Windows Mobile 7 or is it Version 1.5?

Posted on December 9, 2010

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Anyone in the Microsoft Partner space engaging clients will have almost certainly had an opinion or question put to them in some shape or form that will be asking the underlying – What do you think of Windows Mobile 7?

I have dodged and ducked this question and juggled the hot potatoes of persistence from inquisitors with the distractor that this cannot be meaningfully answered without reflecting on experience across the other main contenders in this space – Apple iOS4 and Google Androids v2.x. Yes I know there is Blackberry, but recall that Microsoft has led in Windows Mobile 7 (WM7) as a consumer focused OS in this iteration and Blackberry despite some consumer penetration is still very much a Business device.

I have been reticent in my opinion because I have heard great things from within the Microsoft user base but then converging and mixed views from outside. The Microsoft view is understandable coming from a user based who have predominantly been locked into a Windows Mobile OS for the last few generations of smartphone. For whom WM7 will feel like a HUGE transformation in both functionality and usability, perceptively bringing Microsoft right onto the coat tails of iOS and Android.

So to be objective I have spent time with these three leading lights in the smartphone OS space. Said objectivity omitting the hardware dimension, as this is variable across Android and WM7 and does distort the focus of purpose for the OS’s. Mobile devices tend to be either media/recreationally orientated (large quality screen and power) or functional/business focused (light, svelte with battery stamina). Apple with its iPhone attempting both tricks admirably but failing miserably on battery stamina and signal retention.

Having now had two solid months on the road with WM7 on the back of time with iOS4 and Android I am strongly of the view that WM7 is a v1.5 OS. This flies in the face of its ‘7’ suffix, but the reality in the world at large is WM7 is a Zune with phone functionality bolted on with little presentation consistency or the core OS feature maturity of previous Windows Mobile versions.

WM7 is a good start but frustratingly for the budget it had behind it, failing in some key areas that I would not have expected from Microsoft development and design teams. Especially since Apple and Android have combined to incur the friction and wrath of consumer frustration with feature black holes and setting the baseline of expectation. A Baseline that WM7 falls short of on a number of counts. Why Microsoft has elected to relive these lessons in the open market I cannot fathom.

Let me put some reasoning behind this view; the following is by no means exhaustive in detail as this is not meant to be a WM7 nit picking article but objective feedback.

Graphical User Interface

On a desktop you have room to be flamboyant with visual cues you have ‘space’. On a mobile it is about maximising the potential use of every last pixel on the screen because there is NO spare room, and the success of the visual delivery is so critical. This is the most bemusing aspect of WM7 for me, how the screen real estate is squandered when it could so easily have been a very different ‘picture’:

a) Level 1 – WM7 iconic ‘Tiles’ on the home screen; these could be a 5th of the size and still get across the core information. Instead they hog space and deliver no real added value imposing an avoidable scroll overhead on the user.

b) Use of the big tiles are also unnecessary in the contacts, wasting valuable space and driving scrolling when it could have been avoided making the experience more efficient and effective without losing the visual cosmetics.

c) Level 2 – it is scroll hell again from the off, the space hogging front page tiles do their own bloated list act when you start adding to them but level 2 goes skinny with the same frustrating result, a simple list that hangs wastefully off-centre on the screen, echoing the same miniature icons from level 1. This is where applications, features and functions should be nested into logical categories echoing the native Windows concepts such as:

i. System

ii. Applications

iii. Music

iv. Video

…etc

With user category customisation and creation options so that applications and features can be logically nested. Apple had already responded to the huge user demand for this so this was a no brainer.

d) Wasteful cues:

a. A persistent arrow pointing to the side? Users get the hang of this after the first swipe, make it disappear at least!

b. Screens that show the edge of the next screen. I thought at first the developer of the app had failed to program the screen size correctly! Then I realised it was part of the design. Again a waste of space.

Why not use an intro set-up tutorial process as per Windows Mobile 6/6.5 to offer users the option to step through core interface actions instead of persistently tying up valuable screen real-estate.

e) Consistency – There are a woeful array of screen layouts in the core OS screens, this is before dropping into the application screens. The array of screens leads to a feeling of a cheap and cheerful mash up, not a solid and slick visual experience. An ‘Iconic’ home screen is fine if it is effective and efficient, and then keep the rest of the OS core levels to a max of 2 interface designs ie; c categories at Level 2 and then a design that mirrors the core OS apps ie: email, systems or music & video apps for consistency supporting user familiarity and orientation at the lower level.

Functionality

a) Set-up – It took me 4 attempts due to the enforcement of a single Live ID account to get the phone up and running. Like many professionals I have a private and a work Live ID and the two do not get mixed for privacy and practical reasons. As such I had to work out which was the one I would use, and it required some experimentation. The frustration was that each time I had to swap my Live ID I had to re-set the WHOLE phone.

The problem with WM7 is there is no efficient way of benefiting from more than one Live ID it is one or the other, which is too rigid in this day and age.

b) For what is intrinsically a phone the lack of efficient dial functionality was a big frustration. The feeling was that this core function was very much secondary, when it should be a primary function. There is no favourites list / quick dial in contacts. The dynamic list that is created with last most frequent numbers does not work well in practice and fall-back each time into the contacts Search is an exercise in frustration when in a hurry. (Don’t tell me to create a ‘Tile’ on the home page, I am already scroll sick from the few additions I have made already.)

c) All the wonderful configuration dexterity and systems info that previous versions of Windows Mobile had is missing making this a ‘dumb’ device, capable of generally only the most basic of set-ups. I guess a reflection of the consumer focus for the OS at this stage? For example:

a. I need to find my MAC address to register for WiFi.

b. WiFi does not always connect and there are no ‘advanced’ settings to tweak to remedy connecting to a non-standard Access Point environment. Many Microsoft offices could not support WM7 post launch just emphasising this point.

c. eMail configuration – allow users to disable sync options ie: Calendar/Contacts BEFORE finalising the set-up to avoid locking up the device as it tries to pull down stuff that is not wanted.

d) Data Hungry. I have not had time to do a full network level test on this but can say from an end user experience BEWARE – WM7 is a magician in making your data allowance disappear.

A working example from one of my frequent trips to Europe I did not get out of the Airport terminal before I had data limit warnings pinging in on SMS from my carrier. Normally it is day 2 before this starts. This is absolutely unforgivable in the modern world of mobile data.

Microsoft check your data bill’s for your staff you will see what I mean. I have seen almost a 40% drop in my usage value from my data allowance with WM7, this is a show stopper for any small business or avid social networker.

e) Search – It is a ineffective when trying to find anything on my phone, triggering an external data call and not even returning anything meaningful off the local device. There should be an option to search the phone and or the internet. A missed opportunity to make an impact with search.

f) No Cut & Paste – This one has been laboured enough in other reviews but I cannot emphasis enough how unusable it makes the WM7 experience with its absence and how unforgivable it is that this has been omitted when reflecting on the forewarning of the market demand for this feature.

g) Zune Desktop Client – Probably a matter of taste, but it is far from intuitive and cut’s across all the good User Interface standards users are familiar with in Windows making it a lesson in frustration. It also seems to have a bit of the iTunes about it in terms of its performance and ‘bloat ware’ 116mb download for what! At least there are some registry tricks that allow you to use your phone more directly, but they do need you to install Zune first, but once applied you can interact directly with the phone as if it was a USB attached device.

Use the following registry modifications at your own risk http://www.zunesphere.com/2006/11/28/make-the-zune-appear-in-windows-explorer-thanks-to-a-registry-hack/

NB: if you have multiple WP7 phones, you have to do this for each one.

No restart is necessary, which is always convenient, plug your phone in and you should see the it show up in Windows File Explorer as an attached device.

h) Tethering – This maybe a carrier issue but Vodafone could not help me and I could not find anything in the set-up menus. Another show stopper for the notebook armed road warrior.

So what am I currently using? Well let me say it is not WM7 for the following overriding reasons in order of importance:

A. Wasteful data consumption verging on abuse of personal disposal income!

B. Patched together user interface

C. Profile set-up.

For me this is regrettably a case of waiting for v2 and I would expect the first Service Pack. The application of OS upgrades to my current device will be another test of how attentive Microsoft has been to market trends in making it a seamless transition. Watch this space….

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