Does Microsoft’s Windows division have a vision anymore?

Am I the only one who thinks Microsoft’s Windows division has no vision? We all know the mess they put themselves in when the premature Windows 8 was released. And then Windows RT was a big failure among hardware manufacturers and caused even more confusion among consumers.

Then came Windows 8.1 that did correct many previous flaws but still faces many challenges. And now Microsoft is about to release a “Windows 8.1 Update 1”. Why not call it 8.2 since this is supposed to be a major update? Some may say this is a bigger update than 8.1.

And Windows Phone is in quite of a mess as well. Microsoft bought Nokia’s mobile division and paid them billions of dollars yet also approached other manufacturers and got a deal with four of them to release Windows Phone devices. Why?

So no one is left making Windows RT devices except Microsoft and we haven’t seen efforts from manufacturers other than Nokia (now Microsoft) in the Windows Phone area for years. Is Microsoft planning on releasing their own Windows RT and Windows Phone devices? Why did Microsoft sign a deal with those hardware manufacturers to make Windows Phones if Nokia owns that market right now?

Lots of unanswered questions in regards to both Windows and Windows Phone which only makes developers hesitate even more before thinking of making apps for those platforms. I can’t even imagine what the average consumer is thinking about when looking at Windows tablets or Windows Phones.

Is Microsoft’s Windows Everywhere becoming a reality?

Some say Microsoft should have taken Windows Phone’s OS and slap it on a tablet instead of taking the current Windows RT approach. And some say Microsoft should scrap Windows RT and use Windows 8 on tablets since RT comes with many restrictions, especially in Desktop mode. And then there are those who think completely outside of the box that came up with a different opinion, an opinion that may highly be true.

Windows RT is a massive milestone for Microsoft. Getting Windows running on ARM based devices is a leap in the future of Windows and computing in general. Microsoft was successful in porting and running Windows on thin and low power sipping hardware, making Windows extremely portable and mobile like never before. That’s what makes Windows RT so unique and of high interest to Microsoft, because we all know that the future (and almost the present) is mobile and touch ready devices.

Microsoft knew, a few years back, that they needed to re-enter the mobile market, but Windows wasn’t mobile and touch friendly at the time (Windows 7) and their Windows Mobile OS was outdated and had almost no market share and even that didn’t fit well as a tablet OS when compared to the competition (iOS and Android). They had to start from scratch, but a difficult decision had to be made.

Microsoft always wanted A “Windows Everywhere” world but knew it would take lots of time and money to make it happen. They had to make a choice:

  1. Assemble a team that worked day and night on a single unified Windows experience on both phones and tablets.
  2. Or, assemble two teams. One team worked on creating a “touch first” interface module for Windows to compete in the tablet market. And, another team worked on a brand new lightweight OS that competes in the smartphone market.

They knew the first option will take much longer to execute since they will be targeting a single OS to two markets; tablets and smartphones. But it will certainly allow developers to code once and release to both platforms as well as have a consistent UI experience across all devices.

The second option seemed more feasible in order to act quickly. Both teams have a specific market audience and requirements, and a quick V1 product can be released once those requirements are met. This way, they would still hit both markets but with the burden of having two mobile operating systems with different APIs. So while the Windows team were working on the new modern interface for Windows 8, another team was working on Windows Phone 7/8.

But the reality is that Microsoft never neglected or forgot about their main goal; Windows Everywhere. A unified OS that targeted all desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones. While Windows 8 was considered the OS for desktops & laptops, Windows RT for tablets and Windows Phone for smartphones, Microsoft (in my opinion) still pursued their main goal internally, and that was the reason why Windows RT was born to be Microsoft’s risky attempt to fulfill their “Windows Everywhere” dream.

What made me come to this realization is a comment I read by a user called cool8man on Mary Jo Foley’s article (title: Why Microsoft isn’t going to dump Windows RT):

RT runs across multiple ARM chips, WP8 only runs on Qualcomm. RT runs almost all Windows 8 apps, WP8 runs no Windows 8 apps. RT runs the full versions of Office, WP8 runs mobile versions. RT has advanced print drivers, WP8 can’t print. RT has IE11 with Flash integrated & unlimited tabs, WP8 has IE10 with no Flash and only 6 tabs. RT has side by side multitasking, [WP8] does not. In a few months RT will have more apps than WP8 despite a 2 year head start for Windows Phone. RT has a full suite of Bing service apps while WP8 has a pared down Bing Hub. RT is already in 8.1 preview while WP8.1 is so far behind schedule it is pushed back to 2014.

Windows RT is already ahead of Windows Phone when it comes to delivering the next OS update as well as compatibility with new hardware and screen sizes/resolutions. While Windows Phone serves its purpose (to run on high and low end smartphones), it still just falls in one single market and therefore will always have its own API and associated maintenance and costs. But Windows RT also works on high and low end hardware, on a spectrum of screen sizes, is able to run all Windows Store apps and apparently it can also run the entire Office suite all while managing to stay running on battery for a full day.

So what does all that mean? It means that Microsoft might have already been working on a plan to merge Windows Phone into Windows RT, and therefore have Windows RT act as the core of Windows running on desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones. Windows RT is the “Windows Everywhere” dream becoming a reality. A consistent and unified OS experience across all devices.

There is another point worth mentioning which may act as further proof that Microsoft is indeed moving in that direction. Windows Store apps have a “snap” view mode, where the app can run on either the left or right side of your screen alongside of another Windows Store app (or even Desktop, which is also considered an “app”). If you look into the dimensions of an app in snap view you would realize that it’s the same required (at least width wise) dimensions for apps to run in Windows Phone. In other words, snap view is the view you’d see if the app was running on a Windows Phone screen. Therefore, if Windows Phone OS was to be replaced by Windows RT, current and future Windows Store apps will most likely be compatible with current and future Windows Phone (or Windows RT) smartphone screens and will adjust accordingly based on how the developer programmed it (this is simply managed by the Visual State Manager in Windows RT’s API).

Of course, having a single OS to rule them all is a massive task for Microsoft and may have sounded as a futuristic concept for the average consumer today, and that alone could have been another reason why Microsoft staged the implementation through several OS iterations that individually targeted different markets. But all I can say today is that the time has come for Microsoft to cleanup and consolidate its current three operating systems and make their “Windows Everywhere” dream a reality.

Bing News app for Windows Phone

Today, Microsoft (or the Bing team) released several Bing apps to the Windows Phone Store that debuted in Windows 8. I installed the Bing News app on my Windows Phone and it certainly looks great and intuitive just like the app on Windows 8. It even has breaking news notifications (in case of any). But there was something that it lacked that disappointed me: sharing.
 
While using the Bing News app in Windows 8, we can easily share an interesting article to Facebook or Twitter by simply activating the charms (Windows + C) and hitting the Share charm (or hit Windows + H). In this case, sharing is built into Windows 8 and it wouldn’t make sense to not use it with a news app, also considering that this is a Microsoft app as well.
 
On Windows Phone, sharing to social networks is also built into the OS, but for some odd reason Microsoft decided not to use it in the app’s first release. It might not sound like a big deal but to me it is. For Microsoft to not make full use of their own platform’s features sends a negative message to developers around the world that are or were interested in developing apps for Windows Phone.
 
Microsoft keeps advertising and educating us on how easy it is make use of these so called ‘contracts’ in the Windows Phone SDK, yet they don’t even use it themselves in their own apps(in this case, the Share contract is used to share stuff on Windows Phone)? If I was the lead in developing that Bing News app I would make sure the app acted like a role model for all developers to take cues from that are interested in developing similar news apps. Also, the simple act of sharing a news article is crucial for an app of that nature that it’s quite shocking that it wasn’t part of the first release.
 
On the other hand, I am happy to see Microsoft making their official apps available on both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 and I am looking forward for more to come (especially a Windows Reading List app for Windows Phone).
 
 

How does Messaging work on Windows 8?

On Windows Phone, I tap on the Messaging tile and from there I can see who’s online, all my previous message threads and an option to change my chat status. So you’d expect the same experience or similar options when you click on the Messaging tile on Windows 8, right? Wrong.

The most important option when it comes to messaging is to see who’s online, which is sadly not present on Windows 8’s Messaging app. In order to see who’s online, you’ll need to open the People app and if you click on an online contact Windows 8 switches you to the Messaging app to chat. So essentially, you’d have to keep flipping back and forth between the Messaging and People apps.

Am I the only one who believes that this messaging workflow is completely flawed?

That being said, and as I mentioned before, the experience and workflows between both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 aren’t always consistent and often confusing even for people trying to use Windows 8 whom already own a Windows Phone.

As much as I like Windows 8’s new modern Start screen, the way I currently see it and from a developer’s point of view, it certainly shows that this was a quick first iteration that Microsoft had to release on launch day. The built-in apps feel like they’re still in beta which further confirms (I hope) the rumor of an upcoming major update that will bring all Microsoft’s Windows platforms closer to one another in terms of features and UI consistency.

What’s the deal with Xbox Music pass on Windows Phone 8?

So let’s assume that at least a million people out there own a Windows Phone 8 smartphone, and let’s also assume that a quarter of them have an Xbox Music pass. Well, most (if not all) of those people are suffering including myself. Apparently, Microsoft seems to have released Windows Phone 8 before it entirely matured cause you simply cannot sync or properly use your Xbox Music pass on it.

Microsoft’s Zune/Xbox Music support representatives keep telling me that in order to fully make use of my Xbox Music pass that I need to use it with the Xbox Music app on Windows 8, and that’s the only way. Whatever music I download on my Windows Phone 8 device doesn’t get synced on the Xbox Music cloud collection and I cannot just simply hookup my phone with Windows 8 and expect all my Xbox Music collection to get synced automatically without any issues (DRM issues specifically).

It’s an ongoing issue that has plagued Windows Phone 8 since its launch. I am hoping that Microsoft is working on a major update for both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 that will enable them to talk ‘better’ with each other.

Bridging the gab between Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8

I hope that Microsoft is working hard on bridging the obvious gab between Windows 8’s modern UI and Windows Phone, especially with the built-in apps. If Microsoft is really after a single consistent experience, when it comes to the user interface, on all their platforms then they still have a lot to work on at least when trying to bridge the gaps.

Here are a few things I’d like to see Microsoft’s Windows and Windows Phone teams working on:

Like Windows 8, Windows Phone also needs a screen rotation lock option.

The same experience we get with Xbox Music & Videos apps on Windows 8 must be consistent on Windows Phone 8. “Music + Videos” app must go.

Windows Phone and Windows 8 are mobile products at heart, which means that IE10 on both of them deserve a reading mode.

Windows Phone’s built-in apps should be updatable from the Windows Phone Store like on Windows 8, including Internet Explorer.

Apps on Windows Phone 8 should install the same way as on Windows 8, they should immediately be pinned to the Start screen.

The super easy way of changing tile sizes on Windows Phone 8 also needs to be implemented in Windows 8. Not sure why this isn’t the case.

Windows Phone’s “Me” tile needs to be added to Windows 8. Having it hidden in the “People” hub doesn’t make sense.

Flickr, PhotoBucket & SmugMug for Windows Phone

Windows Phone’s market share is growing, no doubt about it, and it might be growing faster than you think despite what those pessimistic analysts may have told you. One of the clues that proves this is the fast pace of the platform’s adoption from major companies including those in the image hosting sector.

As of today, users can find Flickr, PhotoBucket and SmugMug apps in the Windows Phone Marketplace. So if you are a user of one of those services and own a Windows Phone, you’ll be glad to know that you are now covered and can start uploading those priceless Kodak moments of your cat.

One of the unique things about Windows Phone is its metro interface that got positive feedback all over the world. That same metro interface experience is used in most of the apps in the Marketplace including the three mentioned in this post. The experience is so delightful and fluid that it almost makes you feel guilty for not uploading photos.

Windows Phone Feature Suggestion

It’s great that Microsoft gave their customers the ability to share their ideas through UserVoice to help improve Windows Phone. But is that enough? Absolutely not.

Microsoft allowed Windows Phone owners to add feature suggestions on the website since the product launched (or maybe a few weeks after) but never really showed us how those features are ever taken into consideration or even being talked about among the Windows Phone development team.

There are feature suggestions on the website that have been at the top of the list for over a year without any indication that they will be added in a future release or that they’re being discussed yet Windows Phone received several updates since it launched without including those items. There is a clear missing link between those feature suggestions and the development team.

Just like Windows 8, the team shows the world how they’re taking customer feedback into their next major release through Twitter, YouTube and even adding many detailed blog posts. Why isn’t Windows Phone following the same approach? In the end, Windows Phone is an operating system that is currently powering more than a million of smartphones today.

All I am saying is that Microsoft can’t just tell people to go and add their ideas on another website and then be completely silent about it. They need to engage and converse closely with their Windows Phone customers just like the Windows team are doing with Windows 8.

Should the mobile industry look for a new USB standard?

I remember when the world turned to micro USB ports as a new standard for cell phones and everyone, including myself, was glad to finally use a standard port. The conversion was quick specially with the cellphone manufacturers and consumers started using a single charger and the world seemed to be a better place.

But now, cellphones aren’t like before. They aren’t dumb phones with small screens that require little power. They are smartphones with larger than 3.7″ screens (now up to 5″ for smartphones and up to 10″ for tablets) and they get charged mostly everyday. Once you start holding your new smartphone to plug it in, you might start seeing a problem.

The micro USB port on your mobile device, whether it’s a smartphone or a tablet, is tiny. Once you’ve connected the cable it might feel loose and most of the times you could hold the micro USB connection while it’s connected to your mobile device and wiggle it from side to side. It’s not a solid snappy connection anymore.

To make my point even clearer, compare the thin micro USB connection with the iPhone’s 30 pin connection. Which one would you think has a better, solid and firm hold to the mobile device? Without any doubt, Apple’s proprietary connection wins this argument.

The problem is that our smartphones and tablets are large these days that they cannot continue using these tiny and flimsy micro USB connections. The industry might have to look for a new USB standard.

Tuesday, August 9 2011

As mush as I love the original concept behind Windows Phone’s start screen, I still have a few things to complain about.

There just seems to be a lot of wasted space on the start screen. You will notice there is a quite spacious black empty space at the top and at the right of the tiles. I understand why the top was left blank (for toast notifications) but it just doesn’t look right with all that space left blank.

The same thing applies to the empty space to the tight of the tiles. It just doesn’t make sense to me to see all that wasted space for displaying an arrow.

I don’t know if you also noticed, but the length of the home screen doesn’t fit the amount of tiles it can display. When you first see the start screen in its default position (scrolled all the way to the top) you will notice that your screen will only show the complete length of 3 tiles with part of the 4th tile covered where you have to scroll to see the rest of it. Even though it’s only a tiny part of it that is covered, that still feels like a flaw in the UI design.

Apart from those three design flaws (in my opinion at least) Windows Phone has proved itself to be the most enjoyable experience you can get on a mobile operating system.