After a crummy end to my Blackberry trial I’m eager to get into something new again. Before the days of Android and iPhone there were two big players in “PDAs” (note: not smart phones) Palm and Microsoft. Palm, sadly, is gone (I would have loved to do a week with a Pre) and “Windows Mobile 6.5” which is a completely different OS than Windows Phone 7. I found this complete rewrite move by Microsoft particularly odd – everyone knows that for a mobile OS platform to be succuessful you need two things: users and developers. WinMo6 had both of these – hell I had a working RealVNC client on my WinMo 6.5 device (guess what software doesn’t exist for WinPhone7: RealVNC!). I think it sucks that MS decided to basically crap on their developer base just to relaunch a new platform – traditionally Microsoft has been great at ensuring old versions working on new OSes (hell, you can run DOS and Windows 3.1 programs in Windows 7 very easily).
Anyways, on to the device. Sadly, I’m not testing the new Nokia Lumina device, it’s the older Windows Phone 7 (henceforth: WP7) device the HTC HD7.
Setup is super super basic. A wizard walks you though 4 or 5 steps, the last one being sign into your Windows Live (aka “Hotmail”) account. It then drops you right to the homescreen and marks a text message for you that reads “Don’t miss our 5 hot tips and a video for getting the most from your new phone.” and gives you the URL for Windows Phone 7. Sadly, the website requires Silverlight to work and since I’m on Linux as my primary desktop, that ain’t happening (Silverlight is pretty much Windows only). I’ll check it again when I’m on my Windows gaming PC.
The home screen is very basic and is styled in the “Metro UI” way that matches the Xbox 360 interface and presumably the new Windows 8 UI coming out this fall. It’s simple, readable and a pretty nice UI in general.
Annoyingly it added my whole Hotmail address book, since my Hotmail account is from well before Microsoft even owned Hotmail there is a ton of people I’ve only ever contacted once, including a whole bunch of people who appear to only be listed by email. This is super mega annoying – Google Plus did this with my Android device too. I find it hard to believe that developers thought this would be a good idea “Lets load up their mobile phone with the contact information for every person they’ve ever emailed – that will be super useful for them” – it’s not – it’s annoying to have to scroll through 600 email addresses to find one of the 10 people who I actually call using a phone. It allows you to filter by service – so after adding my Facebook, Twitter, Google and LinkedIn accounts my address book was ridiculously full with duplicates, email addresses, and people I’ve never met (so basically: useless). I am able to filter by service, but not deeper, so even though I have a contract group in my gmail account called “Phone contacts” (that Android uses to populate my address book with people who I actually want to contact with my mobile), I either have to have all of my Gmail contacts on (AKA: every person I’ve ever emailed there) or not on at all. So dispite having added all my accounts … my address book remains empty.
“HTC Hub” is prominently featured on my “start page”, however so far as I can tell it’s a clock with some really really nice animations and links to apps on the Windows Marketplace – basically all kinds of useless – I removed it.
The “Me” box on my start page is awesome. It shows me the notifications for all the services I’m subscribed to – very cool. I’ll play with it more and write more about this later.
Equally cool is the “Xbox Live” tab that shows my Xbox Live avatar – tapping it brings me to a mini-Xbox Live interface. I can message my friends who are on Xbox Live, change around my avatar and download games (big name mobile titles like Fruit Ninja and Angry Birds). Again, I’m going to play with this more before I elaborate on it – as an Xbox Live user I have high hopes.
Thus far I’m mostly impressed. The UI is very very impressive, more so than Android and iOS – some of the big swooping animations might become tiresome after a while but right now I’m really liking them.
The integration is strong if you embrace the Zune way. Microsoft has tied all their platforms together so nicely – Windows 8 is going to be the center piece. The music experience in Windows Phone 7 is unique, it’s all based on the Zune. Despite the bad rap the Zune got, the software in it’s current form is not bad, it’s actually kind of alright, bureaucratic but alright. I knew this from having downloaded The Guild to watch on Xbox 360 – you have to use the ‘Zune Marketplace’ app on the Xbox 360. Those episodes of the guild I ‘bought’ (for free) are already available streaming to the Windows Phone 7, and to the Windows Zune software. Very neat if you choose to embrace a content provider instead of maintaining your own collection.
I have a big music collection and I download music that I like. Recently however I’ve found myself using Grooveshark quite a bit because you can add songs from Groveshark to Clementine playlists and so I never end up actually downloading them to add into my locally stored collection. Cloud hosted stuff is getting so easy to use it’s going to be hard not to use it.
Microsoft provides lots of cloud services, not a only a music subscription service similar to Grooveshark “Zune”, but also a cloud storage service similar to Dropbox called “SkyDrive”.
The music subscription is $10 a month for unlimited ‘downloads’ (DRM’d WMA files – you can ‘buy’ the mp3s separately, that’s not covered by the subscription), but there’s a 14 day trial I’m using. I literally just downloaded ~300 songs and added my existing Music folder in 6 or 7 clicks, and it’s all available to the Xbox too! It’s a very nice experience, but you can’t really have it unless you decide to go full Microsoft – which is smart of them I guess, but kinda bad for consumers. I wish I could access the music on other non-Microsoft devices, I’d probably pay the $10 a month for it.
Since there’s no Dropbox app for Windows Phone 7, and since I already have a “Windows Live” account I don’t plan on ending, I have 7GB of free storage on SkyDrive. I did something I wasn’t sure would work and put my SkyDrive watched folder inside my Dropbox watched folder. The world did not end and it actually works really well. As for other OS support, you can get SkyDrive working in other OSes using even more proprietary software, but there doesn’t seem to be a native client for Linux, or Android (but yes on iOS and OSX interestingly enough).
I also want to talk about the Office integration, but I’m going to try and get that all connected with my work’s Exchange server (because there’s some more magic to be seen there when you integrate).
I’ve had to surrender the Windows Phone back to my work, this weekend they rolled out a major update that required them to test everything (including their WinPhone7 app). No problem, in the meantime I figured I’d keep enjoying my Zune Unlimited subscription. I was wrong. I really want to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt, but in all my life dealing with Microsoft products, none have been problem free. From Windows Blue Screens, to Xbox Red Rings, I am hardly surprised that when I go to make “smart playlist” in the Zune software it just outright crashes. Tried all the standard: uninstall-reinstall, Google for fixes, re-download older version (which then automatically updates itself). I just cannot get it to work, which is sad, because as I had said before the Zune music is actually pretty good. What pisses me off the most is that it’s so consistant – it would be one thing if it randomly crashed or I couldn’t pin-point a cause – but this is so clear-cut: anytime I try to access anything to do with the Zune marketplace the Zune app crashes. So super weak.
Speaking of weak, the Xbox interface for Zune blows. You can’t play Zune music outside of the Zune app. On Xbox 360 you’re given the option to play music off of a USB device or over your network – you can even play music while you’re playing video games (very cool). However you can’t do this with Zune music – you have to be inside the crappy ‘Xbox 360 Zune Marketplace’ app.
I am really disappointed. Everything was working great and I was damn near ready to jump Linux ship to become a full time Microsoft fanboy (kidding! kidding! I was really impressed at everything though – this experience destroyed that impression though). I would have seriously recommended it to friends and family – but I can’t now – knowing that at any point in time the software could just blow up in their faces with no rhyme, reason, or method to repair it. Way to blow it Microsoft. Here’s hoping Windows 8 isn’t another Windows Vista… but if Microsoft’s OS release history tells us anything, Windows 8 is due to be another Windows ME or Windows Vista.
Development on Windows Phone 7
I am not going to be doing development on Windows Phone 7. I cannot afford the development tools. All the “development kits” are free, sure, but the thing that those “kits” plug into: Microsoft Visual Studio, is about $500. No way am I shelling that out just to play. Sorry Microsoft, your propriety rues the day again.