The Trouble with Windows Phone 8: It’s Not the Apps, It’s the Basics

After two years of iteration by Microsoft, I can't get into Windows Phone, and the paucity of apps--real or perceived--has nothing to do with it.

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Are tech pundits lending a hand in crushing Windows Phone 8? PCMag’s Sascha Segan thinks so.

Segan argues that Windows Phone 8 is a solid mobile operating system that has a chance to compete with the iPhone and Android. The problem, in Segan’s view, is that pundits are all too eager to point out Windows Phone 8 ‘s app deficiency compared to other platforms, and that their negativity is killing the zeitgeist and scaring developers away:

Windows Phone has a lot going for it. For people who like Xbox, for people who use Microsoft office software, for people whose friends don’t all have iPhones or even just for people who like the cool interface of live tiles. Before we bury it, let’s give the darn thing a chance.

I agree with a lot of Segan’s points, including the idea that the iPhone-Android duopoly could use fresh competition.

I also agree that the Windows Phone app situation isn’t as bad as some pundits make it out to be. Many of my essentials are present, including Twitter, ESPN ScoreCenter and TripIt. Third-party alternatives fill the void for many other services, like YouTube and Pocket. The free mobile version of Microsoft Office is a huge perk that no other platform has. And like Segan, I couldn’t care less about LetterPress.

Still, after two years of iteration by Microsoft, I can’t get into Windows Phone, and the paucity of apps–real or perceived–has nothing to do with it. My troubles come down to the little things that Windows Phone 8 doesn’t do as well as other platforms, the very things I rely on from a mobile device. Here are some examples:

GPS navigation is still a mess. To get directions on an iPhone or Android phone, all you have to do is hold down a button and say “directions to,” or “navigate to,” followed by the place you want to go. No such equivalent exists on Windows Phone. The closest alternative is to hold down the home button, then say where you want to go, then tap on the location in Bing search, then tap the “drive” option. Even that only works if you have a Nokia phone with turn-by-turn directions built-in, or you install a supported third-party app from the Windows Store (none of which actually exist yet, as far as I can tell). Getting direction is one of the things I do most on my smartphone. The fact that no OS-wide solution for getting turn-by-turn directions is a dealbreaker for me.

Internet Explorer has problems aplenty. I kid you not, IE for Windows Phone lacks a “forward” navigation button, but that’s not its only sin. When you search the web, you get bumped out to a separate Bing app–and there’s no setting Google as your default search engine–so if you decide to enter a specific URL while searching, you must find a way back to the browser first. Also, the web treats mobile IE like a second-class citizen, so if you try to use certain sites, like Google Docs, you get the lame feature-phone version instead of the proper site for smartphones. That last point is the fault of web developers, not Microsoft, but it’s a nuisance either way.

Gmail gives me grief. This may be an oddly specific nitpick, but whenever I try to read through a long Gmail conversation thread, Windows Phone buckles. On previous phones I’ve used, the app just crashed entirely. On the HTC Windows Phone 8X I’ve been using, that doesn’t happen anymore, but each individual message still takes a minute or two to load. Maybe most people don’t have long e-mail threads to deal with, but I do, and this recurring issue makes Gmail practically unusable on Windows Phone. Seeing as Gmail is now the world’s largest email provider, that’s a problem.

Notifications are way behind the competition. Want to be notified of new emails on a Windows Phone? Your only option is to hear an audio ringtone for each new message. There’s no option to see a silent pop-up, and there’s no notification center–apparently Microsoft “ran out of time” on this feature–which also means you don’t have a single place to glance at incoming e-mails, text messages and social network messages. If you want to see what’s happening, your only option is to go to the home screen and thumb through a bunch of Live Tiles.

I feel like I just went through the Airing of Grievances. (Next up: The Feats of Strength with angry Windows Phone-loving commenters.) But it had to be said. If the things I rely on most–handling messages, browsing the web, checking e-mail, getting directions–don’t work well, it doesn’t matter what the app situation is now or might become in a few months.

Like Segan, I want Windows Phone to succeed. It’s smoother and more stable than Android, but has a wider range of hardware options than the iPhone, and it also has some beautiful design concepts not found in either competitor. Yet I still feel like it gets in the way of the things I need to do. I’ve given the darn thing a chance, as Segan begs of us pundits, but once again I’m ready to bury it, at least until it grows into something better.