Windows Phone 7: More Than Just a Stick in the Mud?

With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft is pretty much dead last when it comes to the smartphone wars. They are even behind RIM.

While devices like the Lumia 900 are attractive and well-built, consumers haven’t fallen in love with Windows Phone 7.

But why?

I decided to try to answer that question by spending several weeks with the operating system, running on the year-old HTC Arrive.

Microsoft’s philosophy when it comes to hardware is somewhere in between Apple’s and Google’s. The company allows third party OEMs to build phones that run their OS, but Microsoft dictates to them exact specs, so that every WP7 device should run at the same speed, resolution and more.

OEMs are allowed to pick some options, like whether or not to include a hardware keyboard (HTC did so with the Arrive sitting on my desk), and whether or not to upgrade the camera.

I think Microsoft’s solution is better than Google’s. Google, of course, seems to want Android on as many phones as possible, regardless of the specs. With its plan, Microsoft is still in charge of the experience, while still allowing the consumer some choices when it comes to form factor.

While hardware nerds might pick a phone because of its keyboard or curves, the majority of smartphone buyers will pick a device because of the software running on it.

(Hence the custom skins on top of Android.)

On the surface, WP7 seems like a winner. It’s very different from iOS and Android. With their rows of icons, the two main mobile operating systems look like desktop platforms.

With WP7, Microsoft tossed that idea out the window. WP7’s UI — dubbed Metro — is basically a set of tiles, arranged on a grid. These tiles can be static or “live” — showing information fed from the apps behind them.

(Metro, of course, is coming to tablets, notebooks and desktops with Windows 8. I’m not convinced Metro will scale up all that well, based on my time with the Windows 8 betas.)

When it introduced WP7, Microsoft touted Metro as an easy way to get in and get out of the smartphone quickly, as the UI offered “glancable information.” The tagline: WP7 could “save us from our phones.”

Of course, Android’s widgets offer similar features, but with iOS, hardly anything can be gleaned from the home screen in terms of useful information. However, iOS’ lock screen in iOS 5 is more helpful than the lock screens on WP7 or Android.

In reality, Metro is pretty good. It’s quick and smooth, thanks to Microsoft’s strict hardware requirements. It’s quite customizable, allowing users to change colors, layout and more. Third-party apps can add tiles, bringing even more info to the home screen.

And with that, we’re at the core of the problem facing Microsoft’s mobile OS.


The simple truth is this: there aren’t many decent applications for Windows Phone 7.

In 2012, that’s the kiss of death to a platform.

When I used Android in 2010, the app selection wasn’t great. There weren’t official apps for things like Dropbox or Twitter. The third-party apps that were available were often crude and sluggish.

While Google’s been able to turn this around to a degree, Microsoft hasn’t.

Of course, this problem isn’t a simple one to solve. While its easy for me to suggest to Microsoft to drop a pile of cash off at Dropbox and ask them for an official client, without a decent SDK, marketplace and customer base, it won’t be worth Dropbox’s time to build a client for the platform.

While I’m no developer (and can’t speak to what the tools are like for building WP7), I do know what Microsoft’s market share is. And that alone is a good reason not to invest in the platform.

This creates a circular problem for Microsoft. Without good apps, the platform isn’t going to grow. Without new customers, developers aren’t going to invest in building apps for the platform.

I’m not sure what the solution is.

Google broke this cycle with Android by enjoying massive growth. With an influx of customers, developers are now seeing that Android is worth their time and attention.

(That said, Android users don’t seem willing to pay for apps as readily as iOS users are. That fact — coupled with Android’s fragmentation issues — is too much for some developers to swallow still.)

Maybe with Windows 8, developers will have more incentives to build for Windows Phone, but to my knowledge, Microsoft hasn’t given a broad overview of how cross-platform apps will (or could) work.

As it stands today, I can’t recommend Windows Phone 7 to anyone. With a severe lack of apps, running on old hardware, it just feels like WP7 is a stick in the mud.

I truly hope Microsoft can turn things around, though. Metro is unlike anything else out there, and I enjoyed my time with it. But consumers need more than a pretty face.