I have spent quite a while trying to start this particular post right. To state the obvious, Microsoft’s Mobile platform is experiencing its second coming of sorts.To liken their mobile strategy to the story of Jesus Christ, Windows Phone 7 was somewhat of a birth and resurrection of what was at some point, the god of smartphones and the impetus behind a revolution of what would become “One Microsoft” and the Modern interface era. Windows Phone 8 within this analogy is their second coming and as with second comings, there exists a series of events one of which involves the ascension of the faithful to a higher place. After a few days of using Windows Phone 8.1, I have come to a conclusion that this 8.1 event to take us faithfuls to ascension, better yet to a higher plane of excitement has not quite done that for me and numerous others.
Windows Phone 8.1 was released as a developer preview on April 14th to the excitement of numerous users. The general consensus on the major update is that it has finally brought Windows Phone within or above par with other platforms, specifically Android and iOS. 8.1 brings in many requested features such as a Notification center, more customization options and the bonus of Cortana which could be seen as the offspring of a Siri and Google Now love session. Other great tidbits brought include better information on phone calls, access to phone files, ability to save and transfer apps to SD cards and greater compatibility with Windows 8, in the form of universal apps. What is not to like about Windows Phone 8.1 you might ask?
For the uninformed, the uninitiated or the new Windows Phone user, 8.1 gives them all they need and much more when compared with the other platforms. Of course many would argue about the App issue but that is for another post. Nonetheless, for numerous Windows Phone users, many of whom have stuck with the platform since Windows phone 7, this is quite a step backwards from what defined the Windows Phone experience.
Take the Hubs for example, I and numerous others alike evangelized the platform touting its most unique feature called hubs. Hubs like its name suggests represented a one stop location for specific phone functions. The platform was noted for its Photos, Music+Video, Messaging, Game and People Hubs all of which had unique functionality that have been stripped away, it would seem, in the name of parity. Of note is the Messaging Hub which had the great feature of threaded messaging where Live, Facebook and SMS messages from the same person were threaded and one could easily switch between each form of communication. With 8.1, this lauded feature has been taken off and messaging is just SMS. Quite a number of current users have found it rather curious that 3 years after Microsoft’s purchase of Skype, they have been unable to merge the service with regular SMS just like Apple and Google have done with iMessage and Google chat. So much for parity.
Similar hub functionality sacrificed for parity was in the Me hub. This case of Nostalgia is dear to me because everyone I got to jump on the Windows Phone platform did so because of this feature. Prior to 8.1, users easily posted social media updates to all their social networks at once. Although the posting feature is still present, but limited, the ability to interact with ones Social feed notification with the Me tile has been removed. It was less than a chore to read a Facebook comment feed, respond to a tweet, continue a linkedin conversation or retweet a tweet without even opening their respective apps.
Thinking about this pragmatically, it does make some sense since there exists a notification center where all these updates can be collated. Nonetheless, the idea of such hub functionality had always been to make an individual address basic social media tasks via the quickest and easiest way possible. Should you require a lot more power, you could resort to using whatever app you desired. There were individuals I know that never bothered with an app because this was more than enough. Every major Hub in 8.1 was stripped down in some way except the People Hub and this has us users wondering; what in the world was Microsoft thinking?
Windows Phone 8.1 brought in the exciting word flow keyboard that gives WP users Swype like functionality. It also brought superior updates to word prediction where the keyboard includes your email conversations and phone book words within its dictionary. It is a pretty great enhancement that people will love but other changes to the keyboard have caused yet another nostalgic moment amongst current users; changes to how the cursor is placed within texts for correction. Before the update, users could easily long press paragraphs of text to reveal the cursor and dragging their fingers allowed for letter by letter jumps of the cursor. Now, one is expected to press once to reveal the cursor and a little circle underneath it. A second press now allows for the movement of the cursor over individual characters. Might be a very peculiar complaint but it begs to question; why make such a change? It was perfect Microsoft, why ruin a great thing?
Change is inevitable and I am sure Microsoft has its reasons for taking off a lot of things. As noted earlier, the uninitiated may not find fault with these things but these are things users grew to love and that set this platform apart from other platforms but are now gone. It is therefore not surprising to see a recent forum post on TheVerge requesting users to list the nice little features, flooded with complaints about missing features. It would seem like many of these changes were more towards addressing redundancies than screwing users over. Take the Calendar app for example; there used to be a handy agenda view that showed you all your events in a list. This is now gone but users can always ask Cortana, if she is available in your region, for your agenda. It might make sense but one cannot help but think about how Microsoft is catering for Touch, Mouse and keyboard users in Windows 8. Why bother taking off anything that works even though there is an alternative approach for it?
On the flip side, Microsoft’s recent actions to Windows 8 shows that they are willing to give numerous options so far as there is user demand. Maybe and just maybe, these complaints will push them to bring back some of these little gems. All in all, Windows Phone 8.1 is a major step forward for a platform looking to grow its Market share but I cannot help but reminisce on the first coming and the first phase of the second coming of the platform and the joy it brought to me as an early convert. The second phase hasn’t brought the same level of excitement and with that, I bask in my Nostalgia.