Review: It's strike 3 for Microsoft's Windows Phone

The HTC 8X and Nokia Lumia 800 series are solid smartphones running a dubious mobile OS

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Usability: Form rules over function
When people first see Windows Phone, they usually remark on its clean, colorful tile interface. The bold look is appealing, but it soon loses its luster in daily use. You realize quickly how Microsoft is all about superficial impressions, not optimal user interactions. For example, the tiles are often hard to tell apart, as almost all are the same color. Yes, the icons differ, but not as distinctly as the multicolor icons do in Android and iOS. And live tiles -- those that display information such as the current time (the HTC weather app) or date (the Calendar app) -- typically have no identifiable icons, so you have to figure out what app is hiding behind that particular status. The more you have, the harder it is to keep them straight.

As the number of your apps and tiles increases, the more tiresome the scrolling becomes. Endless scrolling is part and parcel of the Windows Phone experience (and now of the Windows 8 experience). Unlike iOS, Android, and Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 doesn't have a simple way to search your apps or tiles.

The preference of form over function is evident in other ways as well. Although some labels are very large, text in the Windows Phone 8 UI is usually tiny and hard to read at a glance, especially if you're over 40. I strongly encourage you to go into the accessibility settings and increase the text size used for email, messages, and other common apps. This won't solve the problem of tiny UI text but will at least make more apps usable for their core content. As I mentioned earlier, the iconography is often obscure, and when those indistinct icons are small, such as the copy and paste functions in Office, you're left to guess what will happen when you tap one.

Windows Phone 8 defaults to white-on-black display of text, which is also hard to read for older eyes. Fortunately, you can reverse that ill-considered default in the Settings app.

Windows Phone 8 also lacks quick access to common functions. There's no notification tray that lets you adjust Wi-Fi settings or enter airplane mode, as Android has. There's no quick list of recent messages and appointments, as iOS and Android have. There's no multitasking dock or lock-screen setting for quick controls over music playback, as iOS offers. Although the lock screen can display a recent email or message, you can't tap a notification to open its app, as you can in iOS, and you can't see multiple notifications for multiple apps, as you can in iOS and Android.

Windows Phone 8 is especially bad at text selection. Typically, when you tap and hold text to insert the text cursor, the text is selected instead. I'm not sure what makes Windows Phone 8 insert the text cursor rather than select text -- it's always trial and error for me -- but once you get into text-insertion mode, don't expect to be able to place the text cursor where you want. The text-cursor icon appears a line or two above your finger, well away from your text. Because the text is obscured by your finger, you can't tell where the text-insertion point really is.

Here's what works in practice: Release your finger and backspace to where you want to go, or try again if the cursor is in front of the desired location. By contrast, iOS has that wonderful magnifier when you tap and hold on text that allows precise cursor insertion with little effort, and Android's quick tap on text produces an easily movable pointer for precise cursor location.

Although Windows Phone 8's usability doesn't scale well as you increase your demands on the OS and its apps, the UI is well suited for basic usage. Nnontechies are apt to prefer it if they focus their usage on email, social networking, messaging, a few widgets, and the like.

Security and management: Finally, but barely, in the game
Ever since Windows Phone 7 debuted in fall 2010, I've been dumbfounded as to why it had no support for on-device encryption, VPNs, or EAS policies. After all, the Windows Mobile OS that Microsoft sold for a decade had all three, and Microsoft invented the notion of EAS policies. Apple's adoption of EAS in 2010 soon made iOS the most corporate-capable mobile device on the market after the BlackBerry. About a year ago, Google's Android 4 "Ice Cream Sandwich" also began offering basic security and management capabilities -- but not Windows Phone 7.5.

Windows Phone 8 finally supports on-device encryption (it's on by default and can't be disabled, just like iOS) and EAS policies. But it has just the basic capabilities, falling far behind both iOS and Android. A company with simple policies, such as for password complexity, will be fine with Windows Phone 8, but if your employer has stricter controls, don't count on being able to use your Windows Phone 8 device to access corporate systems.

Windows Phone 8 still doesn't support VPNs.

Microsoft restricts app installations to apps from its Windows Phone Store, which it curates just as Apple does the iOS App Store. The chances of malware finding its way to Windows Phone devices is very small, unlike the malware-infested Google Play market for Android.

Windows Phone 8 also can back up your app settings to your Microsoft account, along with photos taken by the device, easing recovery if your device is lost, stolen, or damaged. iOS and Android have similar capabilities, with iOS providing full backup via iTunes of all device contents. Like iOS, Windows Phone has long had a "find my phone" function to locate a lost or stolen device and, optionally, lock or wipe it. (Android requires the use of a third-party app to do this.)

One longtime knock on smartphones has been that you can't set up a separate user account or safe zone for kids; for example, you may want to lend your device to your child so that they can play games when waiting in line. Windows Phone 8 debuts the Kid's Corner feature that lets you set up a set of approved apps for your kid to use, with a PIN code that locks out the rest of your device's capabilities. The new Android 4.2 "Jelly Bean" provides separate user accounts on tablets, but not smartphones. Likewise, Apple's less-capable Guided Access feature in the iPad's iOS 6 isn't available for the iPhone.

Windows Phone 8 is designed to compete with Android 2.3, not today's Android or iOS
A year ago when I compared Windows Phone 7.5 to Android 2.3 "Gingerbread," I gave the nod to Android, but noted it was a fairly close match. After all, Android 2.3 didn't support corporate security needs, its UI was very uneven, and its app selection sparse. What a difference a year makes. HTC, Motorola Mobility, and Samsung filled in some of those gaps themselves, but first Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" and now Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" propelled newer Android smartphones closer to the iPhone's high level.

A year ago, Android 2.3 and Windows Phone 7.5 were vying for a distant second place in terms of capabilities and usability. Android is now challenging Apple for the smartphone crown, while Windows Phone 8 is offering a modest update over last year's version. It's as if Microsoft is fighting yesteryear's war, not looking ahead to redefine the battle in its favor or make a significant leap forward. Windows Phone 8 is Microsoft's third attempt to get mobile right in the iPhone era. It's also Microsoft's third failure to do so. 

A Windows Phone 8 device is serviceable as a low-end smartphone, for those wanting email, social networking, and instant messaging, with a little gaming and media use thrown in. But it seems a waste to get a device doing only that for a monthly data fee of $30 to $50. The Nokia Lumia 800 series is a decent piece of budget hardware, and the HTC 8X is a credible mainstream device for more demanding users. But both run an operating system that has gone nowhere fast. It's Window Phone's third strike. Against iOS and Android, Microsoft continues to strike out.

This article, "Review: It's strike 3 for Microsoft's Windows Phone," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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