Our team thought it’d be interesting to have an entrenched mobile OS user try another OS for the first time, and then write about it. Being a three-year old iPhone user, I volunteered to try out Windows Phone 7.
I was intrigued by its original approach to a smartphone’s user interface and excited to try out the new features in WP7.5 Mango. But after setting up all my accounts, I looked at the start screen’s tiles and wondered what I was supposed to do now. I’d grown used to how my iPhone hadn’t been just a phone for me, thanks to the multitude of apps on iTunes.
Instapaper turned the iPhone’s blank canvas into reading material. Omnifocus helped me organize my tasks. iPod’s easy integration with iTunes turned it into a podcast station. Saver let me keep track of my expenses and decide if I should throttle back on my spending. Reeder plugged me into my favorite RSS feeds. Pulse fed me a delicious stream of news. I’m not too much of an iOS gamer, but I enjoyed the occasional Strategery round.
Cut off from all these options on my most intimate device, I felt like I was walking around without a piece of my body.
But the more I used WP7, the more it grew on me. I was surprised to discover that, within narrower criteria, the WP7 phone is a better phone than the iPhone. Phone as in just phone; strictly defined as a communications device.
The iPhone is a brilliant mini-computer which just happens to be a phone too. But, iOS forgive me, Windows Phone 7’s focus on the source of content - the people - rather than the platform the people are on, made for an easier way to stay in touch with friends and family.
Take the integrated Messaging hub. By tying together my Windows Live, Facebook Chat and SMS accounts, I was available across multiple networks at the same time from a single device. And all messages from the same person were woven into a single chat, so I could be chatting with a person on Facebook Chat, and continue the conversation when he started SMSing me.
On my iPhone, I have to jump in and out of individual apps to do that, and have to keep track in my own head the conversation running through either Facebook or SMS. But really, I shouldn’t need to know which platform Jane is on to communicate with her. I just want to communicate with Jane, and doing that with WP7 is seamless.
This isn’t a theory, just a day after using WP7, I began messaging with more people than before, since they saw me as available on multiple platforms. This was both a blessing and a curse, as I faced more interruptions during work.
You can always set your status to be ‘away’ or ‘unavailable’, but I was too lazy to do that - it felt like a frequently used setting like that should be front and center on WP7, not something you have to keep going into the Messaging app to change. The other consequence of my laziness was people messaging me at 2AM in the morning, thinking I was still on Windows Live or Facebook.
The People hub has the same unifying idea. It pulls together the latest things my contact list is sharing from their social networks, regardless of which social network. I really shouldn’t have to care where Jane is saying something, only that my friend Jane is saying something, and the People hub helps me hear her regardless of where she's saying it from. It’s the wonderful focus on people again.
If you want to focus on a group of people, you can create a group of contacts and pin them as a tile on the home screen. This is my favorite feature of WP7, as it let me see at a glance whenever my family and close friends had updated their statuses.
But the People hub interface needs work. If you have a long list of contacts who love to share, stuff can get lost in the long list of updates which appear. And scrolling can be jarring, if you open up the People hub and scroll down while the phone is still updating, it’ll update with a new list and push your reading place in the list.
Things like that reveal that, as far as WP7.5 Mango has improved over the original WP7, it still needs more polish. There’s just no way around the fact that iOS has had a four-year headstart on WP7, and is more refined as a result. Still, WP7 holds a lot of promise.
That’s what everything boils down to, doesn’t it? Would a three-year iOS user and iPhone die-hard switch to Windows Phone 7?
If I was looking for a basic smartphone without any apps, I seriously would. It ties my contacts together and lets me keep up with my most important contacts easily (well, assuming that they’re heavy users of social networks).
I’m surprised by how much I liked it, and I’m especially surprised by how Microsoft has made something that is not ugly (especially since the Windows Mobile 6.5 ‘honeycomb’ almost happened). Instead, it's an elegant, cohesive and sensible mobile operating system with a unique proposition.
But after more than a week, I was having some serious app withdrawal symptoms. With my habitual apps missing, I constantly felt like I was walking through life with one arm tied behind my back. It was disturbing how used I’d grown to having my favorite apps around, aligned to the way I live and work.
That ache pointed to how WP7 helps you spend less time on your phone (like their ad promised); not because you can get your updates quickly (you can), but also because there's just less to do thanks to the lack of apps. If someone were looking for just a simple smartphone (a 'dumb' smartphone?) that was more phone than app-phone, I don't think that would be a problem. If I were ever to renounce my three-year inventory of iOS apps and turn my back on the iTunes App Store, I don't think that would be a problem for me either.
P.S. I've since switched back to my iPhone after the iOS 5 update. I love having my apps back and going back to the app/workflow I've grown comfortable with. But it's harder to track my closest friends' updates, and my messaging rate has fallen. There's just no way around it; like Microsoft claims, WP7 really is a more social phone.
iOS has always been my favorite mobile operating system, and I never thought I'd say it, but now something from Microsoft comes a close second.
I like coffee and cameras, but not together.