Windows takes a lot of crap from fanboys, and Apple products do the same, but while our prejudices can be well-founded it’s always worth taking an honest look at the opposition. With its Windows Phone mobile OS, Microsoft has built a very fun and functional platform that in some ways exceeds the user experience of Android and iOS.
Microsoft’s presence on mobile platforms somewhat changes its historical relationship with hardware. In the days when you were a PC person or a Mac person, one advantage of the personal computer was an open hardware standard, allowing not only for custom computer appearance, but easy part interchangeability. Apple, on the other hand, released highly integrated platforms that were much more likely to be replaced than repaired or modified. With smartphones, this advantage for Microsoft no longer exists. Smartphones are integrated platforms and can’t be upgraded in bits and pieces like the PCs of yore. But Microsoft remains a software-centered business, allowing hardware partners like Nokia and HTC to take the lead even as it dabbles in offerings like the Surface tablet and the hugely successful Xbox line.
My first exposure to the future was Microsoft’s Zune HD, a media player without a cellular radio. In 2009, the premium materials used (metal and glass) and the cutting edge-technology (flash storage and capacitative touchscreen) really anticipated the demands of smartphone consumers in 2013. Microsoft’s user interface on the Zune was bold and thoughtful, and has clearly carried over to the new Windows Phone platform. Text is large and clean and represents a highly evolved design sensibility.
But the star of Windows Phone is the new live tile interface, which allows you to customize what you most want to touch and where and how to touch it. You can devote larger areas of the screen to represent more important or more frequently used apps. I am most likely to be taking a picture, so I place the Camera app on the spot where my thumb extends most naturally, and enlarge it so I am more likely to actually select it with a hurried tap. Put your favorite apps where your thumb swings most easily, and when you run out of room scroll down and start over from the center of action. Live tiles can stretch on forever, like an infinite game of hopscotch. And rearranging the placement and sizing of tiles is like modern art (a Mondrian) for the OCD power user.
The quality of Windows Phone might be a moot point in the face of Apple’s and Google’s dominant market positions, but Nokia has engineered a game-changing technology and promised it all, for now, to Microsoft. The 41-megapixel Pro Cam found in Nokia’s Lumia 1020 redefines what a smartphone can and should be capable of. You can read elsewhere about how the technology works, capturing a ton of data and down-sampling it into a stellar 5 megapixel image. In a perverse fashion, Pro Cam proves that megapixels don’t matter: after all, the great quality of the final image is represented in 5 megapixels, not 41. With a big enough sensor you wouldn’t need 41 million crappy, crammed-together photodiodes to make a great 5 megapixel image.
Of course, the image quality of Pro Cam still has limits imposed by its smaller sensor size relative to mirrorless cameras and DSLRs. Noise is higher, and dynamic range is lower. But you run into limitations with larger sensors as well, such as not being able to fit the damn camera in your pocket (with apologies to Sony’s RX100).
There is an old saying, you get what you pay for, and while this adage holds less true in the age of Google, Microsoft is working feverishly to uphold it. And with the Gates Foundation working so progressively to better peoples’ lives through science, it’s hard to feel foolish putting money in Microsoft’s pockets. I switched to the Lumia 1020 from a Nexus 4, and there is so much more in the handset to love. The bulging lens assembly of the Pro Cam adds to the personality and fetish appeal of the phone, and the image stabilization system rattles faintly when you move the phone, which means you could use it to entertain your baby. The 1020 offers more concrete advantages as well, such as a screen that is easily readable in sunlight and excellent battery life that can stretch to 2 days of moderate use.
But user experience is king, and without Microsoft’s live tiles and underlying OS all this technology would be wasted (as it was on Nokia’s 808 PureView, released in 2012 with a Symbian OS). There are still a few drawbacks to Windows phone, such as a trailing app ecosystem, but I downloaded all the software I needed and used on Android without a problem. The 1020 is also a large phone, especially compared to the lilliputian iPhone 5, but it’s not too big by any means. Much respect to Apple and Google, but I’ve touched the future, and I won’t be going back.