Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Will Windows 7 Phone Be Awesome?

I hope so. Android is falling short of the mark and I'm not sure that the consortium model is capable of producing something better than decent. It's like design-by-committee on a grand scale. But if anybody has the horsepower for a come-from-behind win in the mobile space, it's Microsoft, their previous horrible mobile products notwithstanding.

When you think about the installed base of both Windows and Visual Studio developer tools that will be used to create apps for Windows phones, it's almost embarrassing that Microsoft hasn't done better in this space. Last time I checked, WinMo was down to something like less than 3% of the smart phone market share. Ouch.

But, there's hope on the horizon, it seems. Although the name needs some work, Windows 7 Phone Series looks to have been completely rethunk from the ground up. It doesn't look like Windows (even Windows 7). Gone is the Start Menu and process monitor. Gone are the Windows-style menus. No longer are they trying to take Windows and stick it on a phone. Maybe.

Jesus Diaz of Gizmodo is already declaring the yet-unreleased phone to be better than the iPhone. Of course, a recommendation from the usually-wrong Diaz is about as meaningful as a plug from Rob Enderle. But despite the fact that there's typical Microsoft best-blog-posts-money-can-buy FUD already showing up, there just may be something here. It certainly looks to be a huge step in the right direction at the very least.

I was impressed enough to check out the demo.

Screen shot 2010-02-16 at 9.30.47 AM.png


Well, it looks rather iPhone-ish. The corners look a little sharp, and they've committed the same sin as the Nexus one by putting a fricking hardware back button at the bottom. The concept of "back" is context sensitive and not always appropriate, so doesn't belong in a hardware button. Plus, there's some other button whose purpose fails to jump out at me. Perhaps someone at Bletchly Park might have been able to divine the button's purpose, but I doubt it will jump out at the average phone user. Overall, though, it's not a bad concept drawing. It is just a drawing, though, so can't tell too much about the actual hardware. But we can tell a fair bit about the software, so let's look at that.

The first thing that jumped out at me is that they cut off February on the welcome scren. WTF? Is this some stupid attempt to be avante garde, or did they just not fucking notice? Attention to detail counts, remember? Despite the protestations of certain geeks, the iPhone isn't popular because it's elitist or avante garde. In fact, it's quite the opposite. It's popular because it's easy and fun to use. You can't compete by copying the superficialities, even if you are the 800 pound gorilla of the tech world.

But, we're months from release, so I'll cut them a little slack on that one. The next thing I notice - the status bar? Yeah, it's invisible. Which means that the desktop picture shows through behind the status icons. That means the user is responsible for picking a background image that's dark enough for the status bar icons to be legible. Don't leave shit like that to the user, they're bound to screw it up and blame it on you.

The thing that has Diaz's panties all in a bunch is the task-oriented workflow:

Screen shot 2010-02-16 at 9.47.13 AM.png


I don't get the fascination here. This isn't revolutionary. In fact, these are conceptually muddy buttons. They aren't distinct, and they don't accurately represent the things that a user is going to want to do. Why is Outlook a task rather than an application. It is just an application. Shouldn't it be "E-mail"? And why are Phone and People separate tasks? Who, exactly, are you going to call if not people? And what are you going to do with people if not call, text, or e-mail them? The concept of task-driven may be good, but this implementation of it seems shallow.

I applaud the desire to think differently and do something new, but it's not working here. I can almost visualize the meetings that resulted in this. Some manager from the Outlook group or marketing group insisted that e-mail be re-named Outlook for brand identity or simple ego issues. The Microsoft design-by-committee process is broken. Maybe less broken than it once was, but still broken. It takes good ideas from smart designers and engineers, chews them up, and spit them out as crap. Hopefully pretty crap, but still crap.

But, the Windows 7 Series Phone also has an application-centric view, just like the iPhone! Um, yeah. Great.
Screen shot 2010-02-16 at 10.04.13 AM.png

So, what's next? Ah, yes. Animations. Watch for a second before continuing on.

Okay, so we have eye candy at the press of the button on the main page that causes all the items to animate away. That's kinda cool, but why? What is the purpose? People often accuse Apple of having unnecessary eye candy, but if you look at it, you'll realize that most of it acts as powerful visual feedback. It's usually there to tell you something you might not otherwise notice. In this case, I guess you could argue that it tells you that you've moved to a new page, but that's not really something a user is bound to miss. I can forgive this one as showing off, though. These animations are hard to do right on a mobile phone, so I'll cut them a little slack for wanting to show what they can do in a demo.

But look at the keyboard animation. They take a second to fly in all the individual rows of keys to the keyboard. The first time, you're going to go "Cool!", every other time you're going to say "hurry the fuck up". Animations should never interfere with the user doing the natural thing they want to do. When I tap a text field, I expect to be able to type. Since this screen exists only to let the user search, why isn't the keyboard already being shown when I navigate there? Why do I even need to tap in the text field since it's the only control on the page? Oh, so Microsoft can show off their animations. No. You don't get it, Microsoft. It's not about you. It's about your user. Until you get that, your products will not be as good as they can be.

It's great that the Windows 7 Phone will have the infrastructure to do (hopefully GPU-powered) animations. It really is. Core Animation is the unsung hero of the iPhone's success from a technical standpoint. But it's nothing if not used right. Microsoft's UX team needs to get over the novelty of being able to animate and use the power to do so intelligently. Microsoft is using animation in this demo the way 90% of web designers used bevels and drop shadows in the 1990s, and that's not a compliment.

I know I'm coming across negative, but there's an awful lot of potential in this demo. There's the kernel of a truly remarkable mobile OS here, but you can already see how the design-by-committee is chewing on it.

Microsoft already has a base of developers who will jump on the platform if it's good, and quite a few consumers who will consider it if it's even in the same ballpark as the iPhone in terms of capability and functionality. Perhaps they realize they can shoot for mediocre and do a lot of advertising and FUD and show a profit. I'd really rather they did something truly great.

As it stands right now, I'm not betting on the Windows 7 Phone Series. But… here's my plea to the Microsoft designers and engineers: don't let stupid management decisions screw up what could be a great phone. At Apple, good design and engineering gets pushed and pushed hard from the top down. You don't have that luxury. Your "top" is filled with mediocre management types and your world is filled with bureaucratic in-fighting.

If you want to deliver a great phone, it needs to come from a ground-up revolution. Stick to your guns and fight against stupid decisions. Fight against marketing people making engineering and design decisions. Fight against the rush to get the damn thing out the door fast rather than right. Fight to prove me wrong. Please. You've got the ground floor of something awesome here, but it looks to me like your trajectory is set to completely miss awesome.

Please. Prove me wrong.

P.S. Here's a plea to Microsoft management involved with the phone. Let your people do their fucking jobs and stop second guessing their decisions. Your job should be to protect them from politics, infighting, and other forms of stupidity, not participate in it. Yes, it's a hard job, which is why you get paid more than them.



27 comments:

Michael said...

Thank goodness for you Jeff. Seriously, I couldn't bare to read anymore gushing hype about how ground breaking Series 7 is!

warmi said...

Well, Micheal that's because you are an Apple groupie :-)

WM 7 looks very nice and with this release hopefully WM based hardware vendors will finally stop creating their own awful shells on top the default OS.

Michael said...

Yes don't get me wrong it does look good. I was just pleased to finally read a considered piece!

Kevin said...

The People makes sense if you understand what Microsoft is trying to do lately. See the Facebook icon as part of People? People is going to be just that, People. It isn't going to be just phone contacts.

Microsft has been creating merged lists like this. On the Xbox if you sign into Messenger your Messenger friends get added into the the Xbox friends list. All you see is a large list of friends with an icon next to their name indicating where they are from (Live or Messenger).

Of course it is going to be Outlook instead of Email. Microsoft will want to push Outlook, similar to how Apple pushed Safari on the iPhone. Microsoft is going to want you to use their email client just as Apple wants you to use their web browser.

What I don't like is the insanely large font that goes off the screen. When they updated the Zune software to a large font it then required you to scroll the main menu to see all the options. The original software worked well, no scrolling required.

slakr said...

I will give Microsoft the concept of aggregating content about contacts. It is not my cup of tea, but I can see how it is going to be increasingly important to bring, for instance, a contact's Facebook status into the address book.

That said, it is probably going to be a long time before batteries can keep up with that kind of constant network usage behind the scenes.

Also, this picture is ridiculous.

Like Jeff, I just do not understand the concept of running text off of the screen. And, Jeff, it's not a mistake. Look at the Zune. They are doing it on purpose.

K. A. Barber said...

Here is my plea to M$ with this thing.....

Lower the price of real Visual Studio and get the new mobile 7 sdk mature and in the hands of developers so ISV's can start innovating in places you can't or don't care to. I know that Visual Studio is a money maker but make an exception here so your mobile platform can grow.

Daniel Imfeld said...

I don't see what's so confusing about the third hardware button on the phone. It's clearly a lollipop.

Mostly Torn said...

Hi Jeff,

One minor correction: It's called "Windows Phone 7 Series", not "Windows 7 Series Phone."

Not that either one isn't a god-awful name.

Cheers.

MattBD said...

Despite a litte digging I haven't been able to find anything about an SDK. But Microsoft would probably be well-advised to not tie it to Visual Studio, since this would raise the bar considerably to the kind of hobbyist developers that produce many of the apps popular on other mobile platforms.

I personally think that the .NET framework is a great idea (at least in principle) as it gives developers a lot of flexibility in terms of how they develop applications, and Visual Studio Express Edition is a really great tool for novice programmers. If it's possible to use the XNA framework and Visual C# Express to write games for Windows Mobile 7 as it is for the XBox 360 and Zune, then that could be very significant.

Hao MoMo said...

I think it is worthwhile to clear up the naming. It is Windows Phone 7 series, not Windows 7 Phone series. Of course no wonder it does not look like Windows 7. :p

clmotl said...

"And why are Phone and People separate tasks?"

They're separate on the iPhone too - Phone and Contacts. Maybe I'm just not understanding why that's a problem.

Vyas Bharghava said...

I am surprised no one mentioned Silverlight here...
.Net CE is a relic from Windows CE era... Silverlight 4 on the other hand pretty much wins hands down on this OS! Now that SL 4 is a subset of larger .Net framework and running the same app OOB on PC! iPhone and Apple has some serious competition coming their way!

I am super excited for one!

Vyas Bharghava said...

BTW, that was posted from my iPhone :)

soch said...

Wow, what a different reading experience from your book. Anyways, I found this article interesting and at the same time biased. I hope the MS potential is proven right.

DJ Bouche said...

Silverlight would be good, and I have high expectations of them including it (if not revolving around it).

The thing that bothers me most about the "Hubs" is that the big titles at the top scroll with it which make them look stupid on the second page, and also the tiny part cut preview of the next page on the right also bothers me somewhat.. it's almost as if you're browsing a web page horizontally

Eddy said...

"When I tap a text field, I expect to be able to type. Since this screen exists only to let the user search, why isn't the keyboard already being shown when I navigate there? Why do I even need to tap in the text field since it's the only control on the page? "

May be Bing is not just only about search, it's about the digital wall paper experience that encourages exploring... the random wallpaper.

The Google app on iphone doesn't preload the keyboard neither.

ebadger said...

Windows phone seven series is amazing. It seems Microsoft has really aligned behind mobile finally! I can also say that quality is something that is being pushed top down and that the management team is top notch.

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Thibault said...

I have to admit that I too was at first taken away by the UI presentation of Windows 7 Phone. I'm most familiar with designing for paper and thus I don't design for user interaction in the way that mobile phone interface designers do.

Windows 7 Phone UI, as presented simply on a webpage where I cannot interact with it looks beautiful. But, as you Jeff have pointed out, there are a lot of deficiencies in it as a UI for a mobile device. The fonts, for one, take up way too much space for such a small screen. Sure, if your mobile device is the size of a jumbotron, then you can have such big fonts.

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