Windows Phone: The best platform you should never use
- 29 August, 2014 05:45
It is with mixed emotions that I tell you that my experiment of using naught but the HTC One (M8) with Windows for a week is officially over. And I have to say: I'm relieved.
I'll spare you a thorough review of the phone itself, since it's been done better elsewhere, but the bottom line is that my considerable enthusiasm for Windows Phone as an operating system is strangled to death by its frustrating lack of ecosystem support.
When I wrote about my first 24 hours with Windows Phone last week, the response was far stronger than I could have ever anticipated: Most of those chiming on Twitter and in the comments section were very helpful, pointing out alternatives to the apps I was missing, including third-party clients and web apps, which definitely helped a lot.
By the end of my week, I was pretty well settled in on the phone. I found it to be an overall more human experience, with a really neat contact-centric view into my friends' aggregated social media, the ability to save and immediately share a photo, and cute little tricks like turning off WiFi until I got home, where it turned itself back on.
But it just wasn't good enough. A lot of those third-party clients I mentioned are ad-supported and often have incomplete feature sets compared to the official versions on other platforms -- and that's putting aside the obvious privacy concerns I had with putting my password into an unsupported app. It's especially hard to tell wheat from chaff when the Windows Store is packed wall-to-wall with nonfunctional or straight-up malicious crapware, though Microsoft has committed to cleaning that up.
These unsupported apps might not work quite right at all. Case in point: Tube Cast, the only solution I'm aware of for streaming YouTube videos from a Windows Phone to a Google Chromecast (I have two) only lets you play a video. You can't pause or rewind it. So, yeah, it works. But it's not pretty.
Moreover, my big revelation over the last week is that, generally speaking, web apps kind of suck on mobile phones. Sure, they'll get you by in a pinch, but it it got old to go through processes like trying to grab the VMworld agenda app so I could follow along at the show, only to find there isn't a Windows Phone option, and having to make do with a counterintuitive browser version that obviously wasn't a priority in development.
Which pretty much sums up the experience of using any non-Microsoft app on Windows Phone: Not a priority in development.
That's putting aside apps like Google Hangouts that just don't exist on Windows Phone. It's no wonder Microsoft invests so heavily in companies like Xamarin -- the easier it is for developers to put stuff on Windows Phone, the better, generally speaking.
This is such a tremendous problem, I think, because it's a matter of future-proofing. Sure, anything the other platforms get will probably make its way to Windows Phone in one form or another, either as an official version or as a knock-off. You can make it work, but nothing really new or exciting will ever make it to Windows Phone first.
It's less like the iOS or Android developer ecosystem, where a bunch of developers create the individual apps that make up the moving parts that push the platform forward, and more like a biodome: Specifically, Bio-Dome, the 1996 Pauly Shore vehicle where the main characters fix the titular enclosure's air purification system by lashing together a bunch of cigarette filters. It's quick and dirty and if it doesn't work, you're stuck. And if it does work, congratulations, you're breathing cigarette air.
Let's drop this metaphor. Anyway, it's such a tremendous shame because Windows Phone itself is such a great platform. I found the operating system itself to be slick, quick, polished, and intuitive in many, many appealing ways. Cortana is both helpful and sassy, and I appreciated her attempts to bring me relevant headlines based on my preferences and behavior. She even recognized my question when I asked what the Winklevoss twins look like.
But mobile apps are pushing forward the modern world. Again, I recognize that life in the San Francisco Bay Area accelerates this effect significantly, but mobile devices and the apps that run on them are changing the way we live and work. Just look at the ongoing battles between Uber and Lyft, as they both attempt to become the transportation option of choice for the app-haunted world.
Windows Phone is a really, really good platform. And if Microsoft can somehow attract more developers building really cool apps that take advantage of the foundation that it set down so solidly (or at least get more of the ones that people already use), recommending it would be a no-brainer. Of course, attracting developers is hard without more users, and you can't attract more users without more developers, and so on and so forth.
But as it stands, it's very hard to recommend Windows Phone in good conscience. My iPhone has its shortcomings, and I wish it had some of my favorite tricks from Windows Phone (live wallpaper is really neat, you guys), but at least it has iMessage and Venmo and Google Hangouts and all the other tools I need in my day-to-day. I feel more connected and more productive with my iPhone back in hand.
The best we can hope for is that some of the intuitiveness and user-friendliness that Microsoft put into Windows Phone trickles back to Apple iOS and Google Android. It's usually the other way, I know. But Microsoft has made a better, more human phone, and it would be a shame to see it forgotten entirely.