally presented itself.
I must confess that my wavering fidelity to the Touch Pro 2 predated even Windows Mobile wearing out its welcome. The sexy device catching my eye was the HTC Evo, a large screen brandishing android-powered seductress not only attracting me with her formidable hardware and software assets but also the distinction of being the first high-speed 4G phone on the market. As a 10-plus year Sprint customer, I was a little shocked at the fact that my carrier which, less than 24 months previous, was lagging the smartphone market badly had picked itself up and was now offering some of the most compelling handsets around - sans the iPhone of course but I had no interest in that device to begin with.
Once it was clear that my phone situation was critical, I went to the Sprint store with visions of Android dancing in my head. As I was looking for an extended battery pack in the accessories section I happened to spy a carrying case for a phone called the HTC Arrive. What caught my eye about the Arrive was that, according to the picture on the package, it was running Windows Phone 7-, the recently-released ground-up rewrite of Windows Mobile. I had read a few WP7 reviews at launch, but had never seen it in person. Also, I didn't recall seeing any WP7 phones in the Sprint lineup before which made it a non-starter as I was not interested in switching carriers.
Curious, I asked a salesperson if they had an Arrive in stock and she walked me to the darkest, most remote section of the store where the handset was displayed. After blowing off a thick cloud of dust (I jest), I started playing with the phone and was immediately spellbound.
I read about the phone's Metro user interface in reviews but, despite the positive assessments ascribed it, the pictures didn't look very compelling. Monochrome squares and rectangles on a screen - big freakin' deal. However, once I actually saw - no, felt - the thing in action I was utterly amazed. The user interface on my Windows Mobile 6.5 device had devolved into a handheld slideshow so I figured just about anything would be an improvement, but what I was seeing in WP7 was by far the most responsive user interface I had ever seen. Seriously, liquid is the only adjective that I feel does it any justice.
As I continued to poke around the phone, it became clearer and clearer that I was not going to walk away with the EVO. The Arrive had everything I cared about plus it came in a more manageable size with a hardware keyboard. After about 10 minutes of toying with it, I decided to purchase the phone.
The first month or so with the Touch Pro 2 was great but over time the phone performed worse and worse - like a handheld Windows 95. For that reason, I decided to wait a while before I wrote my impressions on Windows Phone 7. Now, after 6+ months of ownership - and the last 2 months running the 7.5 "Mango" update - I think I have a good feel for the ups and downs of the OS and feel comfortable sharing my thoughts. Please note that this isn't intended to be anything other than my views on WP7 and WP7 alone so my perspective is that of a new user, not somebody trying to exhaustively compare the WP7 OS with any other platform.
For me, WP7's greatest asset is the User Interface. The fact that it is fast and responsive gets a lot of press -rightfully - but just as compelling is the fact that it represents a fresh take on how the user interacts with the device. Before WP7 most phones were glorified app launchers that presented users with a grid of equally sized icons representing all of the device's installed applications. WP7 has an application list that essentially does this, but the default view is the "Start Screen" implemented as a customizable list of tiles that can represent applications but also other objects such as contacts (single and groups), documents, or even specific pages in applications.
For example, my start screen has all of the important stuff - phone, email accounts, messaging application, calendar and weather - but it also has a shortcut to a playlist in the phone media player application, the scratch notepad in my online OneNote notebook, a link to my cloud-based document repository, a group of contacts for my close friends, and a link to the Foursquare app page for one of my favorite (and most hotly contested for mayor) restaurants.
Taking it a step further, the tiles are not just static icons. For example, the icon for my close friends displays recent social network updates from anyone in the group and highlights if anyone from the group has made an attempt to contact me. There is also a "Me" tile that lets me know if anyone has mentioned me on twitter or responded to a Facebook post, or tagged me in a picture or... whatever. Obviously only so much info can be placed in a 1-inch or so square tile so tapping the tile gets you into the full detail of the notification(s).
The examples I just mentioned are really byproducts of one of the other unique features of the phone: tight social networking integration. WP7 allows you to connect several social networks - MSN, Linked In, Twitter, and Facebook - and aggregate your contacts across them all. So if I have friends that I have connections to through my personal address book, Twitter, Facebook, and Linked In, I can connect them in under one contact entry which will show me all of the messages I've received from the contacts as well as their recent Twitter / Facebook status updates and pictures. It's a really convenient way to keeping track of not only what a person is up to, but also the communication history between myself and that person.
For me the most remarkable thing about the OS is how it tries to de-emphasize the app orientation that has become par for the smartphone course. I'm sure part of the reason is the fact that, while the growth of the app store is brisk, the WP7 platform is vastly outgunned by app marketplaces of its competitors who bring hundreds of thousands of apps to the table. (Having said that, I can't help but be amused hearing Apple enthusiasts try to belittle the high quality WP7 OS because of its lack of apps when those same people used to - and still - try to marginalize the importance of the sheer number of apps when it comes to Mac OSX.) Whatever the reason, I think the idea of making the OS more of a focal point than the apps has paid off, on social networking at least, as I very rarely use the Facebook or Twitter apps. I simply go to the "Me" tile, select "post an update" and choose which networks I want to receive the message. If I want to see updates from others, I either go to a single contact, a contact group, or my full contact list and swipe to the "What's New" tab. Pretty slick stuff.
There are literally hundreds of cool features on the phone but you can read about those elsewhere. A few more things I like are: the ability to "try" any paid app in the app store, the Bing "Local Scout" which detects the neighborhood you're in and displays all sorts of destinations for activity in the vicinity, the way the media player can show pictures of the artist you're listening to on the phone lock screen, the fact that the phone integrates SMS, Facebook chat, and MSN chat into its messaging application, and the way that the contact list and contract group live tiles will cycle through pictures of people contained within.
I'm sure you can tell I like Windows Phone 7 a lot, but it's not without problems. My biggest problem is the fact that the social media integration is confined to the providers Microsoft has built connectors for. Twitter and Linked In didn't become available til the 7.5 update and there are plenty of other useful networks that could be integrated e.g. Hi5, MySpace (I know, but they still have millions of users), or Google+ (ha!). This wouldn't be as annoying if I didn't know as a developer that Microsoft is very good a designing provider models for plug in functionality. There is no good reason for disallowing alternate functionality in the search and map apps either. Yes I know Google is nonplussed about the idea, but since most of their APIs are open that hole can be filled by third parties. Hopefully this problem can be rectified in the future.
A related issue is that the phone synchronization only works through the Zune desktop media player application. In some ways I don't mind this because the Zune software is one slick bit of kit (every bit as slick as WP7 in fact), but the problem is that the Zune player is a media application and media constitutes the least important data on my phone. For me, the phone is a life management tool with its ability to aggregate disparate contact lists and calendars into one cohesive whole and I would like a way to leverage that in an environment other than my phone - namely the computer I sync it with. As it stands, the phone is the only place where I can see all of this information in one location. I don't think there is any reason why the phone data can't be synced with a desktop client. Since Windows has built-in calendar and address book programs that can be default repositories it's ridiculous to me that I have to consult my phone every time I want to add something to a calendar in fear of having a cross-calendar conflict. Even a manual dump would be nice.
Next, the WP7 User Interface, as awesome as it is, can be a liability as well. Most basically, many of the apps use a "panorama" interface where the UI is spread along a single "page" with the phone only displaying one part of the page at a time. Here is an example:
It creates a pretty dramatic effect when using an application, but it's also a fairly novel concept which I imagine raises the cost of development due to the variation in user experience from the other mobile operating systems. It's not a deal breaker, but it can certainly slow adoption and, at this point in the game for Microsoft, uptake is priority one. I admit this is a pretty picky issue.
I talked earlier about how responsive and smooth the phone operates, well sometimes it is a little too responsive. There have been plenty of times where I have barely grazed a button and the phone zipped back to a previous page or launched an application. This could be due to hardware and/or software sensitivity issues but it also appears to be an artifact of software design as one app in particular (the Google Voice client) does it way more often than others.
I don't regret ditching the EVO for the Arrive. I know I've spent this whole write up talking about software and I think that's a good thing. The hardware itself gets out of my way and let's me get things done. What higher compliment I can give?
I have turned into a big fan of WP7. When it was first released there were a number of complaints about the OS being very slick but half-baked. My phone shipped with the first point release - NoDo it was called - and whatever came with that update was apparently enough to satisfy me. With the 7.5 Mango release the phone improved dramatically and even has a few market-leading features.
I think what has surprised me most about my experience with the phone is how my personal preference for dealing with technology has changed. The Windows Phone 7 experience is very cloud oriented with most information being pulled from remote sources so the phone itself has little outside of media files and a few documents saved locally. What local information is saved is either retrieved by syncing with a computer or the cloud, but the file system is not directly inaccessible. Not long ago I would have scoffed at the idea of not directly accessing the data on my phone, but now all I care about is being able to get at it when I need it. I'm wondering if I've changed or if the file access use cases have finally gotten to the point where direct access to the data store has been made less relevant to the experience of interacting with the data itself.
Whatever the case might be, at six blissful crash-free months (yes, zero crashes) in, I'm a believer.