Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Nokia + Windows Phone ... Thinking within the box brilliance


Over the past few years, mobile computing has come through some amazing milestones going from simple pocket PC devices running Palm's OS to Windows Mobile to the current state of affairs here in 2013.

Apple rocked the world showing us what a full PC like OS wrapped witha touch friendly wrapper could offer and then asking us, would we take this and trade battery life for it. The consumer market responded with a resounding YES.

RIM's Blackberry never saw what was coming.

Microsoft on the other hand didnt sit back and do nothing. They took their then mobile OS offering, Windows Mobile 6.0 and cleaned it up, polished it, tool some pointers from Apple and made the UI shell more touch oriented, but too much of the OS was legacy stylus oriented an they were are tat point, putting make up on the pig. In the end they cleaned up WinMo 6.5 with 6.5.7 and left WinMo there.

In the meantime a team of engineers began rethinking what Windows Mobile was and where it should go. They looked at the existing platform and made a hard decision on what to keep and what to get rid of.

The Window Phone 7 Era

With Windows Phone Series 7, later renamed to Windows Phone7,  Microsoft tossed the cat out in a bag eliminating the entire UI and app ecosystem of their older platforms rethinking everything from square one. They utilised their all but failed Zune Music and Video syncing, playback and management system to handle media. Skydrive to handle the transferring of documents and a built in version of Microsof Office that enabled limited editing of files.

Botching Windows Phone 7... not difficult

So what Microsoft botched with Windows Phone 7 were simple little things that matter to mobile users, mainly due to their inexperience in markets where these things matter.

Bluetooth file transfers, simple stupid and how most people get small files and photos from one another in developing markets where ubiquitous mobile internet is non existent and where anything over a 1mb/s home internet connection is a luxery. What was a premium feature back in the 90s, bluetooth became ubiquitous in feature phones after the early 2000s and as such was the method of choice for file transfers.

In developing nations most people use prepaid phones and Windows Phone 7 didn't support all the various ways to input and confirm a prepaid credit input leaving some users holding a phone with no calling credit.

Because there are inexpensive prepaid phone services, many people have 2 or more mobile numbers and Windows Phone allowed a max of only 1 mobile number per contact.

Users for a long time use small MicroSD cards and usually just swap them as they change phones. Windows Phone 7 had no MicroSD card support.

The convenience of dragging and dropping document files to my phone and not needing to upload to skydrive then log into sky drive on my phone and open the file there to make sure it was preloaded before I went anywhere was a pain.

What was done right

In the past with Media Management, syncing music via MTP, through Windows Media Player was spotty, unreliable and overall a hassle. With Zune handling that I can't remember a time I had to plug in my phone to sync anything because that was automatically done every time I plugged my phone in to charge. Even after the Zune Marketplace was shutdown, the Zune desktop software continued to work brilliantly on Windows 7, still doing podcast management perfectly because someone had the forsight to add a "add rss feed" button to manually add podcasts with RSS URLs the old fashioned way.

Automatic Camera Roll uploads are still amazing. Automatically uploading all photos taken via your choice of WIFI, WIFI and Mobile Data and the choice to resize photos for you were all fantastic and something I turned on for everyone I knew, in case they every lost their phone, they wouldn't lose all their photos, but not even that, simply enabling wireless sunc with the Zune desktop software on your home network would sync your camera roll with your PC the minute you put your phone to charge. Thoughtless backup... something a lot of companies thoughtlessly forget.

Dedicated fast smooth camera functionality. As someone who had a Dell Venue Pro, the dedicated camera button was a major pro. The camera on that phone was terrible and always ruined shots, but I would always get the shot. I currently have a Samsung Galaxy 3 and for the great camera it has, unless I plan the shot, I can never open the camera app fast enough to get my shot.

Not the Wild West

Unlike other platforms like Android and Linux in general and even older WinMo 6 and older, the OS is not the wild west letting developers get open access to every resource on the phone. This mean devs have both a harder and easier time. They have a given set of feature with specific ways to access them, but no way to McGyver functionality they need but is not available on the platform.

What you get are applications that are dead simple and functional which is fantastic for users but a bit limiting for developers.

The Nokia Intervention

In late 2011 Nokia and Microsoft went into a partnership which boiled down to if Nokia used Windows Phone 7 exclusively on its smartphones, Microsoft would give them money to see them through a period of financial difficulty.

What resulted was a limited but extremely well built line of smartphones that didn't stand a chance against the over specced Android behemoths that were coming out, but with both Microsoft and Nokia touting one simple but very true line, specs don't always equal performance, especially when a OS is heavily optimised for a specific set of hardware, even though it may be older, not necessarily antiquated.

More so, as the hardware became older it became cheaper and off contract, extremely useable, smooth and well designed smartphones became available to a lower budget class of consumer.

The Windows Phone 8 conundrum

In 2013, Microsoft's next Mobile OS, Windows Phone 8 went Gold. As such new Phone were rumored and with little fanfare, abound in the marketplace.

They made a number of many under the hood changes with WP8, ranging from changing the older Windows CE kernel designed specifically for mobile devices in the early 2000 era where hardware performance was always a challenge, to the WindowsNT kernel; the same one powering Windows on desktops and laptops. This was done because the newer phone harware was being released that was as powerful as a lot of last generation PC hardware, more than enough for a Phone with a well optimised OS.

Even with the WP7 era of Nokia Devices, bugs were always expect with phone and expected to be fixed with later firmware updates. But with WP8 some of the changes were seteps backwars as far as the functionality of the whole OS.

They got rid of locking users out of the phone's file system to a limited degree. Like on more typical phones, plugging it into the PC gave you access to some basic media folders, music, video, pictures, documents,  via the MTP file transfer protocol. You could even slip a Micro SD card in there now for expanded storage. Gone were the Zune based media management and reliance on pervasive internet connections... (oh damn)

However as I have played with numerous Windows Phone 8 devices, what I have seen is MicroSDHC compatibility is a problem. On my Nokia Lumia 820 and other Windows Phone 8 based device, transferring a lot of files to the SD Card causes the whole phone to lock up. Not a problem back in the WP7 days where you had Zune and No SDCard options.

Media management for me dies in WP8. Even backing up files locally became a problem with no local wireless sync. The WIFI cameraroll still works brilliantly though

FM Radio was missing at the WP8 launch and returned with the UPDATE 2 for WP8 but it should have been there to begin with.

Even simple thinks like reading the meta tags on music and showing them to you properly is an issue; where songs are missing and playlists go missing after an unplanned power cycle. When the SDCard causes a lock up and you restart your phone, the phone stops detecting the SDCard entirely until you put it in a PC first.

The Take Away

Windows Phone is the easiest and cleanest platform I have used in the mobile space to date. Out of the box it has one of the best stock keyboards. The most relevantly customiseable homescreen/start screen.

Optimization to the teeth for the hardware its running on, so it feels like you have a $3000 gaming rig when ur running a budget $150 smartphone.

I used a Digicel Smartphone DL600 and Alcatel manufactured phone for $600 TTD and an Nokia Lumia 620 for $600 TTD. It was day and night. The Nokia was a true Windows Phone even at that price. Smooth, clean, responsive. The Digicel was slow laggy and terrible and running stick 4.2.1. Android no less.

Because Nokia was forced to think inside the limitations of the Windows Phone app and hardware limitation, they knew what was the bar they had to hit performance and aesthetically speaking, and what they came up with didnt go bang pop wizz like a lot of LG and Samsung Customisations do, but were subtle and elegant, moreso than even Apple products are.

In the end, Nokia Makes great hardware and so far Windows Phone is the only OS I have used up till now that I can see myself letting other people use, even the techies I know prefer Windows Phone as a whole because it isn't the wild wild west. Things don't break on Windows Phone that aren't already broken.

I installed BBM on android and half my apps started acting wonky including my music player...

MTP synced playlists that worked on Google's Play Music app now show playlists out of order and all mixed up after the 4.2.2 update.

Problems aren't limited to any one platform either,  but where they were working exceptionally well before is terrible when you come back and see them not working at all or just horribly.

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