Alvin Soon's Blog

Alvin Soon male Associate Features Editor

I like coffee and cameras, but not together.

The Case of the (Not-So) Missing WP7 Apps

After being called out (and rightly so) for not giving Windows Phone 7 apps a fair try, I went back and lived another week with the OS, this time with apps recommended by our HardwareZone WP7 community. Have my opinions changed?

The Good

I still love how integrated Windows Phone 7 is. It lets me message my friends with integrated threads, even if they switch clients from SMS to Windows Live to Facebook Chat. I love how the Live Tiles update with new and relevant information. I love how Groups lets you group contacts into a Live Tile - I caught a last minute email from my dad only because I saw my family Live Tile update. I still love how coherent and elegant the entire operating system looks - especially considering that it came from Microsoft, a company not known for having beautiful design.

I discovered that there's two healthy to-do apps for GTD (Getting Things Done, a productivity workflow developed by David Allen) aficionados like myself: CleverToDo and GoGetter. I originally liked GoGetter's tiled home page, which reflects Windows Phone 7's Start page, but I couldn't get over the silly penguin logo (which they've since changed). I went with CleverToDo, which had a great updating Live Tile with a list of today's tasks.

CleverToDo is good enough that I could live with it as my trusted system if I ever switched to WP7, but it'd be a stretch to compare it with Omnifocus which I use on iOS. But then CleverToDo is US$4.99 while Omnifocus is US$19.99, so it'd be an unfair comparison as well.

The Bad

In general, I found that the few Windows Phone 7 apps I tried lacked the fit and finish typically found in iOS apps. Whatsapp for WP7 was buggier, it crashed a few times on me during my day to day use. Facebook for WP7 wasn't as rich as Facebook for iOS, although I have to say much of that was due to the massive upgrade the iOS Facebook app recently received (link points to the iPad upgrade, but many of the same upgrades found themselves into the iPhone app). Stacks for WP7 was a good replacement but not as great as the original Instapaper for iOS. Podcasts was also a good replacement podcast player for the Music app on iOS, but why did they have to make the icon and timeline so small?

But the real challenge for Windows Phone 7, I think, is how the OS' UI hasn't been designed to scale. If you take a look at the WP7 Start screen and a typical iOS home screen, you can see seven apps at a glance on WP7, 8 if you replace the a long rectangular tile with two smaller square apps. On iOS, you can see 20 apps at a glance, counting the launchbar apps, not counting expandable folders.

You can argue that Windows Phone 7's Live Tiles are better at notifications, and I agree that they are. But it's harder to get to large numbers of apps on WP7, and it's one reason why I think iOS works great as an app machine with phone, while WP7 is great as a phone with apps. Even the entire list of apps, which appear when you swipe to the right on WP7, only shows a total of 10 apps at a glance, and it's a long scroll down if you have a lot of apps installed (please Microsoft, can we have a scroll bar with WP7.6?).

The challenge with a minimalist design is that a fair amount of curation has to be done, since you're trying to do more with less. Live Tiles on the Start page are amazing for the amount of information they can convey in a small space, but if you try to add too many Tiles the Start page gets really long, really fast. A long, single column list looks pleasing and uncluttered, until you fill it up with one too many apps. This problem with scaling is something that Microsoft will have to tackle, and I look forward to how they solve it (or even if they think it's a problem).

Lessons Learned as a (Short) Windows Phone 7 User

It's more than uneven to compare Windows Phone 7's ecosystem, which has over 35,000 apps, with Apple's App Store, which has more than half a million. But it is what it is, and it's likely something a user will consider when shopping for a new phone.

For my part, I still find the selection of apps wanting but satisfactory after going a second round. For me, WP7's native abilities outshine anything that I can do with apps on the platform, and are strong enough reasons to consider the OS. It really is, as Microsoft's marketing tagline goes, a more social phone, with better notifications.

This experience has also nailed home just how personal not just a phone, but how apps are to people. Even on the same platform, one person's deeply loved app is another's wasted download. We love our apps not just for what they do, but also how they fit into our particular lifestyle. I can't live with Instapaper on iOS, but there are many iOS users who don't feel the same. So whomever wants to transit to another OS platform will have to look for the relevant apps they need to replace, and they won't have the same focus I did when I started using WP7.

Windows Phone 7 holds a lot of promise, but like the sad end of webOS shows, potential isn't enough to guarantee survival in the tough mobile markets. But now that Nokia is finally in the game with WP7 handsets shipping, with the Lumia 800 one of the best-looking mobile phones of the year, perhaps we'll see a stronger push for Windows Phone 7 in 2012.

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