Windows Phone... "it almost works"(!)

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Apple's famous mini-slogan "It just works" is well known to all and, on the whole, it's true, with the company having complete control of the hardware, software and accessories, so there's little left to chance. Turning to Windows Phone 8 and using it as something of a power user, I'm reminded of the slogan but have to confess that I'm tempted to amend it to "It almost works"... 

Now, before launching into my experiences using Windows Phone 8 as a 'power user', I want to emphasise that, though the point I'm making here ("it almost works") is still very valid, the OS itself is at its most relevant when used by 'normal' users. In other words, not all what follows may be an issue for the majority of Windows Phone users worldwide, many of whom will be using the OS in their first ever smartphone and will be enjoying the 95% of functionality which does work rather than getting frustrated at the 5% that doesn't (yet).

I should also emphasise that not all of the glitches below are necessarily Microsoft's fault - some will be down to third party developers coding something 'wrong'. But, glitches are glitches, so...

Here then is a snapshot of my life with Windows Phone 8m in its latest GDR2/Amber incarnation on the Nokia Lumia 1020 - and yes, all applications are updated to their latest versions. 

Although the operations below actually happened to me over a couple of hours in real life, it's possible to see them one after the other and experience all of them in a matter of a minute or so. How frustrating would that be?

Skype, oh Skype...

It's an eternal mystery why Microsoft can't get Skype right on Windows Phone. Yes, it's tricky to integrate something like this into an OS, but Microsoft has owned Skype lock, stock and barrel for years now, so there's not really any excuse.

In fact, Skype is so broken that I'm not even sure where to start. What about when a call comes in on your laptop or tablet and you answer it there. Skype on Windows Phone carries on ringing... and ringing..... until you manually cancel it. Or there are the group IMs which appear several hours after they were first sent.

However, in this case it was Skype's inability to work with Windows Phone's 'fast resume' system. Twitter (for example) shows how it should be done, with lightning fast resumes. However, I tried to get 'back' to Skype (which I was in a few moments before) and there's a second or two of blank screen and then another few seconds of a blank 'recent' list, along with animated dots:


It's just not good enough - at the end of 2013, Skype on Android is now very slick indeed and Windows Phone should be competing a lot more here, especially given its ownership. 


Deciding to have a bit of a prune of my Camera roll, I tap on 'Select' on the toolbar and find..... that videos can't be selected at all. Ironic, given that it's videos which will (by far) be using up the most disk space, necessitating the prune in the first place. The workaround - to open up videos and delete them individually - is a right pain. Another oddity - why has my Photos hub decided to suddenly show 'Upload error' all the time? The phone's been in range of wi-fi for hours, so why the error message?

(thumbnails blurred for privacy reasons)

Podcatching, music streaming

Music and audio applications have a tougher job of it than regular apps because of the need to do at least some their work in the background. Windows Phone forces applications to either queue up tasks for backround processing when the OS has time and when the right conditions are met, or to kick off specific tasks (like downloading), knowing that the OS will come down hard on them quickly if they misbehave or taker too long.

As I result, I hit more issues with audio than with any other area on Windows Phone. Here are just two examples. Podcast Lounge is the most sophisticated podcatcher on the platform, yet it's utterly hampered by very specific conditions under which background podcast checking and downloading can happen. The result is that, more times than not, and despite the phone spending large chunks of the day and night on charge, I still keep coming up with podcast programmes which haven't been downloaded and for which I have to wait.

Secondly, using CloudMuzik to stream my Google Play Music collection - there are audio breakups within each song, sometimes playback just. Stops. And then the way playback has to be handled by the OS rather than the application leads to ridiculous situations like the one bottom right, where the track playing can bear no resemblance to the one listed in the main app UI, and where tracks are listed (and played) twice for no apparent reason. Maybe CloudMuzik is to blame - and maybe not, since GooMu and GooRoovster apparently both have similar issues. 


Data apps

Then there are applications that rely on cloud-hosted databases. Asana is a system we use in the All About virtual office, yet this normally well behaved little application now freezes up under GDR2, with a never-ending 'loading' screen corruption, as shown below. Meanwhile, my secure database solution, much documented already, still insists on showing a duplicate 'ghost' database:


These last two 'glitches' are perhaps more down to coding issues from the developers, though it's tempting to blame Microsoft for breaking something under the hood. But at the end of the day, these are the applications that we're left with, in this current 'glitchy' state, and it needs both Microsoft and the development community to put some hours in to make things more reliable.

As if the waits, glitches and oddities above weren't enough - and emphasising that all of this happened to me in one day - I've also been having a nightmare with Microsoft's interface into Gmail producing email replies that get sent twice, again for no apparent reason, with a third party YouTube client which crashed on me, and with Store application updates sometimes not showing up for a day after they're actually available (as can be proven by searching for the app by name in the Store and seeing 'Update').

It's all a bit much really.

Now, I should also point out that no operating system is perfect and that I've had issues with Android, iOS, Blackberry OS 10 and Symbian, for example. But not, it has to be said, any that add up to quite such a frustrating litany of glitches.


Regular readers will know that, only a week ago, I posted this Windows Phone apologetics piece, in which I discovered that most of the common objections to Windows Phone are fairly easily dismissed or worked around. However, in this feature I've tried to go the last 5% with the platform (i.e. as a bona fide power user) and have hit issues right, left and centre.

Which of the above can be fixed? Everything, of course - in theory - this is software we're talking about. The GDR3 platform update (arrived, or coming soon, depending on device), a new version of Skype, some development action from the appropriate programmers, and the glitches above could well disappear.

Will Windows Phone get to the point where the slogan "It just works" could be just as appropriate as on the iPhone?

Comments welcome.