Engineering Magic

Any science or technology which is sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.
-Arthur C. Clarke
Any technology that is distinguishable from magic is not sufficiently advanced.
-Gregory Benford


Most people don’t want to know how their phone works, they just want it to work.  But much like the difference between David Copperfield and your average kid’s party magician, how well each phone platform pulls off the magic is the question.  The answer depends on which platform you have chosen and how impressed you are when a quarter disappears vs. the Statue of Liberty.  And so we come to our latest installment of my Windows Phone 8 series.  Along the way I intend to beat the “magic” metaphor like a cheap mule and stretch it like Jersey shore salt water taffy.  You have been warned.

In order to understand where Windows Phone 8 is today as a performer, it is important to understand its roots.  While many consider the Windows Phone platform as a whole the next evolutionary step from Microsoft’s original Windows Mobile platform, I am here to tell you it ain’t necessarily so.  Back in the early 2000’s Windows Mobile was the attempt to bring something similar to the desktop experience to mobile devices.  In other words, all of the good AND bad that you lived with on your desktop was present in Windows Mobile.  Sure, this made the operating system reasonably powerful for developers, but for people looking for a simple phone with the ability to handle email and time management Windows Mobile presented a busy, complicated and ultimately confusing system.

So, when Windows Mobile 6 was nearing the end of its lifespan – and with the advent of consumer-friendly mobile systems like Apple’s iOS on the iPhone – Microsoft literally went back to the drawing board to create the successor.  Windows Phone 7 debuted in late October 2010, bringing with it an interesting design metaphor which bridges the gap between iOS with its collection of pages of “dumb” icons (icons which launch applications but which do not on the surface present any information by themselves) and Android where the interface could have anything from those “dumb” icons to full-fledged programs.  Dubbed “Live Tiles”, the interface allowed links to applications, but the developer could choose to provide some level of intelligence with the link where their application could provide basic information about whatever it is the application did.  It was marketed as a “glance and go” approach where you could look at what was happening without having to launch a bunch of programs, and then you could get back to your life.

Cue the crickets.

The response to Windows Phone 7 was underwhelming to say the least.  While the new operating system won some awards for the design metaphor, it gathered many more hit points from reviewers for things like an almost non-existent amount of device security, incredibly bad versions of Office (a Microsoft flagship product, no less) and an abandoned customer base.  The latter came from the fact that the new operating system did not have backwards compatibility with Windows Mobile, and with that Microsoft disenfranchised the very market they had built-in.  That included me.  I was there on day one and was a witness to the train wreck.  After spending years playing with, building applications for and loving on Windows Mobile, I spent a couple of weeks with Windows Phone before I was ready to get back into the mobile device dating pool.

I’m sorry, but it would appear that I have taken a trip to Tolkien land.  Let’s skip forward.  As each successive release of Windows Phone has emerged from Redmond, the operating system seems to have improved.  At the same time, Microsoft seems to have some animosity towards their customers, because with each improvement they managed to get someone in the customer base angry.  Own a Windows Phone 7 device?  Sorry, you won’t be able to upgrade that to Windows Phone 7.5.  Are you a Google person?  Sorry, you’re gonna need to use Bing.  Love those Live Tiles?  Sorry, we’re not going to make developers use them so apps like Twitter and Facebook are really just dumb icons.  Like video chats?  Sorry, I know we own Skype but you should probably go get another app to do that with.

So we arrive at today.  As I mentioned in a previous installment, I am working on a project developing a Windows front end to an exciting online service called Meshfire (check them out – if you have any interest in Twitter or social media as anything more than a vehicle for your thoughts on the jelly donut you had this morning, you should be talking to these guys), so it is time to once again taste the Windows Phone dog food.  I am hoping that Microsoft’s magical skills have progressed far enough that I don’t feel compelled to throw stale birthday cake at them as they attempt to pull a stuffed rabbit from a top hat.

I’ve already told you about my struggles to be entertained by my phone and the state of email, so today I am going to focus on Windows Phone as that – a phone.  I know, old school.  Who talks on the phone these days?  I do, but I also intend on covering texting and multimedia messaging because those functions are intrinsic parts of the smartphone landscape these days.  So, while I am tempted to place the “ado” further I will resist and actually get somewhere near a point.

Making a call on Windows Phone 8 is pretty straight-forward.  Either open the dialer though the Live Tile or open the People Hub and find a contact.  Answering a call?  Not so easy.

On both Android and iOS when a call comes in the phone displays an information screen telling you who is calling.  To answer the call from the handset, simply swipe the screen one way or to ignore, swipe the other way.  Turn the phone face-down to silence the ringer without explicitly rejecting the call.  One step actions.  Nice.

Windows Phone, on the other hand, is a two-step process that I routinely manage to screw up.  When the phone rings I get an information screen that I have to admit is visually appealing, but that is where the praise ends.  In order to take any action on the call, I have to swipe up on the screen to open a collection of buttons, and then I have to press the appropriate button – answer or reject.  While I appreciate the option they add to send an “I’m busy” text message to the caller via another button, I find the “gravity” based swipe needed to open up these options to be troublesome at best.

This is what I mean: I would have hoped that a simple flick of the screen would allow me to expose the call options, but I actually have to swipe a fair portion of the screen to get there.  I had had times in the last week where the beefy appendages at the end of my hands (called fingers) had difficulty making the appropriate swipe and actually caused me to miss calls.  Because we are at the beginning of winter, gloves make that process much worse. 

Another problem is how easy it is to silence the phone.  With my Android device unless I deliberately turned the phone face-down on a solid surface, the phone would continue to ring until the caller went away or I dismissed the call.  I have been reaching into my pocket to pull my Windows Phone out and accidentally pressed the power or volume buttons with the result of silencing the phone.  As soon as the phone goes silent, I wonder if the caller hung up (butt-dialing, anyone?) and tend to put the phone back into my pocket.  An hour or so later I find I have a voicemail from the call I silenced.

Yes, you are right.  If I have a Bluetooth connection to a device I can get a single button press to answer a call.  I just choose not to wear a headset all the time, however.  It isn’t much of a solution if you require a separate device to counter a deficiency in another device.

Texting pretty much works as expected.  Not a lot you can do to mess this up.  The only quirk I have found is when I am on any screen and get a text notification I am unable to go directly to the text message I just received.  I can tap on the notification, but that takes me to the main messaging page where I see the list of people I text with.  I like that the unread message is at the top of the list and highlighted, but I am used to the notification taking me directly to the message.  You’d think Microsoft was headquartered in Texas given their apparent love for the two-step.

Call quality is such a subjective thing.  It depends on where you are, whether there are cell towers nearby, how many other people are currently using their phone around you, what network you are on and I suppose whether you are on the even or odd numbered side of the street.  My Lumia 1520 has been no better and no worse than any other device I have owned.  I can hear the people I am calling and most of the time they can hear me.  Understand me, that is another story, but they can at least hear the words coming from my noise hole.

So, as far as the phone features on Windows Phone go, the magic is there if not exciting.  Not as much a birthday party magician but certainly not a David Copperfield.  Probably something like the kind of performer you end up with at 1:00 AM in a Vegas lounge after spending the night in a bar.  Impressive at the time, but when you sober up you’ll wonder why you spent the $25 cover charge.

Tomorrow we will talk about other things like Near Field Communications, the kind of stuff you never knew you needed, didn’t have any desire to learn about and will feel like an IRS audit would provide more fun.  You know, tech stuff.  In the meantime I have to find another metaphor that I can kill.