A Windows Phone 7 Postmortem

For a variety of reasons (such as those I already briefly mentioned), I’m no longer spending time trying out and writing about Windows Phone 7. It’s possible that I could return to it should I have the time and inclination, but for now I’ve put Microsoft’s new mobile platform behind me. In fact, I’m evaluating where I stand with mobile technology in general, and might write about my plans sometime during the next few days.

Regarding WP7, I can sum up my thoughts in a single word: multitasking. With it, WP7 would represent a significant challenge to every other platform on the market. It’s a gorgeous operating system with a unique user interface that’s a real pleasure to use—for doing one thing at a time, that is. Microsoft has built a great ecosystem with Xbox Live, Zune Marketplace, and Windows Live integration; with only a few tweaks here and there, it could easily be the best ecosystem on the market. But every experience afforded by that ecosystem is made painful by WP7’s single-tasking nature. Simply put, WP7 is terribly crippled by Microsoft’s decision to deny third-party apps the ability to run in the background.

As a webOS enthusiast who’s suffered from different limitations, namely the lack of certain key functionality and poor app support, I can relate to accepting a platform’s weaknesses in recognition of its strengths. However, whereas with webOS I’ve missed certain capabilities while everything else I can do with it has been outstanding, with WP7 there are more things I simply can’t do. My work and lifestyle don’t afford the ability to sit quietly doing one thing at a time, and that’s the only style that WP7 supports.

Even something as simple as walking the dog is terribly limited with WP7. That’s quiet time for me, and I take advantage of it for listening to podcasts, checking email, and catching up on Twitter. It’s also exercise, and so I use SmartRunner to track time, distance, and speed. In webOS, doing all of those things during the walk is easy—open each app and switch among them as needed, with a podcast running in the background and SmartRunner tracking the walk. webOS (and, arguably, almost any other modern mobile OS) makes it easy.

In WP7, it’s impossible. While you can start a podcast and keep it running in the Zune player, SmartRunner must be started second and kept as the active foreground app for it to track the walk. Accidentally hit a capacitive button on the front of a WP7 device (which was easy to do on the Samsung Focus I was trying out) and SmartRunner closes, losing the walk’s progress. Want to check email or Twitter, or do anything else on the phone? You’re out of luck.

That’s a terribly constraining environment, frankly, and it simply doesn’t work for me. Perhaps I’m spoiled by webOS, but again, every other platform on the market supports at least some background processes. Microsoft did themselves a significant disservice by leaving multitasking out, and while they’ll have some success because of the great ecosystem they’ve built, I imagine a number of people will run into the same issues as I did and will speak out about them. A new platform introduced into such a competitive environment shouldn’t be saddled with such a terrible limitation right out of the gate.

WP7 has some other limitations that have gotten equal press, such as the lack of copy/paste, tethering, Flash, HTML5 support, and others, including some odd limitations in Windows Live and SharePoint support. For me, though, those pale in comparison to the need to restart almost each and every app every time it loses focus.

The smartphone and mobile connected devices market will become intensely competitive in 2011. Apple recognizes and will respond to the competition from Android, which continues to grow at a phenomenal rate, and HP Palm—the largest technology company on the planet—will be putting everything it has into webOS. Microsoft needs to ensure that WP7 not only meets but exceeds what’s available from other platforms, and so far it’s hobbled WP7 with some significant weaknesses. That needs to change if Microsoft wants to stand a chance in the mobile space anytime soon.

I wouldn’t count Microsoft out in the long term. They have too much at stake to fail, and they’ve demonstrated remarkable resilience (consider Windows 7 after the Vista debacle). But I don’t see WP7 working for me as my primary mobile platform this year or the next.

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