How Microsoft could win me back from Android

Deb Shinder explains what Microsoft needs to do to win her back from her current Android smartphone.

I've been a smartphone fan since way back when even the most clever of the lot were pretty dumb in comparison to today's superphones. My first was a Windows CE-based phone, and I stuck with that operating system — as it morphed into "Pocket PC, Phone Edition," and then Windows Mobile — for many years. Those were the days, my friend; I spent many hours tapping a stylus on those tiny screens, navigating through a miniaturized version of the Windows desktop.

It was pretty cool to be able to get my email and surf the web on my phone, especially once 3G came along to speed things up a bit. We smartphone users were part of an exclusive group for a while there. At that time, Microsoft was a very big player in the smartphone market in the U.S. Nokia sold more worldwide, but they were more popular overseas than here.

Oh, the Blackberry had email, too (in fact, that was their main function), but we could do much more. We could make phone calls on our devices before they could (although the first CE/PPC handhelds, like the early BBs, didn't have that feature), and we had way more applications. Palm Pilots had the apps and were top sellers in the PDA market, but they didn't do as well when they transitioned to phones.

Then something happened. That something was called the iPhone, and it changed the whole smartphone landscape. As behind the times as it seems now (no expandable storage, no removable battery, no LTE), at the time it came out, it really was revolutionary. Then something else happened: Android. It gave smartphone users the same type of "reach out and touch something" experience as the iPhone and also provided geeky types with all the things they wanted that they didn't get with iOS.

And suddenly, Microsoft found itself a big player in a market it once had firmly in hand.

Starting all over again

It takes some courage for a software vendor to completely redesign a product from the ground up, but Microsoft really had little choice when it came to Windows Phone. The old stylus-driven model was dead or at least in a coma (it's interesting that we're seeing a revival of the stylus in the form of Samsung's S-Pen on the Galaxy Note, and that so many people are saying such good things about it).

It takes even more courage to base your brand-new design on the user interface of a product that was a bit of a flop in the market — even if it did win a good deal of critical acclaim. But the Zune's Metro interface, with its flyaway icons, smooth scrolling, and responsive feel, was a natural. It boasts the right combination of simplicity and elegance to present a challenge to the "grid of icons" way of device interacting that had been established by the iPhone and Android.

When it comes to the interface, in my opinion Windows Phone is a winner. But I just bought a new smartphone last month for use as my primary phone, and it doesn't run Windows. There are several reasons for that. Some have more to do with my carrier (Verizon) than with Windows Phone itself. But even if Verizon offered all the same Windows Phones as AT&T, I still wouldn't have one as my main phone right now.

Little things matter

Many of the big reasons I don't want a current Windows Phone are the same reasons I don't want an iPhone: no swappable microSD, no 4G/LTE, requirement to connect to the Zune software on a computer in order to update the OS or transfer files. I've written about those before. Those are deal breakers for me, but there are also far too many little annoyances, errors, and omissions that add up to "not quite ready for prime time." Many of them you'll run across only after using the phone for a bit.

I've tested a Windows Phone extensively and carried it as a second phone, but this week I've been put in the position of using it as my primary phone. That's because I'm in Europe, and it's the only GSM phone I own. I was happy that the U.K. SIM card I bought popped in and worked just fine.

Unfortunately, not everything else is working quite so well. Oh, it's not "bugs" or crashes or performance problems — it's the dumbing down of the phone's capabilities that have me going back to my Galaxy Nexus whenever I have a Wi-Fi signal, even though I can't make a phone call with it. I know Microsoft would call it simplification, which sounds a lot better, but no matter what you call it, the result is frustration. The bottom line is that I can't do things I want to do — simple things that I can easily do with my Android phone or with my Windows 7 computer (or with my old Windows Mobile phone, for that matter).

One thing I really looked forward to in Windows Phone was having the "real" Mobile Office apps. After using them, I'm disappointed that Mobile Word seems to be less full featured than the (Word-format compatible) Documents to Go app on Android. Word limits you to one font, and you can't create tables or charts (at least as far as I've discovered). I also didn't see a word count feature, which is something I depend on a lot. Yes, I know a phone isn't the ideal device for doing complex word processing tasks, but sometimes it's all you have. I expected a lot more from Mobile Word.

Something else that I couldn't figure out how to do - which I can do easily on the Nexus - is saving a web page for offline reading. This is particularly annoying when you're traveling and don't have an Internet connection all the time. There also doesn't seem to be a way to send a web page (the content, not just the URL) via email. Both of these were things that I've needed to do over the last few days.

More annoyances

It seems as if I encountered a different, small annoyance every day. Admittedly some of my pet peeves with Windows Phone are purely cosmetic. I want to be able to set a wallpaper like I can on my Android home screens, and I'd like to be able to change the tiles to a color other than the unappealing few that are offered. I'd also like to be able to set the colors of individual tiles to make them stand out, rather than only being able to change the overall theme color.

Strangely, in Europe I've been unable to download any apps from the Windows Marketplace. I could do it back home, and I can download from the Android Market on my Nexus, so I'm not sure what's going on there, but it's definitely annoying. Sometimes the Marketplace app won't even open; other times, I can select an app but when I press the Install button, I get an error message.

Finally, the biggest problem I have with trying to use the phone to actually get work done is the lack of an alternative keyboard. The Windows Phone keyboard isn't awful — as touch keyboards go — but I fell in love with Swype on Windows Mobile and then on some of my previous Android devices and now use the similar TouchPal keyboard on the Nexus. It's much faster and less tiring than pressing individual keys.

I like the Windows Phone UI, and the Mango update brought it closer to being a usable everyday device, but to win me back from Android, Microsoft still has a ways to go. Give me a lot more flexibility to customize, make the Office apps and browser do what I need them to do, and let me have the type of text input I want. I know LTE is on the way, and the Nexus has proven to me that I can get by without a microSD card if you give me enough internal storage. Oh, but I want screen resolution comparable to the high-end 'Droids, too. Do all that, and I might trade in my Ice Cream Sandwich for the next Windows Phone.

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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 add...

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