Dusted off this post draft from earlier this year and finished it. Yay summer!
Last fall (of 2017), after dealing with my Lumia 950’s iffy battery and unoptimized OS for almost two years, I replaced it with a Galaxy S8+, ending almost 8 years of membership as a Windows Phone user. I personally think WP really had the potential to succeed, and had some very special defining qualities. A combination of the market and Microsoft’s own decisions eventually led us to where we are today, with Windows 10 Mobile on life support and the few remaining users praying for a Windows 10 on ARM “Surface Phone” to appear sometime in the future. All of my smartphones up to now were Windows Phones, and I feel it’s fitting to ramble some of my opinions about it. Here goes.
Disclaimer: This series only considers Windows Phone versions 7 to 10, not 6.5 and below. I never had experience using them and thus don’t feel qualified to express anything other than a cursory opinion of them.
To understand Windows Phone, we really need to go back further than it, to 2006, the year of the Zune.
The first Zune device I owned was the “brown brick” Zune 30, complete with a 30GB spinny disk hard drive. It had a clean and simple interface - merely a list of menus in white text on a dark background. The hard plasticky buttons were difficult to click and the hard drive often a serious performance liability (not to mention a major factor in the device’s enormous size).
Its third generation successor, the Zune HD, was released in 2009. As you might’ve been able to tell from prior posts on this blog, I was a huge fan. Middle school-aged me was enamored with the dark OLED display, clean white text interface, capacitive touchscreen (in a time where most touchscreens were cheap resistive displays), and the internet applications. “Pivots”, a UI paradigm where you swiped left and right to navigate between menus, came to life here and continued their influence on Windows Phone. The device, feature-wise, arguably could hold its own against the iPod, but poor marketing and Apple’s entrenchment in the existing market made it hard to catch on. Even at this time, the “App Gap” was already plaguing Microsoft.
Get in, get out, get back to life (Windows Phone 7)
Windows Phone officially began its new life in 2009, when Microsoft announced a reboot its older “Windows Mobile” phone operating system series. In a time where touchscreen smartphones like Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android were destroying the status quo of “Pocket PC’s” running Windows CE or Windows Mobile 6 operated with a stylus, Microsoft was desperate to produce a smartphone competitor.
The UI of the operating system was essentially lifted directly from the Zune HD and further improved. The attention to detail from Microsoft to UI animations was at its height at this time, from the page flip animations, to the live tile animations, to the jump lists and circle buttons at the bottom of the screen.
Experiences were meant to be fully integrated into the phone itself: the messenger app handled SMS, Windows Live Messenger, and Facebook Messenger all seamlessly, the people app handled not only contacts, but also retrieving and posting status updates to Windows Live and Facebook as well, and perhaps my most favourite part of the OS, the music app was essentially a mini Zune HD living in the phone. The OS identified itself as the ambitious and daring upstart, featuring a minimal black and white interfaces, but with the user’s choice of “accent color” applied tastefully throughout the interface.
Another aspect crucial to WP’s success in the niches where it caught on was its insanely good performance. My first device, a Samsung Focus S, had nearly identical design and internals to the equivalent Galaxy S II. However, contrary to Android’s reputation at the time of being laggy and slowing down over time, I never once saw any dropped frames in any animation in the phone’s native interface. A bold claim, but I’m willing to stand by it even now. Sure, third party apps had occasional crashes, but the first-party apps and phone interface itself were as solid as a rock.
Microsoft marketed WP as a phone that allowed you to “get in, get out, and get back to life”. They even held competitions (“smoked by Windows Phone”) where employees challenged iPhone and Android owners on who could take a picture and upload it to social media the fastest.
Reset and Zenith (Windows Phone 8/8.1)
What I feel was Microsoft’s first big mistake was made when Windows Phone 8 was announced - they dropped backward compatibility. Anyone in computing knows this is basically a death sentence to gaining a long-lasting userbase, but Microsoft probably saw it worth the changes they were about to make. Windows Phone 7 was based on a offshoot variant of Windows called Windows CE, closely related to the old Windows Mobile 6 series. As part of Microsoft’s ultimate gameplan to unify all of its operating systems, the first step was replacing the core of Windows Phone with the core Windows. And they did just that - Windows Phone 8 was powered by the NT kernel, used its driver stacks, and used NTFS. In this era, Microsoft also introduced the “WinRT” app framework, which allowed developers to share high quantities of their code between Windows 8’s much-maligned Metro apps and Windows Phone 8. The problem was that consumers didn’t know nor care about these technical changes.
The saving grace of this era of Windows Phone, however, was Nokia. Microsoft purchased the entire mobile division of Nokia to produce Windows Phones by itself. And to some extent, they were wildly successful. The Nokia Lumia 1020 was a phone with a monster camera that mostly holds up against the best smartphone cameras of 2018, 5 years later. The Lumia 520 had pretty much the same hardware as my Focus S two years prior, but ran Windows Phone 8 smoothly. It sold in ridiculous volumes in developing countries like India, becoming at the time the best selling Windows phone, PC, or tablet in the world. During this era, I used the Lumia 925, a phone I was extremely happy with and wouldn’t ditch until the power button itself stopped working.
Second Reset (Windows 10 Mobile)
Here’s where it went all downhill: Microsoft broke backward compatibility again. Well, not totally this time. None of the existing Windows Phone 7 devices could receive Windows Phone 8, but an incredibly small list of Windows Phone 8 devices could receive the next version of the OS. Not present in the list, notably, were the two “star” devices I mentioned above, the 1020 and 520.
What was the reason for this? Well, technical again. Microsoft essentially completed its “grand unification” of phone and desktop, introducing the “Universal Windows Platform”, which allowed app writers to target all of Windows 10 Mobile, Windows 10, and Xbox One. To be honest, this is an insane achievement that none of the other smartphone companies (Google nor Apple) have achieved. One was able to run a UWP app on Windows 10, grab the edge of the window to shrink the app, and it would reflow seamlessly into the phone variant of the interface. One could even dock a Windows 10 Mobile device into a dock/monitor setup and the phone would show an interface nearly-identical to that of desktop Windows.
The problem was, in this quest for unification, Microsoft left behind the very things that made Windows Phone special: a daring, well-designed interface with total attention to detail, and performance.
I owned a Microsoft Lumia 950 in this era, one of the only devices produced by Nokia while under Microsoft’s ownership. From the start, the phone was plagued with minor efficiency issues - the native interfaces would stutter and stumble, the phone grew hot from anything mildly taxing, the battery drained quickly, all things I never experienced on my Focus S. In addition, the Metro UI of the Zune, WP7, and WP8 era was being changed. Instead of thoughtful placements of controls and UI elements, Microsoft opted to stuff everything into “hamburger menus”, commonly seen in Android apps today. App backgrounds turned from black to an off-gray, hurting battery life on the OLED displays Windows Phones often came with.
Still, people remained hopeful that the UWP platform and new hardware would bring more users, but Microsoft evidently did not see any point in continuing on. After the “Creator’s Update” of Windows 10 released, Microsoft split development of W10M from the mainline OS and put it on maintenance mode, then wrote off the entire Nokia purchase. Windows 10 Mobile is now alive only in life support mode, until 2019 when its support period ends and it finally dies.
What Went Well
- Absolutely beautiful and industry changing interface. iOS 7 and Material all came after Metro. Emphasis on dark and flat interfaces instead of 3D and skeumorphism
- In the beginning, focusing on what was important (get in get out), base performance
- When first party apps were not available, high-quality third party reimplementations flourished
- myTube/Metrotube (yes, the OS never had a real youtube app from Google)
- Baconit/Readit/ReddPlanet (Reddit)
- Poki (Pocket)
- Survivalcraft (clone of MCPE)
- Aeries and the many old clients (fenice, tweet it, etc.) (twitter)
- Unstream (twitch)
- Rudy Huynh’s third party apps 6sec (Vine) 6tag (Instagram) 6tin (Tinder) 6snap (Snapchat)
- 4th and Mayor (Foursquare)
- Gmaps (Google Maps)
- The UWP unification was and is an amazing feat of engineering, but no one is left to appreciate it (what’s the point of cross-platform if there’s only one or two platforms left?)
- Failed to retain the qualities that led to success in the first place: attention to UI detail, performance
- Breaking backward compatibility twice, and not including the two most famous devices the second time
- App gap, the WP marketplace never quite reached the same level of quality as its competitors.
- This is interesting because nowadays there’s less of an emphasis on “more apps in your store = better platform”. There’s even criticism of the Play Store having too much low-quality crap in it. I wonder how WP would fare if it had launched today in its WP8/8.1 form.
- Microsoft has never actually killed Windows 10 Mobile yet, but with the writeoff of Nokia, layoff of its mobile division, and cessation of updates, everyone knows it’s coming.
- The Surface Phone, if it ever comes in the future, would need to be so good as to convince people to come back to a platform that has broken compatibility promises twice.
- I switched grudgingly to a Samsung Galaxy S8+, which works for its purposes. It has the mainstream apps, and the battery lasts a decent length of time. Apps don’t feel nearly as integrated design-wise as they were in the height of Windows Phone, where apps prided themselves on looking like they could’ve been part of the base OS.
- HMD Global has bought up the Nokia brand and a ton of old employees. Its offices are even located across from the old Nokia offices. They currently produce midrange Android smartphones running clean, stock vanilla Android. In a world where top-end phones now cost 800-1000 USD or more, I’ve realized I actually do quite little with a phone. I just need a web browser, several mainstream apps like GroupMe, YouTube, and Instagram, and the native phone, messaging, and email utilities. There’s no point in paying so much just for that, so after my S8+ dies I may give Nokia another try, since I still have quite a bit of (nostalgia-driven) fondness for the brand.