When HTC released a gorgeous, powerful, innovative, distinctive Android phone a few weeks ago, we realized Android was suddenly an option for everyone, even the very rich. But yesterday, Nokia unveiled its newest flagship smartphone, a gorgeous, powerful, innovative, distinctive Windows Phone, and I suspect it won’t sell any better than the Lumia 920, the last flagship Nokia Windows Phone (which in its first quarter sold 4.4 million units, compared to the iPhone 5’s 27.4 million). Or the Lumia before that. Or the one before that. That’s because Windows Phone has a serious problem: its hardware is improving rapidly, but its operating software is not.
Two years ago, we reviewed Windows Phone 7.5, the first major update to the then-new Windows Phone operating system, and said we were still “waiting for it to really live up to its promise.” One year ago, we reviewed the Nokia Lumia 920, with the Windows Phone 8 update, and said “Windows Phone has huge problems. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, but we’re two years into this operating system, and it still has basic issues that impact daily use.”
The new Lumia looks great–I was very impressed with the camera technology when I saw it last year, and the aesthetics of the Lumia line have always been stylish and playful in a way that’s totally different from anything else on the market. But that doesn’t matter at all, because Microsoft is not improving the Windows Phone operating system at anywhere near the pace it needs to. Here’s a brief list of major problems Microsoft has yet to address.
- Multitasking is sometimes inscrutable, in that you never know which apps will show up in the “currently running” list of apps.
- Email threading often doesn’t work, especially with Gmail accounts.
- Lots of features, including Rooms (sort of a mobile, multimedia chat room) are Windows Phone exclusives, meaning they can only be accessed with Windows Phones–cool, but it’s pretty unlikely all your friends have Windows Phones too.
- Speech recognition is lousy, nowhere near as good as Google’s Android voice control or even Apple’s Siri.
- There’s no place to see notifications at all; if you get an alert on an app that you haven’t pinned to your homescreen, you’d never know.
- Bing Maps doesn’t have public transit directions, let alone bike directions.
- It’s not easy to share photos to services like Twitter and Facebook; Android and iOS let you do that in one touch, but not Windows Phone.
Microsoft can fix all that stuff. Microsoft needs to fix all that stuff. But the biggest problem might be the hardest to fix: there aren’t nearly enough good apps available for Windows Phone.
App developers are often low-budget and understaffed, even wildly successful ones, and it’s expensive and time-consuming to assign people to port apps to another platform, like Windows Phone. They’ll do it, sure, if they have the resources and it seems like the userbase is big enough to make them some money… and therein lies the problem.
It’s a cyclical issue. Developers won’t make apps for a platform nobody uses, and nobody will buy a phone with no apps. No customers leads to no apps leads to no customers.
Microsoft can break the cycle, though. All it has to do is take advantage of the fact that it’s one of the biggest and most powerful companies in the world: take a cannon, fill it up with money and talented developers, and aim it south from the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington straight at Silicon Valley. (Or wherever else the developers call home.) Aim the cash cannon east, at London, and give King.com, the makers of massive hit Candy Crush, a couple hundred thousand dollars and a team of developers to port the game over to Windows Phone. Do the same for Instagram (which is still not available on Windows Phone), Snapchat, Dots, or whatever else people are using on other platforms.
Microsoft has the clout and capital to fix its own problems–it just needs to actually spend the time and money it’ll take to do it.