What’s Wrong With the Windows Phone?

on September 12, 2013
Reading Time: 9 minutes

If you read the gadget blogs, especially those run by people who focus primarily on a single company, the overwhelming feeling is that Microsoft should just give up the consumer phone market and let Apple and Android duke it out. After all, what good is trying when you only have 4 percent market share I certainly hope none of these people are teachers.

I’m not here to argue in favor of one operating system over the other, nor am I here to declare my allegiance to any particular flavor. I don’t want any OS to fail. I want competition. How boring would the mobile market be if the only two contenders left were iOS and Android? It wouldn’t benefit anyone.

Instead, I’m going to ask some questions: Why isn’t Windows Phone gaining the traction it needs to thrive in such a cut-throat industry? What’s holding it back and what can be done to fix the problem? And I do want this problem fixed because Windows Phone has a lot to offer and the mobile world would be worse off without it.

How It’s Sold

I performed a little experiment recently which led me to a few carrier stores to see how they pitch phones to customers. I went in with a story, one that isn’t entirely untrue, about how my wife is planning on buying her first smartphone soon (she carries an old school Nokia flip phone) and was looking for some recommendations. I told the sales people she needed:

* Something easy to use
* A decent web browser
* Apps for reading, social media, and watching TV

At the Verizon store, the salesman immediately said, “She’s going to want a Galaxy S4 or a Droid.” I asked why and he said, “She’ll be able to run a ton of apps and the browser’s pretty good.” I asked him about the iPhone and he said it was also great, but she wouldn’t be able to download attachments from the browser. I wasn’t sure why that was such an important feature, but I let it go.

When I asked about Windows Phone, he said, “I love Windows Phone. I really liked it when I had it as my work phone, but there just aren’t enough apps.” From my brief interaction with this gentleman, it sounded like he was pushing Android because he used Android personally, but I wasn’t entirely sure.

At the AT&T store, I spun the same yarn about my wife and the salesman’s first choice this time was the iPhone. Not only that, but he suggested that if this was her first smartphone, she might want to skip the iPhone 5 and just get the 4S. He said it’d have the same great apps and browser, and it was super easy to use.

Once again, I had to ask the sales person for information on Windows Phone and once again, he said he loved it and that it was also very easy to get the hang of, but it lacked a lot of the apps people wanted.

So, two recurring issues I encountered in the carrier stores were:

1. Lack of mention of Windows Phone at all without further prodding from the customer.
2. A lack of apps when compared to the ginormous app stores of iOS and Android.

It was a matter of, “We love it, but we can’t recommend it.”

Advertising

Okay, so carriers aren’t exactly encouraging customers to buy Windows Phone devices. Surely then, a phone that isn’t the iPhone needs solid advertising to propel it forward. What’s fascinating about Microsoft’s Windows Phone ads is that many of them are quite fun and charming, unlike the Surface ads with break-dancing office workers.

The “Really?” ad that first appeared with the launch of Windows Phone 7 made it clear what the OS was all about: getting you your information without the need to open individual apps. It was funny and poignant and told the audience, “Here’s something new and different.”

Then came the celebrity-endorsed commercials featuring Jessica Alba and Gwen Stefani, which featured the entertainers explaining to the audience why they loved their Windows Phones. These ads were what we’d been clamoring for from the likes of Motorola and Samsung, who decided being robots and insulting prospective buyers were the ways into shoppers’ hearts. These new celeb ads demoed the capabilities of Windows Phone, like the Kid Zone, pinning apps to the Start screen, and getting pertinent information via Live Tiles, similar to how Apple’s first ads for the iPhone were essentially 30 second tutorials.

It’s hard to say whether celebrity endorsements matter much these days. Some of the least beloved iPhone ads were the ones where actors like Zooey Deschanel and Samuel L. Jackson used Siri to order soup and make gazpacho. And since many smartphones offer the same basic functions, ads need to show off the “killer features” and leave an impression with viewers, which is where the Siri ads work, but would they have worked just as well with “normal” people?

Enter the “Wedding” and “Perfect Shot” Microsoft/Nokia ads. In the first commercial, feuding guests take verbal and physical shots at one another while defending their respective “tribes” (iOS and Android), all while the Windows Phone-wielding catering staff mock them for their silliness. This commercial didn’t demo any features, but it did make a splash when it first aired and for two good reasons:

1. It was funny.
2. It prominently featured Microsoft’s competitors, Apple and Samsung.

Number two is what confused many. Microsoft/Nokia, already a distant third in the mobile race, were airing an advertisement that clearly displayed devices made by the competition. What made matters worse was the line uttered by the male waiter: “Do you think if they knew about the Nokia Lumia, they’d stop fighting all the time?” The Lumia 920 featured in the ad had been out for almost a year before the commercial aired. If they didn’t already, why would they want to know about a phone that was going to be obsolete in a matter of months?

The Microsoft/Nokia “Perfect Shot” ad for the Lumia 1020 features much of the same cast from the “Wedding” ad and shows off a new, currently available phone. More specifically, it advertises the biggest draw of the device: the 41-megapixel camera and its impressive zoom.

“Perfect Shot” has a similar theme to “Wedding” in that an audience of proud moms, dads, and grandparents are all fighting with one another in order to get a prime view of their kids putting on a play. Again, the ad is chock full of iPhones, iPads, and Galaxies. Perhaps that fact doesn’t matter so much for this commercial, since there’s a clear narrative here: the Lumia 1020’s camera blows all other phone cameras and tablets out of the water.

It seems Microsoft/Nokia are getting a better idea of what advertisements work vs. which ones don’t. Got an amazing feature the other guys lack? Show it off and leave the break-dancing at home. But are these ads working for customers? Based on the growth of the platform over the last year, it’s certainly possible.

Growth

Let’s put the whole “Windows Phone is stagnant” idea to bed. You might not know it from the articles out there, but Windows Phone has grown since Nokia began exclusively making devices for it in 2012. Shipments nearly doubled from Q2 2012 to Q2 2013 and Nokia sold a record 7.4 million Lumia handsets last quarter, a 32% quarter-to-quarter increase in sales. Those aren’t the double-digit numbers of a Samsung or an Apple, but growth is growth and it’s good to see a company actually gaining market share instead of losing it.

What most bloggers tend to forget or ignore is that Nokia (the predominant and almost sole manufacturer of Windows Phones) makes a lot of its money outside the United States. The majority of Nokia’s sales occur in Europe and Asia where the company has held onto a sizable chunk of the market. Last quarter, sales in North America fell by 100,000 units from 600,000 to 500,000, but it will be interesting to see where things fall after the holidays. The Lumia 1020 with its 41-megapixel camera has been hyped up by several prominent bloggers and it’s all but convinced this fearless commentator to switch from iOS to Windows Phone when his contract is up next year.

Yes, that’s right. Pending any major breakthroughs announced between Apple’s iPhone event on September 10 and the end of my contract in the spring, yours truly will be switching to Windows Phone–specifically, to the next iteration of the Lumia 1020. That camera is the killer feature and enough to sway me away from iOS.

I know what you’re thinking. “But Harry, that’s crazy talk and it’s making me uncomfortable. Up is down, black is white, and I’m starting to think Hayden Christensen might not be that bad of an actor.” The world is indeed a scary place, but I was lucky enough to talk to some others who took the Metro-fied leap before me and inquire about their experiences with Windows Phone 8. What I found may shed some light on why the OS isn’t taking off, but why those who use it really love it.

Testimonials

I interviewed several people who use Windows Phone daily about their phones. What do they love? What do they hate? What do they wish they had?

The overwhelming theme I heard was that Windows Phone is a “polished” and “fluid” OS with a coherent, cohesive UX.

Kevin R. says:

“I still really love the flat design – particularly after maturing with Windows Phone 8. And I love the fluidity of live tiles, and that I can get headlines delivered right to my start screen. I also really love that it’s the best of both worlds between iOS and Android. It’s all very tightly controlled and integrated like Apple’s OS, but has a wide range of hardware options like Android.”

While the people I talk to on Twitter write off Live Tiles as a pointless gimmick, those who actually use them on a daily basis see much value in them. Additionally, Windows Phone 8’s “Me” tile, which brings a user’s social media content all under one roof, has gone over surprisingly well.

As Zack W. puts it:

Being able to go to my Me tile and post a quick update to Twitter or FB is really handy, and seeing my social notifications in a single stream is just so damn convenient.

But all is not well in Windows Phone land. There are some serious issues Microsoft needs to work out to appease most users. Zack W once again:

“There are some simple features that I feel are missing (custom alert sounds being one of them). What needs the most work? As a dev, I think it’s gotta be API access to developers. There needs to be more access to OS-level code, and more congruency with the WinRT API on the desktop.”

Zack wasn’t the only one who mentioned Windows on the desktop. Kevin R. noticed a serious schism between Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8:

The way you share content is completely different, each platform has its own gestures for the same function, live tiles animate differently and display differently, selecting text works differently, the way the time and connectivity icons are display is different etc. Even when Windows Phone 8.1 drops the new app killing feature requires a different technique to Windows 8.

Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 may have Metro-style Start screens, but that’s where the similarities end. If Microsoft isn’t going to split Windows 8 into proper tablet and desktop operating systems, it’s going to have to work at unifying the experiences between its mobile and desktop platforms to make adoption easier on users.

Daniel, a third interviewee, rattled off a list of issues plaguing Windows Phone:

I believe OS functionality needs the most work. It’s missing core features and some of the current features need much improvement; the overall impression I get is that many aspects are half-baked. Here are some examples that I can remember off the top of my head:

  1. Push notifications totally disappear after only appearing very briefly, and sometimes only appear after I’ve unlocked the phone and used it for a bit. Also, the banners don’t show enough information.*
  2. Text selection is annoying; I find myself wrestling with it often.
  3. Autocorrect doesn’t correct often enough.
  4. I’ve found that Internet Explorer doesn’t render some websites properly.
  5. Mail shows emails that are in the spam folder in Inbox for my Yahoo Mail account.
    You can’t set a static IP address.

The lack of a proper notification center is a problem that keeps coming up and it’s something Microsoft is allegedly working on for an upcoming update.

Finally, the biggest complaint from sales staff, casual users, and the press is, of course, the lack of apps. But how accurate is that claim? And is it a matter of Windows Phone not having *enough* apps or not having *the right* apps?

Kevin R. thinks the “not enough” claim is bogus:

Windows Phone has some great developers who have brought Vine (6sec) and Instagram (6tag) apps that even official apps would find difficult to improve upon. The biggest issue is immediacy. We get everything too late, often when nobody cares any more. By the time w got Draw Something nobody remembered if even existed. That’s a common tale. And Words With Friends is a slow, buggy iOS app squeezed onto my Lumia.

It’s not a matter of which apps are coming to the platform, but, rather, a matter of *when* and their quality. There are already a number of great photo editing apps, productivity apps, note-taking apps, and games available on the platform, including FlipBoard, Jetpack Joyride, Hulu Plus, and apps from major content publishers like CNN and ABC News.

Obviously, iOS and Android get the best apps first and sometimes exclusively, but that’s not to say Windows Phone is lacking anything substantial. It’s just a matter of looking for the equivalent on the other side.

But none of the problems listed have been horrible enough to prevent these users from sharing the love. When I asked Daniel if he’d recommend Windows Phone to others, he said:

If they disliked iOS/Apple, yes. The kind of person who would benefit from it is someone who wants a fairly basic, but good smartphone.

Zack was even more forthcoming about his feelings:

I absolutely would, and do on a daily basis. If you want a smartphone that has modern style, plenty of speed, and provides a unified experience, no matter which device you choose to own/use, Windows Phone is definitely the platform for you.

The tech press is only too happy to declare Microsoft a failure and its deal with Nokia as a “strategic blunder“, but I’m going to take the optimistic route. I do think there’s room for a third contender and Windows Phone could very well fit that role.

Windows Phone is a platform hindered by poor word of mouth and Microsoft’s lack of updates. However, Nokia’s hardware execution is, in this writer’s opinion, on par with the HTC One and anything coming out of Cupertino. I’m hopeful Nokia will have a positive influence on Microsoft and force the company to take its mobile OS seriously. There’s so much good in there, it’d be a shame to see it disappear.