why i love windows phone 7

The internet, in general, hates Windows Phone so I decided to write a quick post to explain why I’m completely smitten by the platform. For background purposes, the Nokia Lumia 900 is my fourth smartphone after a BlackBerry Curve 8310, the iPhone 3GS and, most recently, the HTC HD7S. I’ve been using the Windows Phone platform since about July 2011 (the HD7S) and there’s no looking back, for me. Let’s go into details.

It’s Freaking Beautiful

The UI is absolutely stunning. Yes, the screen resolution doesn’t allow for “retina display” and WP manufacturers have not entered the ongoing pixel arms race, but the actual presentation of the operating system is beautiful. Metro is easily my favorite user experience on any piece of software I’ve used. The large tiles are bold and bright and the sharp edges gives them definition. Compare this with the grid of tiny icons that iOS/stock Android presents you (along with a number-based notification system) and the difference is massive if you allow yourself to believe in it. Of course, iOS and Android are making strides with an improved notification system and widgets, respectively, but I’m a fan of the WP presentation. It’s sexy and utilitarian. If I want to check the weather, I just need to unlock the phone and the live tile tells me the current weather and the next two days. If I want to see if anyone has posted anything on my Facebook or tweeted anything at me, once again, the live tile grabs all this information.

Everything is integrated

When I was using an iPhone, I had:

  • My contact list on my phone
  • My music playing off of Spotify with the Spotify app
  • My Facebook notifications coming through the FB app
  • My Twitter notifications coming through the Twitter app
  • Any synchronization being done through the shitty iTunes interface
  • QR Code/barcode scanning being done through third party apps
  • Pandora for live radio
  • Shazam to do song recognition

And it goes on. I use my phone primarily to keep track of my social networks, to text my friends, to listen to music and occasionally make a call or two. All the above things I mentioned are integrated into the core Windows Phone operating system. When I first set up my phone, I logged into my Windows Live and Facebook accounts. This grabbed all my contacts and even matched them up with the relevant Facebook accounts. I did install the third-party Facebook app but I hardly use it (also, it is extremely buggy).

The Windows Phone search button (a dedicated touch button that can be pressed at any time) allows you to not only search for text but to scan a barcode or QR code or even listen to music. Yup, the Shazam feature is automatically built in. Pandora still needs a third-party app (wpFandora does an excellent job) but more importantly, all my music is tracked through the Music & Videos hub. This means that if I heard a song on Pandora and then listened to other stuff on my phone, I can easily find the track in my music history as if it were being played from the same source.

I cancelled my Spotify subscription in favor of the Microsoft Zune Pass, which is the same price. The advantages? I don’t have to use iTunes again, ever. I can’t put into words how huge this advantage is for me. I absolutely detest iTunes. Zune is a more than worthy replacement and is about 1,452,530 sexier than iTunes. You know how OS X has been building up all these “full screen, immersive apps” the last few months? Well Zune has been doing that since… well, a long time. Another positive of Zune Pass is that it is essentially iTunes, Spotify, Spotify Mobile and Pandora rolled into one. I can listen to any song on Zune through subscription, and I can download it to my phone and play it offline. Of course, if I haven’t downloaded a song, I can look it up and play it from the marketplace section on the phone and even download it and save it to a playlist. Without having to buy it. Without having to download Spotify. The Pandora equivalent is “Smart DJ”. You can search for any artist and click “Smart DJ” and it will start playing related songs. Sure, their algorithm is probably not as good as Pandora’s, but you can get started with it immediately.

The hardware and software are unique… “different”

I find it most hilarious that I’m using Microsoft software and being “different”. It seems like only yesterday when Apple was forcing “think different” down everyone’s throats. For those not in the know, Nokia is using the slogan “beautifully different” to drive Lumia sales. And it’s ironic, but Microsoft’s product offering here is really unique and different. The iPhone is now the go-to smartphone for most users and the marketing advantage that Apple had with Macs of having “something cooler than yours” has not carried forward to their phone product line. Everyone has an iPhone. Except those people who have Android, which, in my opinion, basically means that you want (/need) to tinker with your OS to customize it to your needs or you are just to cheap to buy an iPhone. Or you hate the fact that Apple makes minor improvements to their product every year and then sells it as if it’s the greatest new thing. Android buyers have the latest technology available at a low price now, instead of next year. Alas, it comes at the cost of a fragmented marketplace that is struggling to deal with all the different versions of the operating system on their hardware, now.

Windows Phone has a minuscule market share and one that Microsoft, I think, should increase only enough to become the Mac of the smartphone market. The Lumia 900 is a fine hero device because it’s not just Android hardware with the WP software on it, but a device built from scratch to match the sexiness of the WP7 operating system. Of course, MS has historically operated on volume so they are trying to give the device away for free to try and get it in people’s hands. I suppose this works, but at some point I think MS should try to make Windows Phone a luxury device, rather than the Dell of smartphones.

And finally, the negatives…

Of coures, there are several negatives with the platform. The two that have been brought up the most are (1) “there are no apps” and (2) “this is last year’s hardware”. Yes, the app offering is fractional compared to the iTunes App Store and the Google Marketplace (or whatever its name is, right now). And the bigger problem, in my opinion, is that most big-name developers don’t even consider developing for WP. Which is mindblowing to me, as a developer, because Microsoft’s developer suite (Visual Studio) is heads and shoulders above iOS’ (XCode or Mono Touch) or Android’s (Eclipse or whatever Java editor you choose to use). .NET technology has been around for ages and most developers already know how to code in it. One would expect there to be a lot more Windows Phone developers, but I guess they are driven by market needs.

But going back to the crux of the issue, yes, there is an app problem. Any Windows Phone user who tries to tell you otherwise is just lying to himself or herself. I want to play Draw Something on my Lumia. I want to be with the “in” crowd of whatever game ends up being the next viral craze. This is a work in progress and it’s only going to change if there is a sufficient shift in market share for Windows Phone. All that said, the apps for WP are legitimate in themselves. There are several really nice apps that take advantage of the Metro UX and understand Microsoft’s vision with the operating system.

The second negative is, in my opinion, mostly just FUD. Yes, current generation Windows Phones are babies compared to the technical specifications of Android. Isn’t there an Android phone out there which is going to be quad-core? And really, the first thing that comes to my mind is, “why the hell do you need four cores on your phone?” It sounds like either the developer SDK is not efficient or that the developers are dumb. Windows Phone works like a dream with a single core. Everything is snappy and I have encountered little to no lag. That said, I do think that a few of the software requirements/implementations could use improvement. For example, I’d like to have higher resolution graphics and better camera software. I’m hoping Apollo will change some of this. And if Apollo does include dual-core support, I can’t imagine how awesome the platform would be. If WP’s performance is already comparable with iOS/Android with a fraction of the cores, a multi-core experience is only going to be better (especially given that MS has software pedigree in developing successful multi-core operating systems).

Alright, I’m gonna step off my soap box, now, since this was a fair bit longer than I expected. Keep in mind that these conclusions are drawn based off of my Lumia 900. A few of my opinions would be very different if I had been writing this article whilst using the HD7S, which is essentially just an Android phone with the Microsoft OS on it.

Feel free to comment with your opinion! I completely understand that my love of the MS offering is highly subjective. As with taste in music and preference for beer styles, I respect the fact that people like different things.

psyched about iPhone OS 4

Apple held their iPhone OS 4 event today and I must say, I’m pretty psyched by the features that they are rolling out. Some of them are things that should have been part of the OS from day 1, in my opinion, others are pretty good innovations. All in all, I can’t wait to see how they turn out come this summer. Let’s take a look at the features I’m most interested in…

Multitasking

Whooooohoooo! Multitasking has *finally* come to the iPhone. This is a feature that users have been asking for years now, and Apple has finally delivered. Their method of delivery is kind of interesting, though, in that they are not allowing for full-featured, automatic multitasking. Effectively, if you want to add multitasking to your app, you’re going to have to do a bit of work. Multitasking is exposed via 7 different APIs that allow you to plug-in to different things from background audio to VoIP. This is different from the standard computer paradigm of multitasking, wherein you save whats in memory and all your valuable stack pointers, load something else into memory and then set up your new pointers correctly. Whether this is a smart way to implement it, only time will tell, but it’s likely to decrease the latency in switching between applications and actually using the foreground app, with all that bookkeeping not being relevant any more.

Folders

Of late, I’ve been suffering from an inability to organize my apps as I want them because there are too many/too little of a certain type. I tried to be as categorical as I could from the beginning–organizing by things such as games, social network, etc. However, the issue is that if I want to reorganize a category, or if a category overflows to another page, I’m pretty much screwed. Or not screwed, but in a situation where I spend a bunch of time moving apps around. Folders have been part and parcel of the BlackBerry OS for ages and they are one feature that I used extensively when I still used my Curve 8310. This is a welcome addition to the organizational freaks such as myself.

Game Center

This is the last thing that seems like it could be useful–it’s basically XBox Live for the iPhone. Meaning that you can create match-ups, track leaderboards, etc. Many games currently do this through manual leaderboards driven through web-service calls–this would obviously be an improvement since there would be a standardized API to be able to handle all that stuff, and also the more stable Apple servers running it.

Amongst the other features mentioned, there was better mail management, better enterprise integration, etc. I didn’t really find much of that relevant, but I’m sure there are people who are elated by that news. Amongst the announcements that I didn’t like was their iAd offering. This is basically an effort to counter the in-app ads that are currently being pulled in by many apps (through AdMob and the like, I suppose). While the framework allows ad developers to basically create a lightweight app (one that in many ways will be like a pre-OS 4 app), I think it will be detrimental to current apps. We may see a bunch of apps being rejected/removed because they don’t embrace the iAd platform. While the idea of having these app-like ads may seem novel, I wonder how many people seriously click on an ad. Then again, given that Google built its empire on ads, maybe I’m just a minority.

That’s all for now!

iTunes kills the iPhone Experience

This Black Friday I made the jump to purchasing an iPhone. AT&T had a pretty awesome deal going on which allowed me to snag a refurbished version of the 3G-S 16GB for a mere $49+$18 upgrade fees+some taxes. Total price was around $70, the condition being a 2-year contract, which I’m not too worried about since I’ll probably be staying with AT&T anyways. I was already paying for a BB data plan, which is equal to the iPhone one, so no extra charges there.

The phone itself is beautiful. Of course, having used the iPod Touch for nearly a year now, I knew what I was getting myself into. I was able to activate after a few issues and copied over all my apps from my iPod Touch using iTunes. So far so good. Next, I found a tutorial on the web that essentially used iTunes to create ringtones. Splendid, right? So I created a couple. Then, I thought, “Oh, I might as well get all my music into my iTunes.” This was possible now finally that I have my Windows 7 Homegroup set up properly. So I went ahead and added the music folder to iTunes and went and did my P90X workout and showered.

Once I came back, I was ready to crank out some ringtones manually. Not. iTunes was busy “Determining Gapless Playback Information”. A feature that I really don’t care for. And one that is programmed badly enough that it ends up using all of iTunes’ resources, rendering the program unusable. Now, iTunes wasn’t a fantastic program to begin with, being slow and clunky, so imagine how the end user experience is when your mouse events are delayed by 5-10 seconds. Ridiculous. Luckily, there was an “X” right next to the message, and I clicked it and decided to hunt around in the Preferences for a way to disable it.

Midway through my search of the first Preferences tab, I noticed my mouse events slowed down again. “What?” I thought to myself. After about half a minute more I was out of the preferences dialog and to my disgust I found that iTunes had decided once again to “Determine Gapless Playback Information”. Annoyed, I clicked “X” again and sure enough, about 5 seconds later, it was back! Not only that, but it started from the first track every time! Looking around on the internet for a few fixes, I found a couple that should have worked but didn’t. I realized that now that I have bought my first “real” Apple product, I will have to enter that realm where I sacrifice a few of my rights as the owner of a device to do what Apple wants me to do. In this case, this means that I will have to let it run for the 30-60 minutes it must take to set up this feature which I don’t care about, anyway, and come back to do my ringtone-making tomorrow.

And they complain Windows 7 takes a minute to boot up…

eurotrippin’ in france (day 1)

Our flight from Zurich to Paris was at around 8:30 am so we left Luzern at around 5:45 am, hoping to reach the airport by around 7am. The drive was supposed to take a shade over 1 hour, so we had given ourselves a pretty large buffer in case things went wrong. As it turned out, they did. We had again used Google Maps to get our directions from the Luzern hotel to the Zurich Airport and had even scoped out our initial departure route on foot the previous day. However, once we got past that, the directions got plenty confusing.

It appears that Europeans have some sort of obsession with roundabouts, something we would find out when we were in France, and thus something I will gripe about then. However, roundabouts caused us our share of problems here, since every turn seemed to be given as a roundabout (at least by Google Maps) and the number of roundabouts didn’t appear to match up. We got lost a couple of times (once climbing up some mountain area) and using my Dad’s BlackBerry EDGE connection helped us relocate a bit. However, we still wasted at least 25-30 minutes going the wrong way and recovering.

Our saviour came in the form of a gas station on the way to Zurich. The directions provided by Google Maps were confusing enough that they told us to go towards Zurich and then take an exit for Luzern (where we had been coming from!) before heading to the airport. Basically, there was a lot of implicit highway switching that only confused us. A line such as “follow the overhead signs to the Zurich Flughafen” would have been better! Luckily, the gas station employee told us to get on the transit highway and then just follow the signs to the airport.

This we did and although Zurich was under heavy construction and there was a bit of traffic, we pulled into the airport’s car rental drop off area at around 7:30am. From there we went ahead and got checked in and by the time we got through security, it was time to board. In that way, it was good that we got lost since we didn’t have to sit around and twiddle our thumbs at the busy Zurich airport! However, we didn’t get an opportunity to do any gift shopping, which we decided to leave for when we were on our way back.

The flight to Paris was uneventful and lasted only about 45 minutes. We then reached the mess that is known as the Charles de Gaulle Airport and quickly whisked ourselves away to the train station. This is when the French really get you. I had done some reading up before of how the Paris public transportation/railway system works. There are three companies with stakes: SNCF (the national rail network), RER (a local rail network that also operates medium- and long-distance trains) and the local metro. To complicate matters further, it appears that you can use tickets interchangeably on 2 of the 3, sometimes. Yup, must have been designed by a Frenchman!

Anyways, we found the TGV counter and bought ourselves a ticket to Strasbourg, which is where we had decided to go to first. We had about an hour to kill before the train got there and then a journey of about 2 hours on the TGV. Traveling on the TGV was a pretty sweet experience as it was a pretty superfast train. After staring at the blurred scenery outside for a few minutes, I picked up the book I had bought in the Mumbai airport, the latest Lee Child book, and settled down. My Dad did get a little impatient and bought some wine and snacks from the kitchen car, but that was the only eventful thing that happened on the train ride.

Once we reached Strasbourg, we had to take the trams to get to our hotel, which was the Holiday Inn. I had looked up the station/trams we would have to take earlier, in Luzern, so we didn’t have any trouble finding our way. The tram system in Strasbourg was pretty efficient and we got to our hotel in about 15 minutes and checked in. We had taken an Executive Room, which basically meant we had free internet, as well as several little gifts throughout the day in the form of complimentary bottles of water, chocolates and whatnot. The receptionist was kind enough to provide some tourism information to my father while my Mom and I lazed in our room, so we got an idea of what to see and do in Strasbourg, apart from that which we had already researched.

After freshening up, we headed back to the city center using the trams by way of a trio ticket, which was a lot cheaper and allowed us to travel unlimited for a period of 24 hours (not like anyone checked tickets, anyway). Once we reached the main central station—Homme de Fer—we set out in search for the Cathedrale Notre Dame, with our map in hand. We were able to find it at around 7.30pm, which was unfortunately about an hour after it closed, so we had to make do with taking photos of it from the outside. It was a pretty spectacular structure, and we also noted that there was going to be light show there starting at 10pm. We thus quickly made plans to come back there after dinner.


Can you believe how blue that sky is?


It was so big it had to be photographed from many locations

Next, we headed to the river, which featured a “cruise” that would take us around the canals of Strasbourg and provide us a view from the boats of the many buildings that people came to see there. We booked our tickets for the 8pm boat, which was an open-air boat, and then hunted around for dinner. We had a faux start with dinner since we sat down at a place near the river only to realize that there would be no way that we would be able to complete the meal without missing our boat cruise. So we quickly abandoned that idea and my parents settled for a crêpe each while I decided to go ahead and wait for dinner.

Once we got on the boat, we had great photo opportunities. The Strasbourg canal system is pretty good at showing one all the places around, and it is also interestingly designed. They have “lock-gates” all over the place where there is an area for the boat, and the water level is adjusted such that the boat goes up or down about 2 meters. It’s hard to describe and unfortunately I didn’t take any photos so you’re just going to have to ask me to describe it to you in person if you are really interested! Along the way, we also saw a bridge that simply rotated away to allow for the boat to pass. The main sightseeing from the boat, though, was the Petite France area. I don’t know what the point of this area was, or why it was named as such. My Mom says it is because the buildings/architecture is in the “French style” but I wonder why you need such a region in France itself! I suppose it is because Strasbourg had its share of inhabitants from different countries (such as Germany) over the years.


One of the many buildings we saw on the boat ride


Sweet-looking church


Torture tower where prisoners were kept

After the boat ride, we made it just in time for the light show at the Cathedrale Notre Dame and thus decided to eat dinner there itself. Unfortunately, my camera produced an epic fail at capturing the light show, so you will have to make do with these poor photographs. The light show basically involved playing classical music accompanied by lights that highlighted different features of the Cathedrale’s carvings. Each of my parents took turns getting photos and videos of the show, so maybe I can enhance this blog with one of those sometime in the future (probably not!).


A blurry look at the Cathedrale Notre Dame light show

With the light show done and it finally becoming dark instead of twilight-y we decided to head back to the hotel. We took the same tram route and hit a minor speedbump with our connecting train, since it stopped two stops ahead of the one we needed to go to because of maintenance. Luckily, Strasbourg had metro buses arranged that followed the same route as the tram and thus we were able to get back to our hotel without too much issue. Once we got back there, I did some more reading on my book and then we crashed, tired from all the different modes of transportation we had used that day!