How Microsoft self-sabotaged Windows Phone

Nokia-Lumia-930

Robert C. Johnston.

 

WINDOWS 10 Mobile is coming soon to Lumia phones, but will Microsoft leave customers and its new mobile operating system languishing, just like it has done with Windows Phone 8.1?

I was a very early proponent of Windows Phone – it was buttery smooth, not as restrictive as iOS, yet not as vulnerable as Android. It also looked like it would combine the best features of a Nokia camera phone with a brand new, app friendly operating system.

Although it showed great potential, Microsoft has fumbled along with a half-hearted marketing campaign and has been excruciatingly slow to release updates and fix persistent bugs. This has made developers sceptical, and customers wary.

Early in 2011, Microsoft invested heavily in Nokia, partnering with it in order to ensure Nokia implemented the fledgling Windows Phone 7 operating system in a new range of devices. A Microsoft executive even moved companies to become Nokia CEO, apparently to help steer the ailing company back to the black.

The idea was a great opportunity, and the new phones showed promise – but there seemed to be an inexplicable lack of progress on Microsoft’s side in tweaking the Windows Phone software. For example, it took the Windows Phone team far too long to modify the code that would allow dual-core hardware and Full HD displays – much later than its Android competition.

Then, in early 2014, Microsoft completed an acquisition of the Nokia devices division for US 7.2 billion dollars. Many accused Microsoft of parachuting their executive into Nokia to be a Trojan horse – to soften up the company just enough so that it would be ripe for the taking.

During this time I felt that Nokia’s downfall was aided by a Microsoft Windows Phone team that was almost suspiciously sluggish in releasing meaningful updates.

But even after the Nokia acquisition there wasn’t much improvement: a successor to the popular Lumia 1020 (announced in July 2013) was apparently cancelled, there has been no other high-end flagship device announced since the Lumia 930 in early 2014, there have been very few software improvements, and marketing impact and effort has been weak.

Instead, there has been what feels like an endless stream of budget and mid-range phones with only fractional differences between them. One only has to take a look at Microsoft’s Lumia website to be confused by the myriad of 4xx, 5xx, and 6xx series phones, and how they conspicuously outnumber the few high-end devices.

Microsoft is not wrong to target affordable devices – this was a great Nokia strength and affordable phones such as the Lumia 520 sold extremely well in developing markets and as an entry-level smart device. But Microsoft has so far completely neglected the flagship sector, stringing along early Lumia adopters who wanted something different to all the iPhones and Androids out there, and who now want to upgrade. But they just can’t – there is nothing to upgrade to. And so these people have started looking elsewhere.

Finally, in July 2015, Microsoft wrote off the Nokia acquisition, admitting that US 7.6 billion dollars of the value of their new devices division had been wiped out. It is not hard to imagine Microsoft execs scratching their heads in top floor meetings trying to figure out what went wrong.

Microsoft announced that the acquisition was a failure, saying it was a mistake to purchase the Nokia devices division in the first place.

But it didn’t have to be a failure, it was just hopelessly mismanaged.

After the Nokia acquisition and write-down, I came to the conclusion that there could be another possible explanation to Microsoft’s slow progress: the Windows Phone team was sloppy and lazy.

With setbacks stemming from stunted software and compounded by poor marketing, it is very likely that Microsoft management eventually instructed their teams to forget about improving the existing Windows Phone and just concentrate on Windows 10 Mobile.

This might be pragmatic, but in doing this Microsoft has alienated the early and willing adopters of Windows Phone. If you want customers to be loyal, you must develop and maintain trust.

Time will tell if Windows 10 Mobile will win back and win over consumers. At the moment the preview builds are still a bit of a risky, glitchy mess. It will probably, eventually, be very good. But if Microsoft executes Windows 10 Mobile as half-heartedly and with as minimal effort as Windows Phone, it will not succeed. It is somewhat worrying that two months after Windows 10 was released on PC there is still no word on a Mobile release date.

In the meantime, Windows Phone users have to struggle on using software with limitations and bugs that have persisted for literally months and years, that have not been bothered to be addressed by an absent Windows Phone team. I like Windows Phone, but I hoped to love it. And I hope to love Windows 10 Mobile – it again is a new beginning full of opportunities. But Microsoft’s all-round effort with Windows Phone is not a good omen.

Presented here is a selection of problems that have persisted with Windows Phone for too long and have not been addressed by Microsoft:

You cannot choose the upload resolution of photos attached to emails – it automatically downsizes them, significantly reducing their quality. If you want to send a photo to someone at its highest resolution, you need to upload it to OneDrive and send them a link. Depending on the recipient, the OneDrive link sometimes presents a OneDrive Sign In page, before you can even download the photo. The other option is to connect your phone to a computer and copy it from there. All this fiddling just to send a photo at its highest quality. Apple iPhone, by comparison, allows you to easily choose the resolution to send, depending on your data and quality needs.

The brightness control on Windows Phone does not go low enough. There is an option to manually adjust your brightness profiles, but even on the lowest manual setting the phone is headache-inducingly-blinding at night when used in a dark room.

There is a bug with the calendar live tile that has not been addressed even though it has persisted for years and despite Microsoft apparently knowing about it (well, I told them anyway). The bug presents itself if you have an all-day event in your calendar for tomorrow, but on the live tile it will incorrectly show it as being an all-day event today. Such a simple thing, yet left unfixed.

Calendar live tile bug1 - Screenshot Robert C. Johnston

The Windows Phone calendar live tile (top left) incorrectly shows tomorrow’s all day event as today. The tile on the top right belongs to a third-party calendar app which shows the correct date for the event. And there I was getting all excited that my Bachelorette marathon with the boys was today. Screenshot: Robert C. Johnston

Windows Phones have a reading view in Internet Explorer, similar to the iPhone version that organises text and images neatly at a comfortable size and removes ads to make a page easy to read. But the Windows Phone version has remained unrefined: if you are reading a webpage for a while and decide to go to reading view, it will take you back up to the top of the page. If you are using reading view and decide to rotate the screen, it will take you back up to the top of the page. This is so irritating when you are reading something lengthy that you tend to avoid bothering with reading view at all, which is a shame.

Copy and paste quickly ‘forgets’. If I copy some text and then allow my phone screen to timeout, when I come back I find that what I was just about to paste has been deleted from the clipboard.

Live tiles look nice when animating but they take about 7 seconds to actually flip over and show the relevant information, so instead of waiting around you tend to just go straight into the app.

There is a search bar in Internet Explorer. If you begin typing something complicated, and quickly switch to another app to check the spelling, when you return to the search bar it has deleted what you had begun typing.

Progress indicators are non-existent when downloading email attachments. Screenshot: Robert C. Johnston

Progress indicators are non-existent when downloading email attachments. Screenshot: Robert C. Johnston

There is a system wide lack of download progress indicators. If I touch to download an email attachment, it will say “Downloading…”, but there is no progress bar or kB completed/remaining counter. Sometimes the process fails, and you are left there still staring at the unchanged download icon like a chump. Similarly, if I upload something from the photo gallery to OneDrive, good luck checking the progress. In the gallery there is an “Upload Status” menu page, but if something is actually uploading it doesn’t even show up there. You have to go to the OneDrive app to make sure things have actually worked. Oh, but make sure you don’t switch out of OneDrive – chances are the uploads will stop. And sometimes OneDrive will crash so the uploads just won’t work anyway. You constantly have to make sure it’s doing what you told it to – not helpful when you are relying on it.

Static changelogs - Screenshot Robert C. Johnston

This is what you can usually expect from a Windows Phone app store changelog. This particular “What’s new?” has stayed exactly the same despite several updates. Screenshot: Robert C. Johnston

Changelogs. It is possible that the Windows Phone team never went to changelog writing school. In short, when an app or software update is available, many people like to see a list of what has been improved and fixed. In the Windows Phone app store “General fixes and improvements” is the Windows Phone team’s go-to explanation (if they even bother). Often changelogs are non-existent, or they just leave exactly the same content explaining “What’s new” over a number of updates. If you’re lucky, it will actually say what has been modified. But even then the Microsoft apps are inconsistent about where they show this information. Sometimes it is listed in the Details tab and sometimes it’s in the Overview tab. There is no consistency, Microsoft has just left it to users to figure out.

All Windows Phones have a dedicated Search button, to the right of the Start button. The Search button opens up Bing, allowing a web and phone search. The only time I use this button is when I accidentally press it. The reason I don’t use it is simple: Bing seems to operate in its own little world on the phone. Searching the internet with it is fine, but you notice very quickly that the Bing search results don’t allow access to your other tabs or your internet bookmarks. If you open a result it takes you straight into the normal Internet Explorer, and voila there are your tabs and bookmarks. So, if I can’t access my tabs and bookmarks when using Bing Search, and it is going to take me to Internet Explorer anyway once I choose a result, why bother using Bing? I quickly learnt to bypass it and go straight to Internet Explorer. And Microsoft wonders why more people don’t use Bing on their Window Phones. What would be really useful is if you could customise what the Search button does.

Many people like to send photos to other phones and computers by Bluetooth. It is simple, fast, and no-nonsense. At least it should be. On Windows Phone, if you are receiving multiple photos by Bluetooth, you have to accept each one separately as it comes in. You can’t just leave the phone to “accept all” and go and make a cup of tea. If the phone waits too long for you to accept the next photo, it times out – and all of the photos you had already accepted are then automatically deleted.

You cannot save videos or pdfs sent to you as an email attachment. You can open them, and if you’re lucky you might come across a cached version in an app, but you can’t save them in any meaningful place where you can easily access them as you want to.

You cannot edit the text of a forwarded email. This is a severe limitation in a business context.

If you are working between multiple tabs in Internet Explorer, it can be very confusing switching between them. This is because Windows Phone automatically moves the selected tab to the top of the list. If you are rapidly switching between many tabs their position in the list is constantly changing and they are hard to keep track of. Most human brains are probably wired to more easily memorise the constant position of something in a list, rather than have that list constantly changing order.

App permission toggles. Windows Phone has long had a privacy flaw where if you want to install an app, you have to first let it have full access to whatever it is asking. It is easy enough to decide against installing a flashlight app that dubiously wants access to your contacts list or photos library, but many people don’t even check. And sometimes you really want to use certain simple parts of an app but you just don’t want to give it blanket permission to the other parts of your phone you just don’t need it to see. Having app permission toggles would give privacy-conscious users peace of mind about installing more apps. Now, Microsoft did release an Insider Preview of a new Windows Phone 8.1 update that allowed app permission toggles (and also included the very handy features of being able to pin individual settings to the Start screen and also use Bluetooth keyboards), but they cancelled the update and only a few customers ever got it – just another example of Microsoft stringing along Windows Phone users.

Photography. Microsoft has failed to capitalise on the early gift of a niche market – photographers. When the Nokia Lumia 1020 was released, its 41 megapixel sensor and PureView downscaling technique generated substantial hype. It could take exceptionally crisp photos. Before mine accidentally fell onto concrete, people would ask me, “Hey, isn’t that the Lumia with the amazing 41 megapixel sensor?” Even a National Geographic photographer went on an expedition using only the Lumia 1020. But Nokia and later Microsoft failed to pick up the ball and run with it, and two years later their photographic apps remain fragmented and fiddly, with very little improvement to some poor design choices. The Lumia Panorama app, for example, remains one of the worst on the market.

The Lumia 1020 with 41 megapixel camera sensor. Photo: Microsoft website

The Lumia 1020 with 41 megapixel camera sensor. Photo: Microsoft website

Let’s look at just a few of the ways Microsoft has failed to capitalise on having access to the best smartphone camera sensors:

Photos opened with the photo gallery are blurry. My Lumia 930 has a 1080p High Definition display. Photos should “pop” and look crisp. But the Windows Phone photo gallery – in a holdover from the early days of single core lower resolution Windows Phone 7 devices – automatically downgrades images in order to allow smooth navigation. Now, I should mention that there is a way to view a photo in all its crispness – you can access it directly from the camera roll when using Lumia Camera. But this only works for photos taken on the phone itself, and good luck if the photo you want to see was from a while back – you’ll be scrolling backwards till the cows come home. It’s just not very satisfying if you quickly want to show a photo at its best to a client or friend. I considered using Skype for Windows Phone to share photos with family and friends in all their full resolution glorious crispness, but even Skype downgrades the photo quality.

This is a screenshot of the exact same photo zoomed in, as displayed in the Windows Phone photo gallery viewer (left) and a third-party viewer (right). Photo and screenshot: Robert C. Johnston

This is a screenshot of the exact same photo zoomed in, as displayed in the Windows Phone photo gallery viewer (left) and a third-party viewer (right). Photo and screenshot: Robert C. Johnston

In Lumia Creative Studio, cropping a photo between portrait and landscape orientation (something you’d think would be straightforward) is an unnecessarily fiddly process involving multiple steps. This is because certain aspect ratios are oddly not available in both portrait and landscape mode. For example, to crop a landscape photo as a 16:9 portrait, you have to first rotate the original photo sideways, crop it, save it as a new photo, reopen that new photo, rotate it back the right way, then resave it. Great thinking to whoever signed off on that decision.

There is no EXIF data available in the photo gallery. If you are working with multiple photos that look very similar, it makes it very hard to quickly check and choose between them. Just because iPhone doesn’t show EXIF data in the stock photo gallery, doesn’t mean other phones shouldn’t bother – it has always been one of the biggest drawbacks of the iPhone photos gallery.

A great feature on Windows Phone 8.1 is Rich Capture. It is similar to HDR, in that it takes multiple photos in rapid succession at different exposure levels and then combines them into one evenly exposed photo. The feature works well. But once you have taken the photo, there is no way to access it again from the photo gallery. The only way to get to that photo is to swipe backwards through the camera roll. So basically, unless you edit it quickly, you’ll probably never bother trying to again – unless your hobby is swiping.

~

The unintuitive design decisions and persistent bugs noted above might make one question whether or not Microsoft execs themselves actually use Windows Phone. They are not hard to fix. While some decisions were originally made by Nokia, most of what is listed above are inherent to the Windows Phone software itself – designed from the outset by Microsoft. Not enough thought has gone into how customers actually want to use their phone. If only someone in a decision making capacity would play with the phone and say, “Wait – this or that is counter-intuitive, let’s quickly tweak it and make it as useful as we can.”

Microsoft will soon have a new opportunity to win over mobile users with the release of Windows 10 Mobile. Many of the problems listed above may be overcome simply because with Microsoft’s new “unified experience” strategy a lot of code is being rewritten and certain apps may be completely replaced.

There will be new flagship devices announced, running the brand new operating system. But hopefully Microsoft has learnt from their Windows Phone experiment that a half-baked attempt will just not make the cut. If not, they will only have their own decision makers to blame.

Thankfully, Microsoft appears to have finally realised that a never-ending slew of all too similar budget and mid-range phones is not the way to go, and we can hopefully expect a more consolidated, easy to distinguish product range. If they announce a new device, it must be ready for sale no later than a month after the event. In the tech world it is so important to strike while the iron is hot – one of Nokia’s biggest mistakes was to announce a phone and then not have it available for sale until many months had passed. By the time the phone was available, would-be buyers had already started looking towards the next big announcement.

Details have leaked of a possible successor to the Lumia 930 that will soon be announced. Unfortunately, my first response was, “meh”. It is tempting for my eyes to wander towards other options – Sony has just released the first Android smartphone with a 4K resolution display, and its camera app has been completely redesigned. And Apple’s new iPhone 6s is a solid choice. But if Microsoft suddenly pulls one out of its hat and announces a true successor to the Lumia 1020 (with a camera sensor at least as capable, a QHD screen, expandable storage, updated RAM and processor, and an evolved camera app), then I will be excited. There have been hints that this might still be on the cards.

The Sony Xperia Z5 Platinum Android phone has a 4K resolution display. Photo: Sony website

The Sony Xperia Z5 Platinum Android phone has a 4K resolution display. Photo: Sony website

Certain things about Windows 10 Mobile show real potential. “Continuum” is a new feature that will allow a phone to essentially act as the brain of a PC. It could then be attached to future easily portable accessories that combine a larger display, extra battery, and keyboard. As a writer this is something I would find extremely useful. But its success will depend on Microsoft’s pricing of such an accessory. If it is going to cost as much as a Microsoft Surface 3, for example, what’s the point?

Continuum for Windows 10 Mobile.

Continuum for Windows 10 Mobile.

When it comes down to it, consumers want their phone to be intuitive and to help them, they don’t want it to present obstacles. They want it to be simple but include advanced options in the settings that they can customise if they desire. Will Microsoft effectively market their new devices and software? Will they iron out bugs and quickly overcome unhelpful limitations? Time will tell.

In the grand scheme of things all the ones and zeros that make up a personal digital device really aren’t important compared to the other things in this world such as looking out for one another. But if something that has for better or for worse become such a big part of our lives can be quite simply made more useable, more intuitive, more secure, and more useful as a tool – then why not do it?

As a Windows Phone user, what do you want to see improved for Windows 10 Mobile?

Comment on Twitter @johnstonrobertc

 

Comments are closed.

Post Navigation