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A Cupertino Yankee in the Court of King Ballmer

This post summarises my opinions of Windows Phone 7 from the Microsoft Tech Day I went to yesterday. There’s a new version of Windows Phone 7 (codenamed Mango) due out in the Autumn, but at the Tech Day the descriptions of the new features were mainly the sorts of things you see in the Microsoft PressPass video below (Silverlight required), the API stuff is going on in a separate event.

I want to provide some context: I first encountered C#, J# and .NET back in around 2002, when I was given a beta of Visual Studio .NET (Rainier) and Windows .NET Server (which later became Windows Server 2003). Since then, of course most of my programming work has been on Objective-C and Java, on a variety of UNIX platforms but mainly Mac OS X and iOS. But I’ve kept the smallest edge of a toe in the .NET world, too.

From the perspective of the phone, however, I really am coming to this as an iOS guy. Almost all of the mobile work I’ve done has been on iOS, with a small amount of Android thrown into the mix. I’ve used a WP7 phone a couple of times, but have no experience programming on WP7 or earlier Windows Mobile platforms.

The UI

The speakers at the Tech Day – a mix of Microsoft developer relations and third-party MVPs – brought as much focus on user experience and visual impact of WP7 apps as you’ll find at any Apple event. Windows Phone uses a very obviously distinctive UI pattern called Metro, which you can see in the demo screencasts, or the Cocktail Flow app.

Metro is almost diametrically opposed to the user experience on iOS. Rather than try to make apps look like physical objects with leather trim and wooden panels, WP7 apps do away with almost all chrome and put the data front and centre (and, if we’re honest, sides and edges too). Many controls are implicit, encouraging the user to interact with their data and using subtle iconography to provide additional guidance. Buttons and tiles are far from photorealistic, they’re mainly understated coloured squares. Users are not interacting with apps, they’re interacting with content so if an app can provide relevant functionality on data from another app, that’s encouraged. A good example is the augmented search results demoed in the above video, where apps can inspect a user’s search terms and provide their own content to the results.

In fact, that part of the video shows one of the most striking examples of the Metro user interface: the panorama view. While technologically this is something akin to a paginated scroll view or a navigation controller, it’s the visual execution that makes it interesting.

Instead of showing a scroll thumb or a page indicator, the panorama just allows the title of the next page to sneak into the page you’re currently looking at, giving the impression that it’s over there, and if you swipe to it you can find it. When the user goes to the next page, a nice parallax scroll moves the data across by a page but the title by only enough to leave the edges of the previous and next titles showing.

The Tools

It’s neither a secret nor a surprise that Microsoft’s developer tools team is much bigger than Apple’s, and that their tools are more feature-rich as a result (give or take some ancient missteps like MSTest and Visual SourceSafe). But the phone is a comparatively new step: WP7 is under a year old, but of course Windows Mobile and Compact Editions are much older. So how have Microsoft coped with that?

Well, just as Apple chose to use their existing Cocoa and Objective-C as the basis of the iOS SDK, Microsoft have gone with .NET Compact Framework, Silverlight and XNA. That means that they get tools that already support the platform well, because they’re the same tools that people are using to write desktop, “rich internet” and Xbox Live applications.

From the view-construction perspective, XAML reminds me a lot more of WebObjects Builder than Interface Builder. Both offer drag-and-drop view positioning and configuration that’s backed by an XML file, but in Visual Studio it’s easy to get precise configuration by editing the XML directly, just as WebObjects developers can edit the HTML. One of the other reasons it reminds me of WebObjects is that Data Bindings (yes, Windows Phone has bindings…) seems to be much more like WebObjects bindings than Cocoa Bindings.

Custom classes work much better in the XAML tools than in IB. IB plugins have always been a complete ‘mare to set up, poorly documented, and don’t even work in the Xcode 4 XIB editor. The XAML approach is similar to IB’s in that it actually instantiates real objects, but it’s very easy to create mock data sources or drivers for UI objects so that designers can see what the app looks like populated with data or on a simulated slow connection.

Speaking of designers, an interesting tool that has no parallel on the iPhone side is Expression Blend, a XAML-editing tool for designers. You can have the designer working on the same files as the developer, importing photoshop files to place graphics directly into the app project.

It’d be really nice to have something similar on iPhone. All too often I have spent loads of time on a project where the UI is specified as a photoshop wireframe or some other graphic provided by a web designer, and I’m supposed to customise all the views to get pixel-perfection with these wireframes. With Blend, the designer can waste his time doing that instead :).

Other tools highlights include:

  • Runtime-configurable debugging output on both phone and emulator, including frame rates, graphics cache miss information, and Quartz Debug-style flashes of updated screen regions
  • The emulator supports virtual accelerometers
  • The emulator supports developer-supplied fake location information and even test drivers generating location updates <3

The biggest missing piece seems to be a holistic debugging app like Apple’s Instruments. Instruments has proved useful for both bug fixing and performance analysis, and it’s pretty much become a necessary part of my iOS and Mac development work.

Update: I’m told by @kellabyte that an Instruments-like tool is coming as part of the Mango SDK, and that this was announced at MIX ’11.

The “ecosystem”

A couple of the demos shown yesterday demonstrated phone apps talking to Azure cloud services, ASP.NET hosted web apps (mainly using the RESTful OData protocol), SOAP services etc. Because there’s .NET on both sides of the fence, it’s very easy to share model code between the phone app and the server app.

That’s something Apple lacks. While Cocoa can indeed be used on Mac OS X Server, if you want to do anything server-side you have to either hope you can find some open-source components or frameworks, or you have to switch to some other technology like Ruby or PHP. While Apple ship that stuff, it’s hard to claim that they’re offering an integrated way to develop apps on iOS that talk to Apple servers in the same way that MS do.

To the extent that WebObjects can still be said to exist, it doesn’t really fill this gap either. Yes, it means that Apple provide a way to do dynamic web applications: but you can’t use Apple’s tools (use Eclipse and WOLips instead), you can’t share code between iOS and WO (iOS doesn’t have Java, and WO hasn’t had ObjC in a long time), and you can just about share data if you want to use property lists as your interchange format.

On the other hand, it’s much easier to distribute the same app on both iPhone and iPad than it would be to do so on WP7 and a Microsoft tablet/slate, because their official line is still that Windows 7 is their supported slate OS. I expect that to change once the Nokia handset thing has shaken out, but making a Silverlight tablet app is more akin to writing a Mac app than porting an iOS app.

The market

This is currently the weakest part, IMO, of the whole Windows Phone 7 deal, though it is clear that MS have put some thought and resources behind trying to address the problems. Given that Windows Phone 7 was such a late response to the iPhone and Android, Microsoft need to convince developers to write on the platform and users to adopt the platform. The problem is, users are driven to use apps, so without any developers there won’t be any users: without any users, there’s no profit on the platform so there are no developers.

Well, not no developers. Apparently the 17,000 apps on the marketplace were written by 7,500 of the 42,000 registered developers (and interestingly the UK has one of the lowest ratio of submitted apps to registered developers). By comparison, there are 500,000 apps on the app store.

Microsoft has clearly analysed the bejeesus out of the way their users interact with the marketplace. They have seen, for instance, that MO billing (essentially having your phone operator add your app purchase costs to your phone bill, rather than having a credit card account on the marketplace itself) increases purchase rates of apps by 5 times, and are working (particularly through Nokia of course who already have these arrangements) to add MO billing in as many marketplace countries as they can.

This makes sense. People already have a payment relationship with their network operators, so it’s easier for them to add a few quid to their phone bill than it is to create a new paying account with the Windows Marketplace and give Microsoft their card details. By analogy, iPhone users already have bought stuff from Apple (an iPhone, usually…and often some music) so throwing some extra coin their way for apps is easy. Incidentally, I think this is why the Android app market isn’t very successful: people see Google as that free stuff company so setting up a Checkout account to buy apps involves an activation energy.

Incidentally, some other stats from the app marketplace: 12 downloads per user per month (which seems high to me), 3.2% of all apps downloaded are paid, and the average price of a bought app is a shave under $3. Assuming around 3 million users worldwide (a very rough number based on MS and analyst announcements), that would mean a total of around $3.5M app sales worldwide per month. That’s nowhere near what’s going on on the iPhone, so to get any appreciable amount of cash out of it you’d better have an app that appeals to all of the platform’s users.

The subject of appeal is a big issue, too. Microsoft aren’t really targeting the WP7 at anyone in particular, just people who want a smartphone. With Mango and Nokia handsets, they’ll be targeting people who want a cheaper smartphone than RIM/Apple/Android offers: I bet that brings down that $3 mean app price. This is, in my opinion, a mistake. Microsoft should play to their strengths, and make a generally-useful device but target it at particular groups who Microsoft can support particularly well.

Who are those groups? Well, I think there’s Xbox 360 gamers, as WP7 has Xbox Live integration; and there’s enterprises with custom app needs, due to the integration with Azure and similarity with ASP.NET. It ought to be cheaper for game shop that’s written an Xbox game to do a WP7 tie-in than an iOS tie-in. It ought to be cheaper for an enterprise with an MS IT department to extend their line-of-business apps onto WP7 than onto Blackberry. Therefore MS should court the crap out of those developers and make the WP7 the go-to device for those people, rather than just saying “buy this instead of an iPhone or Android”.

The reason I’d do it that way is that you bring the users and the developers together on shared themes, so you increase the chance that any one app is useful or relevant to any given customer and therefore increase the likelihood that they pay. Once you’ve got gamers and game devs together, for example, the gamers will want to do other things and so there’ll be a need for developers of other classes of app. I call using Xbox games to sell utilities the Halo Effect.

Conclusion

Windows Phone 7 is a well thought out mobile platform, with some interesting user experience and design. It’s got a good development environment, that’s highly consistent with the rest of the Microsoft development platform. However, no matter how easy and enjoyable you make writing apps, ultimately there needs to be someone to sell them to. Microsoft don’t have a whole lot of users on their platform, and they’re clearly banking on Nokia bringing their huge brand to beef up sales. They should be making the platform better for some people, and then getting those people on to the platform to make WP7 phones aspirational. They aren’t, so we just have to wait and see what happens with Nokia.

Footnote: Nokisoft

Nokia do well everywhere that Microsoft doesn’t, by which I mean Europe and China mainly. Particularly China actually, where the Ovi store is pretty big. Conversely, MS phone isn’t doing too badly in America, where Nokia traditionally are almost unheard of. So on paper, the Nokia deal should be a good thing for both companies.

{ 1 } Comments

  1. Mark Tomlinson | May 25, 2011 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Nicely considered piece.
    I agree wholeheartedly on Microsofts market targeting strategy, but they have had that problem for years.
    They always appear to play catch when in fact they are pretty fine innovators too, but only on the periphery it would appear.
    Their hardware quality for example was top class they just didn’t sell it well.