Nokia's Massive, Microsoft-Shaped Problem

Tom Warren, The Verge:

Nokia just unveiled its Lumia 925 at an event in London, and I've managed to take an early look at the handset ahead of its release in June. Nokia has swapped out a unibody polycarbonate look and feel for metal. Aluminum to be precise. The result is a stunning, slimline Lumia that weighs just 139 grams. It's really noticeable when you pick up the Lumia 925 for the first time. With a polycarbonate rear, and aluminum frame wrapping around the side of the device, it feels almost as plastic and lightweight as a Samsung Galaxy. But the aluminum makes it a lot more sturdy and brings it to similar design and hardware levels as Apple's iPhone 5.

With the release of the Lumia 925 and the HTC One, the first half of 2013 has brought gifts of truly phenomenal industrial design, but failed to deliver in terms of software — both experientially and aesthetically.

Marry either the One or the 925 with stock Android and I daresay you'd have truly impactful devices on the market to challenge the iPhone.

Mar both the One and 925 with a subpar software experience, however, and you continue to face the same aged problems endemic to the marketplace.

Although I comprehend HTC's dogged loyalty to its Sense skin amidst a poorly differentiated Android market, Nokia's dire attachment to Microsoft is simply baffling.

In its early stages, the allegiance, admittedly, made sense. Microsoft was willing to provide money and support, thereby saving Nokia, whilst Microsoft also received an aesthetically admirable hardware arm. It was a symbiotic relationship that provided clear benefits to all parties.

Today, on the other hand, Microsoft has increasingly distanced itself from Nokia and the purported benefits of the relationship have been left by the wayside. In an effort to catalyze growth in its ecosystem, Microsoft has thrown its support behind HTC and rumors continue to swirl regarding a Surface-branded phone. Meanwhile, Nokia has been left behind with its devices, burned with the Windows Phone 7-to-8 upgrade debacle, and so on.

Nokia continues to bless a stagnant — albeit attractive — operating system with genuinely beautiful hardware. Meanwhile, Microsoft continues to court competitors, ignore its most valuable hardware asset, and fail to drastically cover any ground in its game of competitive catch-up.

The relationship is, in other words, poisonous to Nokia. We've watched as the firm has built multiple iterations of fantastic products only to be underserved on the software side. And as stock Android arrives at a point of true attraction and viability, the tragedy of the situation only worsens.

The Lumia 925 is both a triumph of design and a failure in business. It's objectively well-considered, whilst also being a vapid disappointment.

Unless Microsoft can provide a compelling reason for Windows Phone adoption in its — presumably impending — yearly update, there's simply no reason to purchase a Lumia 925 beyond its good looks. And that's a shame for customers, a problem for the competitive landscape, and ought to be a dire concern for Nokia.

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.

Microsoft Details Windows Phone 8

WP8

Without unveiling the OS in its entirety, Microsoft has today outlined several of the key features making their way to Windows Phone 8 later this year. Tom Warren has a fantastic overview:

Microsoft is lifting the curtain to provide a preview of some of the software and hardware changes for its Windows Phone 8 operating system today. NFC, dual- and quad-core support are all set, and Microsoft has shifted over to the NT kernel for Windows Phone 8 to make it even easier for developers to code for its mobile and desktop ecosystems. There’s a new Wallet hub, deeper integration of Skype, and an updated Start Screen interface with support for small tiles. Despite the improvements and hardware support, Microsoft will not release this particular update to existing devices. Instead, the company plans to rollout a Windows Phone 7.8 update separately that will bring some of Windows Phone 8’s user interface changes to existing devices, but many of the other improvements will require new hardware.

Although it’s certainly a shame that older devices will be relegated to a stagnant OS, I appreciate Microsoft’s willingness to move forward. Abandoning the Windows CE foundation, Microsoft opens the door to a great deal of innovative overlap between Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. Furthermore, the naming convention begins to make a great deal of sense — particularly with respect to the unified UI/UX.

I’ve spent the past week or two experimenting with a Windows Phone device, and — without delving into the specifics prematurely — I am very pleased with what Microsoft has announced today. Be it NFC, native code, Passbook-esque functionality, an improved Start screen, or improved Skype integration, Microsoft is clearly moving in the right direction with its oft-forgotten mobile OS.

Later in the week, I’ll have plenty more to say on the topic of Windows Phone but, for now, I’d highly recommend reading through Mr. Warren’s lengthy overview of the Windows Phone 8 update.

Augmented Paper

Clear

Reflecting upon the current state of mobile applications, Matt Gemmell has written a thoughtful treatise on the topic of user experience, and the best experience therein. Matt writes:

For me, software experiences that feel like Augmented Paper are those that second-guess our (developers’) natural tendency to put functionality first, or to think of our apps as software. Apps are only incidentally software; software is an implementation detail. Instead, apps are experiences.

Design an experience. Make it as beautiful - and as emotionally resonant - as it can possibly be. Then adorn the core experience and content with only as much functionality as is absolutely necessary. Functionality - and software-based thinking in general - is like seasoning. A little is an enhancement; any more destroys the flavour, subsumes the artistry of the chef, and may well be bad for you.

I couldn’t agree more.

Developmental improvement in user experience directly correlates with the increased happiness of the end-user. Rather than being tangled in cruft and unnecessary distraction, the user should be placed into an environment as interactive and connected as needed. And nothing more.

It’s worth mentioning that the aforementioned passage from Matt’s article is an excerpt from his conclusion, but the entire article is endlessly quotable. If you are interested in development and the intersection of design and practicality, I suggest you read the original in its entirety.

The Practicalities of Switching to Windows Phone

Windows Phone 7

Following the oddly scheduled release of the Nokia Lumia 900, Chris Ziegler of The Verge has made the switch to the device, and has decided to keep a running log of the issues such a decision entails.

Having previously relied upon a Galaxy Nexus, Ziegler outlines a list of his indispensable Android apps — many of which are interchangeable with iOS — and has given Windows Phone a running scorecard for comparable apps. Ziegler writes:

Important apps of mine with official Windows Phone equivalents: 18/51 (35.3%)

Of those that don’t have official Windows Phone versions, a decent third-party equivalent is available: 13/33 (39.4%)

Total coverage between official and third-party apps: 31/51 (60.8%)

Although Ziegler’s numbers are inherently subjective, it’s interesting to see some finite comparisons between fully-developed platforms and Windows Phone. I would imagine an iOS versus Windows Phone comparison may be slightly less favorable but, at the end of the day, it is clear that Windows Phone is by no means dead.

Stereotypes of developmental stagnation and stunted growth tend to overlook evident trends toward the growth of the platform — no matter how incremental gains may be. Windows Phone is a compelling and attractive mobile operating system, and I can only hope such progress, regardless of pace, continues unabated.