If you follow our smartphone coverage on CNET Australia, you'll know we've been wondering why the Windows Phone watering hole had dried up so soon after the platform's launch. Microsoft and partners ushered in a range of WP7 handsets when the platform kicked off in October 2010, then HTC followed up with the HD7 in January 2011, then radio silence — until now.
This week Nokia has released its first Windows Phone in Australia, fast tracking it to Optus, Virgin and Vodafone, with Telstra to follow in the next couple of weeks. The Lumia 800 is the best example of what Windows Phone has to offer yet, with the latest version of Microsoft's software inside some really well-designed hardware.
It took me quite a few days to get into the groove of using Windows Phone on a daily basis again. Though I sometimes switch phones on a weekly basis, the fact that most new phones run on Android has helped me establish an Android-centric routine. I have the apps I use daily to catch up on news and social networking, I have other favourite apps I use to kill time. I listen to music using specific streaming music services and I watch videos streamed over the NAS I have set up in my living room. Some of these tasks, like news and social networking, I simply had to rediscover new apps for, other tasks I would have to do without.
But more surprising for me is that there were aspects of this system that are much better than on Android and iOS. The unified Messaging app in Windows Phone is the standout. I love the way the service seamlessly combines SMS, MMS, Facebook chat and Windows Live messaging into single coherent threads with a single contact or a group. This sounds like such a simple accomplishment, but it actually meant that I made contact with people over the past few weeks who I haven't heard from in a long time because I was constantly logged into all these services while the phone was online. The messages come through like SMS messages, so I didn't need to open a separate app, wait for a database to update and search through the app for the latest messages column. It was right in front of me, and it was just as easy to reply.
The same praise applies to the default email app as well; it's fast, easy to read and configurable enough for my needs — despite our company using Google Apps for email rather than Microsoft Exchange. Facebook and Twitter integration in the People Hub is also a great way to catch up on important new updates from friends, although serious Tweeters will still look to a dedicated app for a more comprehensive view of their lists.
Though this next point is likely to rile some hardcore fans of other platforms, I really believe Microsoft's Metro UI design template is far superior to the default app layout on iOS and Android, especially for apps that tap into databases of information. If you're unfamiliar with it, Metro apps are comprised of horizontally aligned panels, so app developers can display pages of information side by side and users can swipe between the content with a simple horizontal side-to-side gesture. Again, Facebook and Twitter are good examples, but so too are apps for major news sites like the ABC, BBC and RSS feed readers like Wonder Reader among a dozen others. Telstra customers will love the clean, easy-to-use layout for the Telstra One app for news weather and personal usage stats.
The Metro UI design really defines why some users will prefer Windows Phone over its competitors. Luckily, for Microsoft, developers have taken to this user experience metaphor in their droves, so that when you download an app from the Marketplace you have a pretty good idea of what you can expect in advance. It gives a session with a Windows Phone a uniformed experience, not unlike the experience many users love when using an iPhone.
There's a lot about the system we don't love, too. We don't like being railroaded into using Bing for search and we hate that the "Search" button on the handset is not context sensitive and always launches Bing, rather than executing a search within the app you are currently using. We'd love the Lumia 800 to have Wi-Fi tethering and built-in simple solutions for sharing media with larger screens and home theatres. Copy and paste needs to be expanded to include text fields in all apps, not just the browser, messaging and email. We'd love to see more granular customisation within core apps and services, rather than the basic list of settings currently available.
In short, there is still plenty of work to do, but, overall, I want to welcome back Windows Phone. For its speed, its simplicity and the chance to play with something a bit different. If you're new to smartphones or you're thinking about someone who is, Windows Phone is a very good option. In fact, my Mum uses Windows Phone and her HTC Mozart is probably the first mobile phone she has ever got any use out of; it's the first she bothers to charge regularly. There's even the possibility that seasoned smartphone users will love this platform, if they have the chance to use it for more than a moment.