Windows Phone 7 Launch: Why Google should feel ashamed

Uncategorized Nov 10, 2010 1 Comment

This Monday saw the launch of Windows Phone 7 in the United States.  AT&T stores across the country were stocked and ready to go with the Samsung Focus and the HTC Surround.  Early indications are that the phones are selling well but that this was by no means a blockbuster launch day, similar to the launch of an iPhone or even the comparatively smaller Verizon Droid launch.  It’s going to take time for Windows Phone to pick up steam in a market flooded with more smartphones than even a year ago, particularly on AT&T.  In the meantime, it’s still possible to look at this new platform and compare it to what Apple and Google are doing.  It’s my personal contention that the fit and finish of Windows Phone 7 is an example of how to license a quality operating system and make it work.  In light of just how well Windows Phone works, Google should be ashamed with the product they are putting in consumers’ hands.

Now before anyone loses their cool, let me just state for the record that Android is well ahead of Windows Phone in terms of features and ecosystem.  They have a solid three years of development in the public eye, as well as about two and a half years of actual phones being on the market and picking up steam.  It’s amazing to think how far Android has come, from an OS standpoint to the actual high-end hardware being released.  One year ago, the Motorola Droid had just been released with Android 2.0 and the previous best phones were what, the HTC Magic or the Hero?  It’s been a particularly strong year of development for Android from a technical perspective.  Of course, it has giant market share gains, though I tend to attribute that to being the only modern-day alternative to the iPhone, a subject I intend to write more about soon.

While Android has come a long way, Microsoft has been biding its time revamping their entire approach and building a credible operating system.  They may never make up for the time they lost, but they are already delivering a more solid and polished experience to users.  The uniformity of performance across devices, combined with dead-on core functions puts Windows Phone 7 on par with the polish of iOS and WebOS (for those who remember it exists).

Now, let me be clear, when I say a polished experience, I am referring to how well features that are present on the phone work, not whether or not certain functions are there yet.  When the iPhone was released in 2007, it lagged behind existing platforms in features, but blew all of them away in usability, flexibility, and sleek design.  It will take some time for Windows Phone to catch up to Android and iOS in features, but Microsoft is delivering what it has in almost the best way possible.  I suspect that the fluidity of its operation will be compelling for the average consumer if they have the chance to actually play with the phones before making a decision.

1.  Touch Sensitivity

The first element of these next-generation smartphones that a consumer notices in touch sensitivity.  This is something that can vary wildly depending on the specific piece of hardware.  A phone by Motorola may not have the same quality touch experience as a phone by HTC, or an HTC mid-range device might have different sensitivity than a high-end phone, or the Nexus One, Google’s flagship phone by HTC, may not have the same level of response as the HTC Droid Incredible, a phone that came out months later with virtually the same internals.  Also, did you think this was limited to strictly hardware?  Think again, since the underlying (and overlaying) software makes just as big a difference, which is why a stock Android build might behave completely differently from HTC’s Sense UI, or Motorola’s three Blur variants, or Samsung’s TouchWiz, or… whatever is next.

But hey, these are just the types of problems you’ll have when one company makes the software and other companies make the hardware, right?   At least, that’s what we’ve sort of expected up to this point.  Come to find out, if you put a few restrictions on manufacturers, you can actually produce phones with excellent touch responsiveness and make them similar across devices by different manufacturers.  This is exactly what Microsoft has managed to pull off with Windows Phone 7.  The touch interface is on par with iOS, something that Android hasn’t been able to get close to, much less among its myriad of devices.  While Andy Rubin, VP of Engineering at Google and overseer of Android, may crow about being “open,” that open approach, along with half-hearted development by Google itself, is resulting in an unnecessarily inferior experience to what Microsoft is offering.

Until now, we’ve only been able to compare the touch interaction on Android with Apple’s own products and Palm’s excellent effort.  To see a licensed OS perform this well at all, but particularly across devices, puts Google’s effort into question.  It’s no longer unreasonable to question whether or not Android was ever designed as a comprehensive touch UI from the start.

2.  Browser

At Google I/O this year, Vic Gondotra made a point to tout the improvements Google was making to the Android browser in Android 2.2.  The speed improvement was a major feature and one area where Google delivered.  The Android browser can still hang from time to time, but it does load pages quickly.  Before Gondotra showed off the benchmarks, though, he made a point to inform the audience that the browser is one of the most-used applications on smartphones.  I’ve long thought that the browser is one of the fundamental experiences on a mobile platform, but again, until this week we only had two major players to compare.  Apple’s Mobile Safari is light-years beyond the Android browser in terms of page-rendering, font sizes, and manipulation (once again, nobody remembers that Palm’s Webkit-based browser was also excellent).  Apple’s fonts appear bigger, making them easier to read zoomed-out.  These bigger fonts also come into play when you double-tap to zoom.  In Safari, you double-tap and the page rendering stays intact while the column selected simply zooms forward.  On Android, the fonts are smaller, making them harder to read in full-page view, and necessitating a major compromise when zooming in.  A double-tap to zoom in Android reformats the page and repositions the text in a more vertical column, making it possible to read and scroll through.  This disrupts the relationship of the text to the graphics around it, however, and often sends the user hunting for where the text went before they realize it’s been moved down the page, under the pictures it used to be next to.  It is, to say the least, a disturbing experience, but even more hilariously bad when viewed on a 4.3-inch screen with 800 x 480 resolution.  When that happens, the text appears huge but displays only four or five words per line (an exaggeration, but not by far).

On Windows Phone 7, none of this is present.  Because Internet Explorer is based off the desktop IE, certain pages can display in an odd manner, but it mostly looks pleasing to the eye.  The fonts are larger than on Android and the double-tap to zoom works more or less like on the iPhone.  Microsoft even had the foresight to make text look a little beefier while zoomed out, only to slim it down slightly when the user zooms in.  It isn’t just double-tap to zoom that is impressive, though.  Pinch-to-zoom is very smooth and doesn’t require the page to hiccup and reset the way Android’s zooming works.  Everything is smooth and as a user wold expect it.

Nexus One (left) and the Samsung Focus (right)

Zoomed in on both phones.  Note how on the Nexus One (left) the picture doesn’t fit in the column.

Internet Explorer isn’t without its flaws, of course.  In addition to occasionally rendering pages differently than what people are used to on webkit browsers, the actual performance is somewhat slow.  Rendering pages, particularly over slow connections, is noticeably slower than on iOS or Android.  Consumers will have their own preference for what they would rather compromise on, but the difference in speed is not so big that it outweighs the overall experience.  Microsoft needs to continue to work on the speed of IE, but even now it delivers a far more polished and usable browsing experience than Android’s browser.

3.  Media

This one is pretty simple.  Microsoft has the Zune platform that they’ve been developing for years.  The Music and Videos Hub on Windows Phone is essentially a Zune HD experience wedged into the phone.  It may not be everybody’s preferred method for playing media, but it beats Android’s alternative, which is essentially nothing.  That isn’t to say that Android can’t play media, but the stock player is extremely barebones and confusing to add content to.  Better options are available from third parties, but any time you add additional applications that do the same functions, you run into problems.  The system needs to ask for which application to play content and you can almost forget about using hardware controls on headphones to control the media.  It’s not unusual to accidentally hit the media button on the standard Android headphones and have music play in your ear while you’re on the phone with someone.

Again, this type of disjunct experience isn’t what you get on Windows Phone.  For better or worse, media goes through the assigned hub and the headphone controls work as expected.  A major problem Microsoft needs to correct is that there doesn’t seem to be a way to stream or download podcasts directly to the Zune player.  Android does have quality podcasting apps like Doggcatcher, but it’s only a matter of time before better applications are introduced to Windows Phone or integrated into the media hub.  Zune Pass is an excellent service that is sure to pick up steam with the introduction of these phones.  It may not be like having an iPod in the phone, but these are compelling media options that are far better implemented than what Google is offering.

Okay, so?

These are just three features among many where Microsoft is providing a tighter, more refined, and more usable experience than Google.  Android certainly has a place in the market as a more customizable experience, but that is not something that translate well to the average consumer.  The average smartphone purchaser wants a phone that does the basic functions as well as possible and with as little fuss as possible.  Android is already more usable than it was just a little over a year ago, and will probably gain something from the input of Matias Duarte, but it already pales in comparison to the refinement of Windows Phone.  With such a quickly-growing market presence, Google is going to be providing regular people with what may be thought of as the default smartphone experience.  Upon launch, Microsoft has already contributed to Apple showing just how half-heartedly Google is providing that experience.

One Response to “Windows Phone 7 Launch: Why Google should feel ashamed”

  1. Reply Daniel says:

    great post, thanks for sharing

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