Windows Phone 7 Critics Should Take Time to Actually Use It

Wayne Rash

The vast majority of Windows Phone 7 critics have never seen a Windows Phone 7, let alone used one. Maybe they should, says Wayne Rash

The question of Windows Phone 7’s place in the wireless marketplace has jumped into the foreground with the wide online discussion about a question raised in the blog of Charlie Kindel, a former Microsoft employee and Windows Phone 7 (WP7) evangelist.

Kindel asked why WP7 hasn’t taken off, considering the product is, in his view, superior to the iPhone and especially the Android platform.

Investigative report

I’ve read Kindel’s blog posting and some of the other comments from a variety of sources. I’ve also talked with Nick Kolakowski since he’s eWEEK’s resident Windows Phone 7 expert. But unlike many of the critics of the Windows Phone 7, I decided I owed readers my own, at least a marginally informed, opinion. Since Nick is in the process of putting WP7 through its paces, I decided to try it out for myself.

This is when I discovered one of the first problems that Microsoft has in selling Windows Phone 7 – finding a phone that actually runs it. While several carriers sell WP7 models, finding one in a location where you can try it out and where you can talk to someone who has a clue is easier said than done.

So after a few phone calls, I headed over to the T-Mobile store where they had an operational HTC Radar which runs the Mango update to WP7. Also at the store was one of T-Mobile’s employees, Adela Durmishaj, who it turns out is an expert with WP7.

Durmishaj showed me how the HTC Radar worked and even demonstrated a capability that I haven’t found on other phones – you can scan text in a foreign language and have it translated. When I travel this would be seriously useful. When I tried out the WP7 Radar on my own, I found that while the Hub interface was quite different from the icon grid you find on iOS and Android devices, it’s no less useful and it is in some ways more intuitive.

Now, I realise that spending 20 minutes with a phone isn’t the same thing as a thorough review, but I did have the chance to see the basics of how it works. My initial impression is that the critics of the interface either haven’t tried it, or they’re so set in their ways that their belief system doesn’t allow for a user interface that’s not the icon grid that they’ve become familiar with on iPhone and Android devices.

Community spirit

I think this goes to the basics of why Windows Phone 7 is selling so poorly. There aren’t more sales of WP7 because there haven’t been many sales. This means that there aren’t thousands of users out there showing their phones off to their friends and colleagues and telling them what a cool phone it is.

Since people haven’t been told that it’s cool, they don’t buy it. They don’t even take the time to try the interface. They don’t give it a chance.

This is different from the problem that the iPhone had because people expected the iPhone to be different. Apple had built a reputation for being different; people expected a difference and they were willing to accept the new interface because it was from Apple. Of course, it also had a ton of marketing money behind it, and that helped a lot.

When Android phones came along, the interface was basically the same as on the iPhone. Yes, of course there are important differences, but by then people had come to expect that grid of icons and that made acceptance easy. The fact that Google made Android cheap and accessible and also dumped a ton of marketing money on Android also helped.

Grid housekeeping

That doesn’t mean the screen model has to be that way. BlackBerry, for example, presents its icons as a ribbon across the bottom of the screen. It also gathers the most commonly used apps on one ribbon where they are easy to find. You don’t need a grid of icons for most of what you do.

Windows Phone 7 uses hubs instead of a grid to bring together similar apps and services in a common space. Yes, it’s different from the iPhone and Android devices, but being different doesn’t make it worse.

And this, I think, is where Microsoft ran into trouble. The WP7 phones are hard to find, they aren’t particularly cheap and as a result a lot of people haven’t bothered to look at them, never mind buy one. This means very few people, including the critics, have any idea how they actually work.

If Microsoft and its partners want to get some movement in the WP7 market, they need to get more phones into the hands of more people. It may be that really aggressive pricing is the answer. It may mean that more informative advertising is the answer. It may be a combination of things.

The bottom line is that people aren’t buying the Windows Phone 7 because other people aren’t buying it. It has nothing to do with the quality of the phone or the OS, but rather the lack of social acceptance.