The experiment is almost over. I've been using the HTC 8X running Windows Phone 8 as my primary smartphone for the last six months, but I'm about to give up and put my SIM card back in my old iPhone 4.
There are still things I like about Windows Phone -- particularly its contact manager, which is superb at syncing and de-duplicating contact information from different accounts.
But living with it every day for the last six months has exposed two gaping flaws that I believe Microsoft will have a hard time fixing: First-party services and third-party apps.
The truth about Bing
In case you haven't seen it, Microsoft has this advertising campaign called BingItOn. It invites you to enter queries into a blank page, then delivers two sets of unlabeled results -- one from Bing, one from Google -- and tells you to pick the best one. (I've taken it three times, with perfectly mixed results: Google won once, Bing won once, and there was one tie.)
The point that Microsoft is trying to make -- and has been making in private for a couple years now -- is that on core search, Bing is just as good and often better than Google, and if users weren't biased by the "Google" logo, they wouldn't think its results were any better.
Based on my mobile experience, this is absolutely false. Mobile search is different than desktop search -- it's usually less about doing research or finding general information. It's more immediate, and often more local, geared toward a specific need. And you never want to have to scroll past the initial screen.
Unfortunately, I had so many occasions where the built-in Bing search gave me useless information, I finally downloaded and installed the Google Search app. I found that it consistently delivers better results.
Microsoft and all its fans will scream "that's not true for me!", so I'll offer a few examples where I was frustrated enough to take screenshots. (I've put all screenshots at the end of this post.)
First up, March Madness. I wanted to check in how the games were going, so I entered "NCAA Tournament" into Bing. Those results didn't give me what I wanted, so I tried "NCAA Tournament 2013." The three results above the fold: A tournament schedule, Wikipedia entry, and a travel site. Useless.
Later that night, I entered "NCAA Tournament" into Google and the first result was a news article with a headline noting that Wichita State had knocked off Ohio State. Exactly what I needed to know at that moment.
Case number two: I was wondering how the NBA playoffs were going. Which teams were still in? How close were the Golden State Warriors to getting eliminated? (As you can probably tell, my sports interest is casual. I care enough to check in from time to time, but not enough to follow closely -- except for NFL football, where I'm more of a fanatic.)
Bing showed me an ad for sporting goods (useless), a list of recent scores (a plausible result), and a link to an article about predicting winners for the first round (useless).
Google's top result was the official NBA Playoffs site. Not exactly what I was looking for, but I clicked through to it and found the bracket almost immediately.
The third and final case: My six-year-old daughter was trying to explain something that she learned in school about the "first black woman to sing at the opera" (her words). I figured she was talking about Marian Anderson, the first African-American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. But I couldn't remember Anderson's name, so I searched "first black metropolitan opera."
Bing gave me an ad to buy a ticket to the Metropolitan Opera, a review of a recent performance by Latinospost, and another news piece about a person named Lars Cleveman debuting there. Laughably useless. I had to scroll halfway down the page to see the answer, buried in the text from a site called Wiki Answers.
Google's top result? A headline saying "Marian Anderson performed at the Metropolitan Opera."
(Again, to see screenshots, click here.)
To reiterate, this happened again and again. Movie listings. Local restaurants. Informational searches. Bing wasn't always wrong, but it was consistently mediocre enough that I found myself turning to Google as my default.
It's not just Bing search, either. Bing Maps is equally unreliable -- for instance, I was late to a meeting because when I entered the address "340 Grant Avenue," it couldn't figure out where the address was located and instead sent me to the location for the north end or zero block of Grant Avenue -- about 10 minutes away, in a different neighborhood (North Beach instead of Union Square, if you know San Francisco).
Somebody suggested that I download the Nokia HERE Drive+ app, which is great, but it begs the question: If Microsoft's built-in services for Windows Phone are so poor that I have to download third-party apps for basic functions, then why bother with the platform at all?
Which leads me to the second big drawback....
The missing ecosystem
Microsoft did a fair job getting popular apps like Angry Birds and Evernote on board at the Windows Phone 8 launch. But the world of apps is changing all the time, and for the most part, the action is elsewhere. If you read or hear about a hot new app, and you want to try it to see what all the fuss is about, you probably won't be able to try it out on Windows Phone. That's frustrating.
Vine? I had to borrow my wife's iPhone to see how it worked. All those tweets advertising people's scores on Dots? I couldn't play it and have no idea what it is or how it works. Snapchat, the "disappearing" picture app which is highlighted in Mary Meeker's latest "State of the Internet" report? Nope. Instagram, where the best photographers among my friends share their pics? Still missing.
Peer pressure is not the best reason to choose a mobile platform, but it's a very real one.
Likewise, as I mentioned in my initial impressions of Windows Phone, a lot of the apps available on Windows Phone are subpar. Because of Windows Phone's small audience, developers just don't have enough incentive to make them better.
Case in point: I use an app called MobileMuni to see when the next bus is coming to the stop where I catch it. Every time MUNI -- the San Francisco public transit system -- updates its schedule information, the app has to be updated. Which would be fine, except that it loses all my favorites, and I have to re-enter them all by hand. Every time. For the last six months.
These little glitches are everywhere. Like the word game I used to play on my train ride until I got sick of the way it kept hanging. Or the YouTube app that gives me a random error message when I try to update it. Or the Twitter app that lacks basic features. (Thankfully, the third-party Peregrine app is quite good, and so far hasn't gotten popular enough for Twitter to cut it off.)
You can't build a thriving app ecosystem without a big userbase. You can't build a big userbase without a thriving app ecosystem. This is a chicken-and-egg problem that will take Microsoft years to solve, if it can solve the problem at all.
Lack of attention to detail
In addition to the poor built-in services and lackluster ecosystem, there are a number of other annoyances that keep cropping up, like:
- It's too hard to tell some things apart on the home screen. Windows Phone tiles are an intriguing idea, but some of them don't display enough visual cues for me to find them quickly -- for instance, the calendar is a blank monochrome blob with a little bit of tiny text in it. There's a reason other mobile platforms use icons: They work.
- Exchange amnesia. Twice in the last six months, all the emails in my work account have disappeared. Windows Phone eventually reconnects, but then it reubilds the index from oldest to newest -- meanwhile, I'm missing emails as they come in. This is unacceptable in what has become one of my two primary work devices (and it never happened in several years on my iPhone).
- Cryptic error messages. This is so Microsoft, it's almost comical, but when an application throws up an error, it's often with a cryptic error code like x80105991 (not a real example). You can Google these to figure out what they are. But it's always puzzled me -- if Microsoft has enough knowledge to figure out what went wrong, why can't somebody write an error message in plain English? (That said, it's better than the occasional iPhone error that causes the entire system to hang entirely until you restart the phone.)
- The terrible music experience. I went into this at length in my earlier post -- confusing interface, glitchy playback, poor sound quality -- but it hasn't gotten better in six months. It's so bad, I've continued to use my iPhone like an iPod Touch for the last six months in my car and at the gym. I'm a huge music fan and musician -- this is a core function to me, and I'm sick of using a smartphone that treats it like a "nice to have" add-on.
- The phone itself. This is not Microsoft's fault, but once or twice a week I have somebody tell me that I've faded out during a conversation. Turns out, you have to speak directly into the 8X's microphone -- if you're off even by a slight degree, the sound drops out entirely. This is worse than the poor AT&T connectivity on the iPhone, which caused plenty of staticky connections and dropped calls. (And yes, it's a combination of AT&T and the iPhone -- AT&T has been much better on this phone.)
My conclusion? This platform has a couple fundamental flaws that will be very hard for Microsoft to fix. Combined with these other minor annoyances, it's just not worth the hassle to stick around.
Eventually, I suspect, there won't be enough room for four platforms, and Microsoft will enter some sort of merger or agreement with BlackBerry. The result will be a third mobile platform, geared almost entirely toward information workers, with an emphasis on communication and document sharing. It will do secure email really, really well. And it might get to 10% market share some time in the next decade.
Note that I'm not saying anything about Windows 8 here. Despite Microsoft's efforts to conflate the two, they're quite different -- and I think Windows 8 (or a successor) has a much better chance at long-term relevance than this platform. We may even see Microsoft give up on Windows Phone as a separate platform entirely, and use Windows RT as the basis of a future phone.
Frankly, I'm not looking forward to going back to the iPhone's contact manager. I just connected to Exchange for the first time in six months, and found that it still does a terrible job of de-duplicating information. For instance, I recently met the CIO of a major consumer goods company and created an Outlook contact for him. For unknown reasons, my iPhone has him listed twice -- once under his name, with his email address, and once just as an email address. I'm dreading the hour or two I'll have to spend de-duplicating these entries and removing other glitches. But at least I'll be able to get over the strain with a nice game of Dots, whatever that is.
What about Android? I had a mostly positive experience on the Nexus 7 that Google loaned me last year, and I do use Gmail for my personal email account. Unfortunately, I worry that Google and Microsoft's constant sparring will eventually lead to a subpar experience when connecting to Exchange, which is absolutely vital for my work. I also worry that Google will promote its services at the expense of more popular or better services -- like Google+ over Facebook -- and that there are too many unvetted Android apps. Finally, Android's music experience is, from everything I've seen and heard, nowhere close to Apple's.
For now, I think I'll go back to being a mostly satisfied iPhone customer, with high hopes that iOS 7 -- coming out later this summer -- will fix some of the flaws that keep me from being 100% happy.
After the fold, you can see the screenshots of my Bing and Google searches on Windows Phone.
Case number one -- March Madness. Here's the search for "NCAA Tournament 2013" on Bing:
Here's my search, later that night, for "NCAA Tournament" on Google:
Case number 2: trying to find an NBA bracket. Here are Bing's results for "NBA playoffs":
Here's the Google search conducted at nearly the same time:
The bracket I was looking for was available from the first result:
Case three: trying to remember the name of the first African-American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. Here's what Bing showed me:
Google nailed it: