The Hollow Metro Landscape

Lumia 900

Sifting through the swathes of unfulfilled promises native to the Windows Phone environment, one of the most striking elements of the entire situation is the oft-spoken name for the interface. Entitled “Metro,” Microsoft marketing and design staff evidently sought to emphasize the modernity of the re-invigorated operating system. Built upon a decrepit foundation of Windows CE, Windows Phone 7 has been positioned as the ostensible savior for Microsoft’s heretofore flagging mobile strategy. Boasting a colorfully angular interface, the promise of smooth transitional animations, and a design pandering toward extreme minimalism, Metro is perhaps the most ill-fitting of titles for such a barren landscape.

Preying upon the positive connotations of the metropolitan lifestyle that so many people clamor for, Microsoft has positioned Windows Phone 7 as a means to achieve a powerful, yet definably simplistic lifestyle. Endeavoring to unravel the cruft of the modern communication-rich world, the conceit beneath Metro is nothing short of admirable. Indeed, peering through the window of television-driven advertising, it’s outrageously easy to experience a distinct pang of yearning for such a usage paradigm. In one of the more amusing instances of Microsoft’s advertising campaign, the narrator announces: “Windows Phone: Designed to get you in and out, and back to life.”

Considering the appeal of Apple’s intuitive iOS platform, Microsoft’s strategy certainly resides within the bounds of logic and reason. Metropolitan, simple, minimalist, attractive, and keen to remove itself from view, Windows Phone 7 purports to achieve all that the average person could desire from such a device. And yet, as with all of the most self-centered, glitzy, and bright environments in the world, the reality is definably, patently, and embarrassingly hollow.

Rather than building upon a sturdy new plot of land, Microsoft has re-skinned its pre-existing mobile offering in an utterly Microsoftian manner. Festering and faulty foundations characterize an experience unbecoming of the advertising campaigns the (supposedly) fledgling operating system employs. And yet, the illusion is not without its legitimate allure. The animations and transitions are, indeed, smooth. The apps that have been supplanted atop the otherwise empty Windows Phone Marketplace extend an illusion of a productive and fertile landscape. Even the “live tile” functionality is often a pleasure to behold. For all of these flimsy sentiments of positivity, however, there is a distinct and foreboding odor of rotting sediment.

Splintered and sodden beams, rusted fixtures, and mercilessly weather-beaten stones characterize a structural framework unbefitting of the current marketplace. Developers expect robust, versatile, and attentive development kits and interfaces, users expect rich app-centric experiences and full-featured web browsing, but, with Windows Phone, all individuals are instead treated to a darkened room filled with a handful of barely visible enticements. Upon a ubiquitous black background, Microsoft has leant a sense of coherence to the equation. Considering the rampant inconsistencies innate to the Android experience, Microsoft has successfully avoided such design-driven pitfalls. And yet, the ubiquitous black and ever-scrolling nature of Windows Phone 7 does not inspire confidence or comfort, but instead instills a sense that the content is merely being projected upon a thick shroud. As you swipe across this falsified facade, you occasionally touch the true, failing features of the aging face of Microsoft’s mobile endeavors.

Heaping out-dated code upon out-dated code, Microsoft has constructed a mountain of forgotten rubbish. Tragically, this mountain has been covered by the aesthetically compelling visage of the Metro interface. Although inherently shallow in its implementation, the core concept guiding the design is certainly impressive. And yet, for all of its promise, Microsoft continues to betray the core competencies of the design through the deep-seated undermining of the binding code-base.

The vessel of Microsoft’s most recent voyage into mobile-centric failure is the Nokia Lumia 900. Opening the box, hefting the device from one hand to another, and casually assessing the build quality, the Lumia 900 is unquestionably an attractive device. But, as is endemic within the Windows Phone ecosystem, appearances often prove to be agents of sincere deceit.

During Mobile World Conference on February 15, 2010, Andy Lees — then Senior Vice President of Mobile Communications for Microsoft — announced Microsoft’s “synergistical” (sic) approach to the smartphone arena. Evidently against building one defining reference device for the ecosystem, Microsoft instead instituted a strict ruleset for the construction and manufacture of Windows Phone 7 devices. Mandatory hardware buttons, “tough, but fair” specifications, and certain aesthetic boundaries all embodied Microsoft’s response to the rampant anarchy inherent within the Android wilderness. In many respects, such a plan was steeped in rationality and forward-thinking competence. In hindsight, however, such rules have contributed to the uninspiring and utterly passe nature of the Windows Phone product marketplace.

Despite the optimistic blue hue of the Lumia 900, the specification requirements set out by Microsoft two years ago have contributed to an utterly sub-par experience. As was evidenced by the widespread clamor for a Retina-enabled iPad, the display governs the experience of the modern touchscreen device. With the Lumia 900, despite its 4.3” AMOLED display, the resolution is stifled to a mere 800 by 480 pixel display thanks to the requirements of the operating system. Accordingly, despite the colorful nature of Windows Phone, the experience is irrevocably marred by the jagged, pixelated edges of even the most basic of interface elements.

In an environment characterized by simplicity, the mere fact that a square — within a predominantly square-riddled interface — cannot be drawn competently speaks volumes regarding the state of the Windows Phone atmosphere today.

The Lumia 900 is fittingly analogous to the software residing within its sturdy polycarbonate walls, insofar as it is unapologetically attractive from the distance, but utterly impractical upon full-time usage. Built out of sincere desperation, the Lumia 900 is perhaps the most apt of vessels for the conclusion of this chapter of Microsoft’s mobile strategy. Destined to be left behind upon the arrival of Windows Phone 8 later this year, the Lumia 900 and its Windows Phone 7 counterpart exist as yet another layer of soon-to-be fossilized silt upon which another layer of filth can be strewn.

Boasting Windows 8’s kernel and core developmental competencies, Windows Phone 8 portends to lend some semblance of unifying seamlessness to the Windows environment. And yet, for all of the consumer-facing rhetoric, Microsoft’s nature betrays the limp impotence of the endeavor. Windows 8 boasts the glitzy Metro demeanor, but continues to sustain the historic Explorer-driven environment all-too-close beneath the surface. Indulging and engorging this flawed environment, Windows Phone 8 claims to reach parity and seamlessness with this confusing message, thereby perpetuating the confusion across the Windows landscape.

In many respects, the sacrificial cull of the Windows Phone 7 software ecosystem is indicative of a bold and resurgent character within Microsoft. Unafraid to embark upon a difficult path, such actions immediately pander toward the average technologist’s penchant for the cutting edge. Simultaneously, however, the average consumer is woefully undermined. Having spent two years herding unsuspecting customers into an infertile plot of land, the misguided shepherd is now plotting to entice the masses into an equally untested ground.

With Windows Phone 8, the obvious appeal resides within the code-sharing potential between mobile devices and Windows 8. Insofar as developers are provided with a chance to port their code to a mobile ecosystem with relative ease, Microsoft believes that this new ground provides for a compelling and important consumer option. And yet, what Microsoft seems reticent to acknowledge is that few developers have outspokenly emerged in support of either platform. Windows Phone 7 has been a remarkable failure for mobile developers and, with their apps suddenly unsupported, there is little incentive for these manufacturers to immediately rebuild.

Poignantly, Microsoft’s request of its developers embodies precisely what Microsoft has been quite so fearful of doing itself for the past decade. Having highlighted the failings of its existing platform, Microsoft has asked developers to rebuild their applications from the ground up. Meanwhile, as Microsoft begins to ship two operating systems sporting antiquated and shoddy foundations, the Redmond giant demonstrates its failure to adhere to its own outward-facing philosophy.

Casting the romantic pining for new interface paradigms aside, Windows Phone 7 and the Lumia 900 are utterly flawed experiences that betray the dualistic nature of Microsoft. Shamelessly peddling the latest of its wares, Microsoft is keen to project the sweet aroma of coherent and seamless cleanliness atop the entirety of its product-line. Drawing users into its gates, the Metro interface poses far too many interesting and compelling questions to be ignored, but equally offers a definably sub-par experience thanks to its underlying code. Perhaps Microsoft is taking drastic action to rectify the situation with Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, but that certainly provides no excuse for the rampantly misleading rhetoric spewing forth into the digital ecosystem.

Replacing courtly colors and light music with garish neon and dubstep, Microsoft finds itself looking across its kingdom in awe of its achievements, blind to the self-inflicted rot that has been compacted into its once rich lands.

Such is the malignant state of the purportedly metropolitan landscape — an environment characterized by its looks, and undermined by its vapid state of embarrassing unintelligence.

The Verge Reviews Android 4.1 Jelly Bean

Jelly Bean

Continuing their post-Google I/O coverage, Dieter Bohn has a fantastic review of Google’s impending mobile operating system update for The Verge:

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is one of the best products Google has ever produced. It’s fast, fluid, and beautifully designed. It also does a better job of unifying all of Google’s disparate services than anything else the company has ever offered. Everything from the Chrome browser, Google+, Maps, Gmail, and most of all Google Search — in the form of Google Now — is tightly integrated into a user experience that outshines even the company’s web properties.

Google Now stands out as an example of what smartphones are capable of when you don’t silo information into disparate apps. Location, identity, history, and personal preferences are all combined into an organic information system that’s as promising as it is ambitious. I don’t think that Google Now quite achieves what it’s aiming for yet, but it’s exciting to see a company try to do it.

Reasonable people can — and should — disagree about whether Jelly Bean bests Apple’s iOS or Microsoft’s Windows Phone. In truth, I don’t think we’ve seen everything that either of those competing operating systems will bring to the table by the end of the year. However, compared to what they bring to the table today, I think Jelly Bean is a stronger offering, especially if you’re a participant in the Google ecosystem.

In my eyes, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is analogous to a re-birth of the oft-decried mobile operating system. Boasting “buttery” performance, Google-driven platform control, and novel features such as Google Now, Jelly Bean appears to be the realization of much of the promise inherent within the prospective Android equation.

Having dabbled with a HTC-Sense-tainted version of Ice Cream Sandwich, I cannot understate my keenness to experiment with a Google-defined experience with both the Nexus 7 and the Galaxy Nexus in the coming days and weeks.