Why windows phone 8 is strictly mediocre and why Microsoft should be worried

I have been on Windows Phone for nearly 2 years now. I still have my 2010 WP7 HTC Mozart. What brought me to this shiny new ecosystem was the UI – simple and fluid – it was clearly distinct and I made the switch from iOS and never looked back. However, I am starting to look more closely at  more than one ecosystem now  because WP8 isn’t even half as good as I’d expected it to be. Before you read this further – I want you to keep in mind that I am someone who uses this device at a level different from your average smartphone user so they probably don’t care about most of the annoyances. Personally, I have seen people who just need Facebook and WhatsApp and they are done with their smartphone decision. Yep, that wouldn’t be me – as a “hardcore” smartphone users – I need all the new apps, new features, timely updates, good support and the list goes on.

Why windows phone 8 is strictly mediocre and why microsoft should be worried

If we rewind the whole Windows Phone story to the early days, as someone who has been part of all updates from minor to major – I wanna take you through my experiences. Pre NoDo era was mostly fun and as far as I remember only Microsoft employees and handful of hardcore MS fanboys and Metro lovers actually bought the device. It was incredibly low on features (in fact it didn’t even have copy and paste and boy it was a hard decision justifying the update) but everyone was excited about a new operating system and then we had the NoDo update of course and the world moved on. What I think was the critical success point in whatever you make out of the Windows Phone 7 story was how Microsoft did the Mango update. Mango was why Windows Phone 7 caught the attention of the globe. It was absolutely a major update and that was the point where I knew this ecosystem will be here to stay. Everything was perfect – you had incredible Mango apps in work, SDK was ready and the best part? Developers got early access to the brand new Operating system and dev evangelism touched it’s peak, as we all know, post Mango. Then of course, we had Tango and then finally Windows Phone 8 announcement. Windows Phone 8 announcement was incredibly exciting since we knew how the current OS experience was restricted by hardware and hardware by the kernel so WP8 was the right thing to do. However, expectations were high since Google and Apple were iterating very quickly and Microsoft had a huge task of kernel shift and new SDK and a lot of incredibly important things. WP8 launch was pretty bad from developer point of view, only few developers actually got the SDK before launch and we had a lot of broken promises (like the so called “enthusiast program”).

I am going to illustrate a few problems I have with the current version of Windows Phone 8 and  right below and remember this coming up from someone who has used WP consistently and extensively for nearly 2 years:

  • Lack of Notification Center: I remember during Mango release, I was constantly on twitter chatting with MS devs and asking them for a notification center and they gave the standard reply that you will still get if you ask the Redmond folks “Live tile IS the notification center – you get all the updates and information / notification on your homescreen”. Fair enough but am I supposed to sit blankly at the screen every second of the day or wait 30 minutes for a tile to be updated or better yet wait for a push notification to come and decide to pick between a sip of coffee or clicking on the notification before it goes to a never to be discovered black hole? The answer is simple: Get us a notification center immediately. This is 2013 and the supposed no.3 mobile ecosystem doesn’t have a notification center boggles me and there are reports suggesting that Microsoft is working on one so hopefully we’ll see it soon. What is intriguing to me is how Microsoft will bring notification center into the UX. Right now, w/o the notification center – just like wp7 – I am not paying for push notification applications and my WhatsApp and Facebook application becomes useless when I get a lot of notifications so it’s kinda pointless to have at this moment. What about apps not pinned on screen? What about notifications for those apps? Yeah, no two thoughts on need of Notification Center hopefully.
  • Me Tile: Me Tile was probably last updated when Windows 95 was released. Not really but I don’t even understand why there’s this amazing utility is sitting on my homescreen  that I use all the time isn’t being updated to it’s full potential. I am a heavy twitter user and there’s no auto “Reply to all” for tweets (this should be by default btw and would be done in matter of minutes but who cares, right?) which means I have to go to a twitter client and do it. This destroys the purpose of the Me tile twitter integration mechanism. Another thing that I would love is auto complete and of course, a favorite button on the application which is probably the least time consuming task and if you think it doesn’t matter – then let me tell you, it’s the small things that matter and this statement will become even more important when Google and Apple release their new OS this year. There’s no escape but to make both large level and small level changes. Second problem with Me tile is the lack of friend tagging during check in. So basic but not implemented. I have to open the Facebook app for it which is great but then again – half baked and mostly useless. I know Me tile is for glancing at notifications but it should do more than just that. It has incredible potential, it’s fast and I would love to see MS upgrade it in next version.
  • The upgrade:- So I upgraded from Windows Phone 7 to Windows Phone 8 last week and the upgrade was pretty good as expected but there was one critical problem : my installed apps. Just like every other OS all your app purchases and installed apps are linked to your account so when you switch devices you can fetch your applications and use on your new device – as simple as that. Windows Phone does that too but with a little twist that made me give up using this feature. WP8 doesn’t allow you (still) to download and install all the applications at once so instead you have to go to every single one of them and click on the download button on the website. Extremely frustrating and I didn’t bother with it after some time. This needs to be fixed.
  • The elusive search button: Okay, this is where my fellow rabid MS and WP fanboys are going to rip me apart but let me be honest about it. Bing sucks. It’s decent for media queries but it’s just bad when compared to Google results. Microsoft should offer a choice to bind search key to a search engine of user’s choice. I know it’s a bad Bing business decision but I am confident it will be a great decision from consumer point of view and consequently for WP. Search button could be a bit more useful, it’s a big darn button on your phone, right? I know some of you have been asking for it since ages but a lot of people apparently like Bing so giving users an option shouldn’t be a bad thing. Search button can also be used for universal search (long press search button for universal search?)  which is another BIG feature missing from Windows Phone 8.
  • Lack of volume profiles: Lack of independent tone selection for stuff like calls, messages and Bluetooth headsets and lack of volume/sound profiles just boggles my mind. I remember using them in good old Symbian phones but I don’t understand what’s stopping Microsoft from doing it. The fact that we don’t have custom tone options for contacts is just infuriating. This reminds me of one thing that annoys me everyday – I have vibrate ON in settings along with a ringtone most of the time, now when I am in a class or at a meeting – I need to make it silent and WP8 offers a silent mode but it still has vibration and now you need to switch vibrate off and switch it ON again when you need it. Minor annoyance I know but sometimes you need a bit of peace of mind.
  • The pseudo Windows 8 -  Windows Phone 8 relationship: When WP8 was coming out, we were excited about all the amazing possibilities of synchronization among the two platforms. Now that both platforms are out and available for months – I think W8 has done an incredible job at gestures and WP8 has done nothing to improve WP7 gestures. I love the app closing gesture on W8 and would love to see it on WP8 but most importantly, what I’d like Microsoft to do is to implement the app switching gesture on Windows 8 to WP8 (left to right swipe from edge to switch between apps) – this is very cool and incredible easy to do (Ubuntu OS even has it!). A Charms bar would be a hard to do WP8 considering screen size but app switching and closing gesture would make the experience consistent and it would be refreshing for the consumers. What’s also funny is that there’s no sync between IE10 desktop and IE10 mobile – not even a “open in IE10 mobile” option in IE10. This is incredibly useful but Microsoft isn’t too bothered with it. There are so many possibilities of sync with W8 – control music and movie apps natively and lots more – but I don’t see MS doing anything about it. A broken promise, IMO. Lack of WinJS on WP8 SDK bothers me way more than I can explain it to you.
  • Rotation lock – Why, Microsoft. WHY. How long do we have to wait for this? What’s stopping Microsoft from adding rotation lock  to Windows Phone? They did succumb to pressure of screenshot but not rotation lock which is something that users expect to be there when they pick up a smartphone. Ridiculous to expect all developers to implement rotation lock on their app.
  • Fix Multi tasking: A simple suggestion: Don’t make developers write extra line of code for fast app resume, just bundle the code when the dev compiles it. Every single wp8 app should have it. Makes the OS feel inconsistent.
  • Store – WP8 store is great but right now I don’t know which apps are WP7 and Wp8 apps unless I open them. There should be a dedicated WP8 only marketplace category and that should NOT be hard to add for Microsoft. It will make the experience for new users a lot better.
  • Always visible status bar – This annoys me because this isn’t something Microsoft is responsible for completely, majority of the developers choose to remove it and you have to get out of the app to check date, time and battery. So instead of giving options to developers – just remove the option and make it visible at all times. Better  – make it visible and tap to hide instead of tap to show. Don’t see how current way of showing it works for anyone.
  • Gapless Audio playback – I don’t think I need to explain this. Just do it, Microsoft.
  • FM radio – I live in a third world country and we are definitely NOT in the kind of place where everyone can afford to stream their music online for a monthly fees with their 3G networks on all the time. No. I do not know what prompted Microsoft to FM radio but whatever did is absolutely the worst possible idea. What do you listen to in case of emergency? Xbox music?
  • Make features available to wider audience – There’s something called Xbox Music on my Windows Phone – fancy, right? Wrong. Xbox Music doesn’t work in India and many other countries and it’s been 3 months since launch and there’s no launch in site. Same thing happened with the Bing audio detection feature in Windows Phone 7. Xbox Music is extremely important, especially for HTC and Samsung users who not only are excluded from Nokia Music access but they also do not have services like Spotify on Windows Phone 8.
  • Making a call is still time consuming:   Just make “RapDialer” the default  application experience on Windows Phone 8. I know MS hasn’t prioritized a lot of things so just buy the company / dev team who made it and make it default. Not asking too much now, am I?
  • Fix the calendar: Not exactly sure what changes Microsoft has made to WP8 calendar coming from WP7 but I don’t see any. There’s still no weekly view! One thing I do not understand is why I cannot see more than one event/appointment on the wide tile. It’s a wide tile now, show us more information!
  • Settings page: If somebody can explain to me the logic behind the ordering of the items in settings page, a free WP goodie for you. I am serious. Make it alphabetical or rearrange it dynamically based on usage pattern. Right now, important stuff are at bottom and everything is mixed up.
  • Lose the password on Kids Corner: I love the concept of Kids Corner (corrected!)  but I hate the name. I’d love a Guest Corner instead – A Kids Corner without a password. The password defeats the purpose of a separate homescreen.
  • Homescreen sync/backup: Creating a perfect homescreen is an art, isn’t it? I am spending a lot of time tweaking my homescreen on both wp8 and w8 and would appreciate a homescreen synchronization between multiple devices or backup of your homscreen so you can switch between different layouts immediately.
  • Select All – There’s no way to select all messages ( I stand corrected, thank you noroom – pretty crazy how I didn’t see this one – was expecting select all on the app bar icon) and emails and delete them at once and this is something that is so basic it’s hard to comprehend why it’s still not there. It’s there for music and they just need to do a tiny bit of work to add it to application bar, simple – right? It’s already there for music so don’t see why it isn’t in email and messages.
  • Revamp Podcast support in Windows Phone 8: Bundle “PODCASTS!” app with all Windows Phone 8 devices or make a similar app. That is how you make Podcasting work.
  • IE10: IE10 is amazing. I use it a lot on desktop and loving the performance on Windows Phone 8 so far. However, the UI isn’t good enough. There’s no forward button on IE10 and no speed dial like feature which every single browser has it now and even Opera Mini had it for years now. This reminds me of a simple request : Open marketplace to more browsers Microsoft – help Opera develop Mini for Windows Phone 8.
  • Allow apps and attachments to be installed on SD Card: My friend bought a HTC 8S recently and he is genuinely frustrated. Games + apps + map data and less than 3GB of usable space – you are in for trouble and I can see Nokia doing a 4GB phone soon and it would suck to see 510 issue (it didn’t even have SD card support to make matters worse)  happening all over again.
  • A better Zune alternative: I am using the Windows Phone App Preview 3 right now to sync playlists and yes I know it’s a preview build but it’s extremely basic. Had issues syncing playlists multiple times but it went through in the end. If you want to just transfer stuff – just use the good old file system method – this app experience is not good enough. Another issue which puzzled me was the lack of Xbox Music playlist sync ability. I have been told Xbox music playlists are synced to cloud and they automatically appear in the app on your phone (it didn’t work for me but it did for many) but it still streams your stuff via whatever connection you are on – it doesn’t download em all at once immediately which is puzzling but not surprising, if you went through the whole upgrade process from wp7 to wp8.
  • VPN: Businesses need VPN. You cannot call it an enterprise smartphone without VPN support.
  • Remember Xbox Live?:  When Windows Phone came out, I was personally very excited about the potential future of XBL on WP and future iterations. When WP8 came out, I was even more excited. Now the devices have power and potential via the software for some cross platform action – where are the games taking advantage of it? Why isn’t MS flooding marketplace with XBL games? I remember seeing more XBL games during mango launch than I remember post WP8 launch. MS needs to realize Xbox is BIG and they cannot just take a break and stop releasing games. Now if Quad Core WP8 devices rumored this year, I am sincerely hoping for cross platform action.

..and that’s about it. These are the major and few minor (not all of them are listed here) features that have troubled me for a long time now. Honestly speaking, Upgrading from WP7 to WP8 felt like a minor upgrade. I am sure this WP8 will be amazing for someone who is fascinated by the UI and simplicity or is buying a smart phone for the first time but iOS and Android hardcore users who are addicted to applications and features / customization (droid) aren’t going to be too happy with it. Windows Phone 8 is a neat little Operating System but not even close to what I had in mind for WP8. Probably I set my expectations too high or MS didn’t deliver what we asked for.

Windows Phone 8 launch has been very good in nearly every single place. One big reason is Nokia. Their Lumia 920 has caught everyone’s eye and the only thing that bothers people about the device (no, not the weight..) is the Operating System. This is something I have observed from a lot of reviews. However, Windows Phone 8 seems perfect for most usecases. I do not disagree with that and probably most of the people don’t even care with my list. They have very limited uses with their phones, why would they want a Notification center? What for? Valid questions but we are looking at a bigger picture here.

Sailfish, Ubuntu, Tizen and Blackberry 10 are few Operating Systems that are going to come really hard to Windows Phone very very soon. iOS and Android are going to get a major update. Imagine if Ive’s next iOS is just as “magical” as his devices are, iOS is going to take another leap and I have no doubt in my mind that Google will continue their success on the next version of Android. No.1 and 2 are realistically impossible for WP to get to at this point, this year atleast, but what about number 3? I think Microsoft is happy with number 3. They aren’t iterating quickly. WP8 was launched in October and we still have no signs of any major update – too much to ask for new updates in  3 months? I don’t think so. Microsoft needs to be on cutting edge of things if they want to jump to the top of  the podium. Now with increasing competition from OSs mentioned above – thing are looking tough for Windows Phone in my opinion. That number 3 spot is a scary place to be.

The application story hasn’t changed much. Still a lot of top publishers chose to ignore WP8 just like WP7 even though WP8 is selling way better than WP7. What could be the reason? Why isn’t there a Spotify, Path, Flipboard, Instagram, Vine, Temple Run, Twitch, etc on Windows Phone 8? Surely Microsoft has the power and money to convince the developers but even then developers aren’t bothered. This is a shocking state of affairs and something I am used to now on Windows Phone, sadly. We have some absolutely fantastic third party apps like Baconit, Metrotube, Mehdoh, Weatherflow, 4th and Mayor, etc. We need more of these – what’s the killer WP8 app? I don’t think there is one. Microsoft should be worried. Belfiore needs to come out on February 25th with Stephen Elop and tell us about he future roadmap of windows phone 8 at MWC on February 25th this month. Microsoft needs to push the boundaries here. They have a great product. Great OEM products. Everything is set. Now they need to get in all the needs and demands of current users and then match up with future OS updates or better yet, innovate and get 2 steps ahead of other operating systems. The future for Windows Phone is great if Microsoft takes a bit more effort to communicate on the demands and needs of users and convert that demands and needs into a final consumer feature quickly. Windows Phone 8.5, I am counting on you.

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