Windows Phone 8: So Close, But Yet So Far

After waiting eagerly for a Windows Phone 8 for over a year, this weekend I ended up buying a Samsung Galaxy S3, an Android. While I still believe the Windows 8 Phone interface is superior in many ways to that on either Android or iOS, I just feel like MS dropped the ball on this product. To start with, I will bring up the lack of Apps. This has been the least important argument I've heard against WP 8. While the other two major platforms both boast hundreds of thousands of Apps, I really don't care. The reality is that most of those apps are redundant, different versions of the same thing, or a whole lot of apps that all do the same thing. The number of Apps isn't that important to me, though the quality of them and the presence, or lack thereof, of certain key apps are. And Microsoft does have a lot of nice apps, most of what I could want is there, or is coming soon. But there are a couple of problems. One of the main things I use my phone for is as an eBook reader, and because I have a Barnes and Noble Nook, most of my eBooks are in the nook format. Now Microsoft has a partnership with B&N, but despite that, there is no Nook app for WP8. They say one is coming, they've been saying that for a while now. I'm sure it will show up eventually. But this is something that really gives me pause about putting my faith in MS. The WP8 phone has been in development for well over a year, and yet at the time of its launch on October 29th, a bunch of key apps are still announced as coming soon, some of them not until next year sometime. Apparently MS wanted to be so secretive about the features of WP8 before the launch they refused to share the SDK with most developers ahead of time. So it wasn't until after the official product launch that a lot of people were given access to the tools to build apps for the platform. Not sure if B&N was given early access or not, but the fact that no eReader from them yet exists, I have to wonder what the hold up was. This just seems like a ridiculous way to launch a platform. The big secret features that were announced during launch turned out to be a kid mode where you could let kids play with your phone without them being able to make calls or delete data, and a data sense feature that monitored your data usage and took steps to reduce it. Those were the features that they couldn't let anybody know about, even those that needed to write software for the phone. So while I'm sure most Apps I want/need will eventually be there, I'm not confident in Microsoft's ability to engage the development community to keep up with the other platforms.

Microsoft also engaged in a partnership with Nokia which produced what was to be the flagship WP8 phone, the Nokia Lumina 920. This looked like an awesome phone to me, and it was the one I really wanted, despite the fact that it did not have an expandable memory slot which I think every phone should, but it had 32GB of memory onboard which should be enough. It had probably the best camera of any smartphone on the market, a beautiful and responsive touch screen (that can be used with gloves on – nice feature when you are on a motorcycle or out in the cold) and some of the Nokia exclusive apps that I was really excited about using. Then they went and made that phone only available at AT&T and no other US carrier. Sure there were other Nokia models, but none of them were as good as the 920. As I have had a couple of bad experiences with AT&T in the past and sworn that I will never do business with that company again, that left me unable to buy the phone that I had been planning on getting for the last several months. Not sure where the blame lies with this one, but limiting the availability of your premier product to the one carrier that is generally considered the worst in terms of customer satisfaction seems like a really bad decision. The other premier model, the HTC 8x comes with only 16GB of Memory, and no expansion slot, which brings me to my next point.

There are four main things I want to use my phone for. Email, reading eBooks, listening to podcasts, and listening to music. For the last couple of years I've been using a Zune player for the last two purposes, and I really like it. The Zune software simply worked better than anything else I've used, including iTunes. Despite it being a great product, the Zune Brand never really took off, and Microsoft has retired it. It is being replaced with Xbox Music which will integrate with WP8. I was really excited about this because it would mean I could keep on having the same music/podcast experience I was used to, but I would have one less device to carry around. I was completely wrong. Xbox music was a huge disappointment. It is probably a great service if you listen to mainstream music and stuff that is available in their catalog. If that is the case your music collection is synced in the cloud and available to you everywhere. That is pretty cool, as long as you have an unlimited data plan, a good signal or wi-fi always available, and no desire to play music from your own offline collection. They are really pushing you towards listening to music from the cloud. I get it, that is the way of the future. But I have a good sized music collection, and most of it is not available on Xbox music. I played with this on my PC and was amazed to find that when you try to search for music on your own computer that they show you results from their online music service before stuff you have stored on your own computer (you can turn this off, but in doing so you pretty much lose the ability to search for anything in their music store which seems like a bad choice for them). When I try to play music from my own collection, it is very hard to sort through because Xbox music ignores what genres I have music labeled as and appears to just randomly assign categories. If the music does not exist in their catalog they make best guesses to things such as genre and artist which are usually completely wrong. I cannot believe they would actually do this. Even though I have tagged all the songs correctly, this information is mostly (but not always) ignored. They also have no way to allow me to rate songs in my collection or generate auto playlists based on certain criteria. The icing on the cake though was when Xbox music interrupted me playing my own music which I bought and paid for and stored on my own drive to play me an add. That was really the final straw for me. I just paid $99 for an operating system (I may post another rant about this later) which was now going to act as a platform to market at me. It was clear that I could not use the built in music service that was supposed to simply work across all my devices and computers. I searched the app store, but there was no basic music player available that would let me manage my own music collection. I don't know if this is just because one hasn't been developed yet, or because Microsoft is deciding to follow in Apple's footsteps and restrict you from providing products that compete with theirs.

I have eagerly awaited the Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 launch for months. I really thought MS was finally getting their act together and were going to produce a unified ecosystem that would support my digital life across multiple platforms. Both have left me with a bad taste in my mouth (I might go into the issues with Windows 8 on the PC in another post). There are still things I like about Windows 8. It was an innovative new interface and I think it would be awesome on a phone or tablet. But Microsoft just can't seem to get it right. Windows 7 may end up being their best achievement. It is a nice stable, full-featured OS on which I could run about any program or service I wanted. It was what pulled me away from Linux and started me down the road to be a MS fanboy. Now though they are trying too hard to become like Apple and creating an ecosystem that they control and can force you to use their apps and do things the way they want. They really could have been a great middle ground between the wide open mess that is Android and the walled and locked down garden which is Apple, but they have decided to throw up some walls topped with barbed wire of their own. I will still have Windows 8 computers in my home because there is no way my wife will switch to linux and I like to game. Right now Windows is the only viable platform for PC gaming. They are also pulling some nice stunts now like making the new DX 11 updates only available on Windows 8 which means in a year or two you will have to run that to play the newest games at their full potential. I'm hopeful that in the next year that may change with companies like Valve rebelling against Microsoft and trying to move their popular Steam service on to linux. I've already removed Windows from one of my computers to be replaced with Kubuntu, and I'm really tempted to do so with my main one, though because I want to keep playing the Secret World, I probably won't. I have moved my email and online docs and storage back to Google Apps and will be using Microsoft products as little as possible from here on out.

So close, but yet so far.