Browsing through back issues of PopSci in the early 2000’s in a musty garage, I spotted the first cellphone I really wanted to own: a Nokia 3600. With its crazy circular keypad and a rudimentary smartphone OS, it for whatever reason captured my imagination like no tech gadget had yet. I never managed to get one, instead relying on the seemingly indestructible Nokia dumbphones that made their way through our family before getting my first quasi-smartphone: an HTC Windows Phone with a BlackBerry-style keyboard.
Once Apple launched the iPhone, it was only a matter of time before I got one — opting first for a cheaper iPod Touch to compliment my rapidly aging Windows Phone, and finally buying my own off-contract iPhone. There was never any question in my mind about which phone to get; I’d never even consider anything other than an iPhone since the App Store opened.
Only one other line of phones has caught my attention in recent years: Nokia’s Lumia phones. I’d stop by Nokia stores in the mall to try them out and see how they felt and worked, and jumped on the opportunity a couple months to get press loaner Lumia 520 to review.
But then, I never had the heart to write the review.
The Death of a Centenarian
We’re accustomed to the Silicon Valley success stories: a kid drops out of college, starts a company in his parents garage, and leads it through an IPO (and subsequently becomes a billionaire) before his 30th birthday. It’s clichéd, yet expected, and more-or-less sums up the history of Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and far more if you take out the IPO part.
Yet Nokia shares a legacy with the likes of Nintendo, with its roots spanning back over a century through a mirage of business endeavors. Finland’s most well-known company, Nokia started off as a paper mill, later adding rubber and then cable manufacture to its portfolio. Cables led to consumer electronics, which led to telecommunications equipment. The final expansion eventually took over the company, leading it to become the company that’d make the first cellphones millions of us would own.
When it came to making cellphones, Nokia wasn’t just good: it was great. It made ridiculously durable phones that’d last a night in rainstorm and numerous falls down a flight of stairs. Sure, the faceplate and battery would come off, but snap them back in and you were back in business. And for every time your smartphone’s dropped your connection or clipped your voice, Nokia’s phones often sounded better than aging landline handsets.
Nokia’s phones were great, but iOS and Android relegated the phone to just another app among thousands on modern smartphones. Nokia’s Symbian platform had apps long before there was an iPhone, but the diverse number of devices and OS versions made Symbian too fragmented to have the same app traction as its younger competitors. At the end of the day, Nokia made phones, when everyone else was making the traditional phone obsolete through software.
Thus came Nokia’s infamous Hail Mary pass in 2011: switching to Windows Phone 7 and leaving Symbian and their newer MeeGo OS behind. That’d sound like a good strategy, considering that Microsoft’s only business is software — but on mobile, Microsoft has struggled as much as Nokia. Their Windows Phone 6 was nearly as fragmented as Symbian and had only a small sampling of decent apps, so they scrapped their decade of mobile OS development and started over with the Zune HD-inspired Windows Phone 7. Its flat design inspired a wave of design changes across the whole world of software — a rare achievement for Microsoft, whose design work is typically disregarded — but the OS itself struggled to gain traction. But surely, surely things would get better with Windows Phone 8.
The Lumia Problem: Great Hardware, Insanely Limited Software
When I first pulled out my loaner Lumia 520, it was quickly apparent that Nokia hadn’t lost its touch for making great hardware. For a phone with a plastic shell and a removable body — and one that was nearly the lowest priced of its generation — it was remarkably nicely made, with a far more solid feel than any Samsung device I’ve ever touched. Its screen was bright, with curved glass that felt delightful to use, and the audio was crystal-clear as you’d expect from Nokia. It felt durable enough that I’m rather certain it could handle a fall better than most smartphones these days. The only thing hardware-wise that was truly lacking was the camera, something that’s decidedly only an issue for the lowest-priced Lumia.
But the software. Oh, the software. The hardware was beautiful and worked great, but the OS and the apps (or the lack thereof) killed the whole experience.
I love how Windows Phone 8 looks in many ways. The unlock screen won me over instantly, as did the dialer, call answer screen, settings screens, and many other parts of the OS. It really does look nice. The animations, even, look nice the first few times, but they quickly become grating and even made my eyes feel like I’d watched a bad 3D movie after an hour of use. Even still, switching to a white background helped a bit, and the faster Lumias do handle the animations better in my experience at the Nokia store. If that was the only issue, it wouldn’t be worth worrying about.
But it was far from the only issue. The main issue was apps and the lack thereof. Nokia itself has done a splendid job trying to help out, shipping its own maps and photos apps that are excellent on their own, and even includes an alternate App Store that highlights the best Windows Marketplace apps for your device. You would assume that Microsoft’s own apps would try just as hard to overachieve so at least the built-in stuff would be great, but unfortunately that’s far from the case. Instead, the built-in apps from Microsoft were so limited, you’d hardly think they were worth including. The Office apps only let you make the very most basic of edits, with the exact same features you could have found in Windows Mobile 5’s Office apps — seriously. You could say almost the same about every other built in app. They were really, really limited — the lightest, most featureless apps I’ve ever come across.
The Windows Marketplace helps out some, with a growing number of 3rd party apps including some that are really good, but by and large there’s a dearth of apps you’d really want to use. When name-brand apps like Facebook and Evernote and Line are available, their apps are again more limited than their iOS and Android counterparts, and most popular apps are simply not there. There’s alternates for many, such as Instagram compatible apps that let you add filters to photos and upload them to the popular photo sharing service, but there’s also a ton of junk, such as the “Google Maps” app that was simply a reskinned Bing Maps app made by a 3rd party developer with a name that sounded suspiciously like a Microsoft division.
It’s All About the Apps
We buy devices for the software they can run. You don’t have to be an app junkie that keeps up with AppStorm and other review blogs to know that. Software has truly, in Marc Andreessen’s words, eaten the world, a trend Microsoft of all people should understand. iOS and Android themselves are nice, but few if any of us would continue to use them if there wasn’t a ton of apps available for both platforms. The very same goes for Macs and PCs: we use them for the software that runs on both platforms far more than for the stuff that comes with the OS itself.
Windows Phone 8 has utterly failed in that department, crazily both with its built-in and first-party apps as well as with 3rd party development. It’s almost like Microsoft itself didn’t care to put its best foot forward with its own smartphones — scared, perhaps, that the free mobile Office could eat away at desktop Office sales — and developers didn’t want to commit to a platform that seemed to be neglected by its own maker. Apple, on the other hand, kickstarted iPad app development with best-in-class apps of its own like the iWork suite and GarageBand, apps that have almost not been beaten yet by 3rd party competitors. In Microsoft’s newest platforms, and especially its phone OS, there’s no obvious example of great apps for the platform even from Microsoft itself.
There’s not one app on Windows Phone 8 that anyone could point to and say “This is the reason to buy a Windows Phone over another phone”. Not one. Not Exchange-powered email, and not even Office, as much as Microsoft thinks it is, since its there in name only and has so few features as to make it nearly useless (aside, perhaps, from Excel for some nifty comparison shopping number crunching).
We’ve seen the best Nokia hardware with the best of Microsoft’s software from 2013. The hardware is great, but the software holds it back so much that I took to referring to the Lumia as the “world’s best featurephone”. That’s why I never had the heart to write my Lumia review: Nokia had done such a good job on the devices that I hated to slam them for Microsoft’s shortcomings.
But now, the entire game is in Microsoft’s court since they’ve bought the phone part of Nokia’s business (but bizarrely haven’t bought the name “Nokia” itself — which would have been very valuable, in my opinion, since many of us still equate Nokia with durable hardware). Microsoft bought the best part of the Windows Phone 8 equation: Nokia’s hardware. Now, they’ve got to fix their part: the software.
Perhaps the OS itself is good enough; perhaps it could support better apps than it has today. I wouldn’t doubt that. But if so, Microsoft had better show us that it’s serious about making apps that make Windows Phone shine. Make the best, most innovative mobile Office apps we’ve never imagined could be made. Make a browser that blows Webkit out of the water. Reinvent mobile email enough that Mailbox looks quaint by comparison. Build apps that make the rest of us want to try out Windows Phone, apps that make iOS and Android look anemic. If that can’t be done today, then for goodness’ sake make an OS that can support the very best apps, and then make said apps to showcase the OS.
The hardware part of the Windows Phone equation isn’t in trouble, and it wasn’t before this week. What is in trouble is the software. While Apple is fixing to roll out its new iOS 7 and Google just announced the next version of Android, the earliest Windows Phone 8.1 (not even a full new release) is expected is next year. That’s not going to cut it, not at all, no matter how great of hardware you now own after purchasing Nokia. If you don’t want to be the next Blackberry, Microsoft, then you’ve got to step up your game, pronto.
We’re watching, anticipating. We actually want another OS that’ll put the fire under iOS and Android’s feet. We want competition that’s not so easy to make fun of. We, of all things, want you to succeed.
Can you, Microsoft?