I'm unapologetically a fan of Microsoft products. Windows is my desktop/laptop OS of choice. Internet Explorer is my favorite web browser. I have a Zune, which I like better than the iPod. I even cut my smartphone teeth on Windows Mobile. So, why am I carrying an Android device now, and why are my electronic taste buds craving an Ice Cream Sandwich more than a Mango?
A lot to love
It's not that I don't like what Microsoft has done with Windows Phone 7 and 7.5. I've tested it extensively, and I like the Metro user interface a lot. The live tiles give me the at-a-glance, up-to-date information Ineed. The flyaway animations and the smooth sideways scrolling add a touch of elegance. The integration with Outlook and SharePoint and the mobile Office apps are fantastic productivity enhancers.
They almost had me with the e-mail client. I live and die by my e-mail, because it's the foundation of my business. The way Windows Phone handles e-mail is the best I've seen. Little things mean a lot, and the ability to have my "favorite" Exchange folders show up in a list so I don't have to scroll through dozens of important-but-less-often-used folders to check the mail in them (as I must do with my HTC Android phones) removes a whole layer of frustration from the smartphone experience.
The People hub is cool, and after getting over the initial resistance to a new way of doing things, I really like the way it shows me "what's new" with my contacts across different social networks -- and I especially like being able to pin a particular contact to the Start screen. And even though I'm not into games, I found the Xbox Live app oddly compelling. In fact, I spent half an hour creating an avatar who looks as much like an animated version of me as I could make it.
Getting better all the time
As the Beatles once sang, "I've got to admit it's getting better." Despite the nice UI and the other benefits mentioned above, the first iteration of Windows Phone left way too much to be desired. No multitasking, no Wi-Fi tethering, not even copy/paste capability in the very beginning -- it felt promising but unfinished, like a pre-beta product.
I love trying out those "first sneak peek" preview editions of new products as much as anyone, but I don't depend on them for getting my work done. My primary phone has to be dependable, and it has to have the essential features that I've come to expect in a smartphone. Windows Phone 7 took too many steps backward, leaving out features that had been in Windows Mobile years ago.
Mango didn't change all that, but it was certainly a giant leap forward. It's been rolled out to most Windows Phones now, making around 500 changes to the OS, including multitasking, Wi-Fi tethering (two deal-breakers for many who had contemplated a switch to Windows Phone), and better integration with e-mail and social networking. You can now choose which e-mail accounts you want to go into the same Inbox, and multiple accounts can be linked to one live tile. It also supports threaded conversations like "big Outlook."
Another really nice new feature is Groups, which lets you put your contacts into logical groupings, such as Family, Co-workers, Old School Buddies, Club Members, or whatever. I love that you can e-mail or text an entire group in one fell swoop. You can pin Group hubs to the Start screen just like can with individual people, too.
There are also lots of little improvements, such as the ability to pin multiple tiles from one app to the Start screen (so, for example, you can have tiles showing the weather in two different cities).
Nokia leads the pack
Quite a few people I've talked to who are interested in Windows Phone have told me they were waiting to see what Nokia came out with. After all, Microsoft's partnership deal with them made us think maybe their phones would have that extra special something to send Windows Phone over the edge into "magical and revolutionary" territory.
This week, Nokia finally unveiled their first Windows Phones, which will ship with Mango. The higher end Lumia 800 is sleek, slim, sexy, and comes in three different colors (magenta, cyan, and a more traditional but very stylish black). The less expensive model, the Lumia 710, adds yellow and white to the color choices. They're a good looking bunch, with enough "wow" factor to rival the iPhone. The 800 will include turn-by-turn navigation, a feature that's a "must have" to compete with Android phones' Google Nav. Unfortunately, they won't be released in the United States until 2012.
Still missing in action
So, with all those great things happening to Windows Phone, why am I still not able to get on the bandwagon?
One thing Microsoft will have to address before I consider giving up my Droid for a WinPhone is a USB mass storage option, so I can connect my phone to my computer and easily transfer files between the two -- without the awful Zune PC software. That's a very basic requirement that was easily met by my old WinMo phones and every Android phone I've ever used -- and its omission is a deal breaker for me.
A related issue is the inability to install applications except through the Marketplace. Having an app store is nice and convenient, and I get at least 90% of my Android apps through the Android Market -- but I want the option to get them elsewhere if I choose. Think I'm too stupid to be trusted with access to the file system and installing third-party apps I download from the web? That will lose you at least one sale, but I suspect I'm not the only one who feels that way. The thing is, if I want a locked-down, walled-garden device, I might as well just follow the herd and get an iPhone.
Oh, and speaking of emulating Apple, how about that expandable storage issue? I don't want to be limited to the amount of storage the vendor decides to build in, especially when most of the Windows Phones I'm seeing seem to be limited to 8 or 16 GB. Yes, there are finally some Windows Phone "certified" micro SD cards out there, so it is possible to change it out -- but Microsoft apparently doesn't really support that. I can pop a new card into my Android phone any time I want, and it's no big deal. Why make it hard? I guess there are two reasons: 1) It will cause people to upgrade to a new phone when they need more storage, and/or 2) everybody's going to store everything in the cloud anyway, so extra storage will never be necessary (not).
Another reason I can't quite bring myself to commit to a Windows Phone yet is that I haven't seen one with a camera that suits my needs. The cameras on the HTC Incredible 2 and Thunderbolt are so good that I can use them in place of a dedicated camera much of the time. And for casual photo sharing, the editing capabilities are good enough so that I can do a quick crop or enhancement and upload it directly to Facebook or Google+ without transferring it to my computer first to "fix" it.
I love the idea of a physical shutter button plus the ability to tap the screen to take a picture, like we have with Mango. But the Windows Phones I've tried just don't take very good pictures. They aren't as sharp, and there are no manual controls for adjusting things like color balance, contrast, and exposure. Windows Phones operate more like simple point-and-shooters to be used only by the most amateur of photographers. The brand new Lumia 800 does have an 8 MP camera, so maybe it will deliver higher quality photos. We'll have to wait and see.
The Nokia phones were disappointing to me in other ways, though. An AMOLED display is a plus (although I'm not sure if it's a Super AMOLED Plus like on the Charge), but 3.7 inches seems positively tiny in comparison to the 4.5 and 4.7 inch Android smartphones that are on the market or in the works. I probably won't be getting a Windows Phone until there's a 4+ inch offering. The single core processor is also disappointing. The top Android phones are sporting dual-core CPUs now. Yes, it does make for shorter battery life, but let us decide on whether we want to make that trade-off.
Finally, I'm not going to buy a Windows Phone that sticks me with a relatively slow 3G network when I can get on the blazing fast LTE network with an Android handset right now. I admit it; in my time with the Charge and Thunderbolt, I've gotten spoiled. I want my 4G.
I know 4G Windows Phones will eventually appear (as will dual-core models), and I'm guessing someday they'll have big displays too. Will they ever address my other issues? Maybe, maybe not. Until they do, I'll keep waiting and devouring the latest Android offerings. I'm afraid I have to agree with Jeffrey Van Camp that there is no hope for a Windows Phone (for me) in 2011.
Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.