My thoughts on Windows Phone 7

Don't call this a review. Call it a critical analysis of a platform I really wanted to like.

I just spent the last five days with the Samsung Focus on AT&T. First off, I should say WinMo 7 will be a great contender in the mobile space...in a couple years. It is reminicent of the first iPhone, which would be okay if this were 2007...but it's not.

The thing I continue to be disappointed about from phone makers competing with Apple is that they seem to follow directly in Apple's footprints. Copy/paste came late on the iPhone. So did tethering, push notifications, multitasking, screenshots, global inbox. And all of those features are missing on WinMo 7 for now. (Although, there is a workaround for tethering.)

If you want to compete with Apple, you need to release a phone that competes with the latest iPhone, not the first one they came out with. Just because Apple didn't release certain features until years later doesn't mean you can do the same thing. It's 2011, and even though you're late to the party, you'd better catch up, because when a consumer goes to compare your phone with the iPhone, it's just not going to compete without certain features.

For the sake of this post, I'll leave out the features listed above, assuming they'll all be coming at some point. Also, keep in mind that I'm writing this from an iPhone user's standpoint, so that's my main reference point. (And I apologize for not providing screenshots. But since WinMo 7 doesn't let you take screenshots, well...)

Things I like about WinMo 7

Facebook integration
WinMo 7 has tight Facebook integration. Not only does it pull in contact profile pictures, but viewing a contact also shows their latest status update. While I usually find this type of thing cheesy, I can see the value in this because status updates can make a great conversation starter when calling someone.

It also automatically downloads all Facebook albums into the built-in photo app, so showing off Facebook pics is as simple as popping open the native app. (It actually downloads album meta data and loads thumbs when you view the album, so the pics aren't actually saved on the phone.)

Profile linking
If I recall correctly, Palm's WebOS was the first major platform to automatically link multiple contact records for contacts from different sources. For example, it will combine phone numbers and email addresses for the same contact that are found in different places like Google Contacts, Facebook, and more. WinMo 7 does this just as well.

Email readibility
Emails look fantastic on this device. The sizing of the sender's name, subject, and text, and the coloring works in harmony to create a really delightful experience. On WinMo 7, I actually enjoy reading email.

Maps
Bing Maps look great in this app. I especially like how, when scrolling to a new section on the map that hasn't been loaded, that section of the map is faded out like a video game map in an area that hasn't been explored. Once the area loads, the map fades in. A simple, but nice touch.

On-screen keyboard
The keyboard feels more accurate and precise than other phones (including the iPhone). I'm a fan. But unfortunately, auto-correct isn't nearly as good. (I'll write about that later.) The keyboard also gives word suggestions which is useful in a few cases. One thing I liked was the ability to highlight an entire word and see auto-complete suggestions for other words. So if you're typing fast and don't realize you input the wrong word, you can just select it and tap on the correct suggestion, rather than using backspace and retyping the correct word.

Marketplace app trials
The biggest thing that bugs me about the iPhone App Store is that you can't try an app before you decide if you like it. I think Google's move with Android Marketplace to allow refunds within 24 hours was genius. I downloaded so many more apps on Android because I didn't feel like it was as much of a commitment; there was a way to "back out" if I wanted to. But I have a feeling some app makers didn't like this, because if you only needed to use an app once, you could use it and then get a refund right after.

With the Windows Marketplace, they offer free trials if the app maker provides a trial version. This is a happy medium, because game makers can offer trial versions, and other app makers can still force you to buy the app if you're not likely to use it on a daily basis.

 

Things I don't like about WinMo 7

Lack of homescreen/tile customization
The homescreen tiles (see screenshot at top) are large, lifeless (the built-in app icons are only one color), and the only thing you can do with them is move them around. You can't change the size of tiles to make three to a row, and if a tile is two tiles wide by default, there's no way to make it half the size. I'd much prefer to see more icons without having to scroll, since the icons show notifications for each app (again, see screenshot above).

Camera (on my Samsung Focus)
There's no other way to put it. The camera is TERRIBLE (keep in mind this is hardware-related, not tied to WinMo 7 itself). It does record HD video, but what's the point if the quality gives away that it was taken with a cell phone?

Transition speed
Transitions on WinMo7 can best be described as a page turn. When you open something, the outgoing page starts to peel from bottom to top. When you exit an application, the entire page flips at the same time.

The transitions are cool for the "honeymoon period," meaning they're kind of cool for the first couple days of owning the phone, and for showing off the phone to friends. But they take a couple seconds to run their course, and I don't think anything is happening in the background (like actually loading the app). I'm pretty sure they're just for visual effect. For me, I'd much rather have a screen load in half the time, than wait for a transition to do its thing, or at the least, an option to disable them.

Email handling
Images in emails rarely seem to work. You have to tap to download an inline image, and when you do, it's really hit or miss on if they'll actually load. (But keep in mind that my experience here may be different than others, due to my email servers.)

On-screen keyboard auto-correct
While I think the keyboard is easier to type more accurately on, auto-correct is far worse than the likes of the iPhone. Sending messages or typing emails ended up being much more tedious because of this. (This was actually the last straw that made me give up WinMo 7. Being unable to type quickly and accurately with the help of auto-correct is a make or break point for touchscreen phones today.)

General lack of consistency
In some apps, pressing the dedicated hardware search button will search within the app. In others, Bing will load, when you're expecting to search within the app. Microsoft should force app makers to use in-app search. For example, in Foursquare, hitting the hardware search loads Bing; to search for a venue, you have to tap the search icon on the screen.

Also, there is a lack of consistent UI. In the text message app and in calendar, the color scheme is white text on a black background. In others like email, it uses black text on a white background. The latter is much more readable. But the reason for the differences between apps is beyond me.

Calendar
The calendar is just really hard to understand. I think this has something to do with the black background on white text. There are also no dividers between events in agenda view. It's hard to see what ties to what. The calendar app could really use some cleaning up.

Bing-only
I didn't see an option to use Google as my primary search site, and that's just lame.

Ringtones
No, you can't add your own ringtones (as far as I see), and all of the stock tones sound exactly the same and are all hard to hear. I missed plenty of calls and texts because the notifications aren't loud enough and don't pierce noisy environments.

Internet Explorer
When fully zoomed out, the text just looks like giant black blurbs. You can't even try to read the text without zooming in. And even when you do, the anti-aliasing isn't great. I found myself only browsing when absolutely necessary. I actually preferred waiting until I got back on my computer over using the phone's browser.

No voice recorder
Maybe I'm being too picky, but I have always found voice recorders on mobile devices to be a necessity. But this one lacks a native voice recorder. I would hope an update would fix this, but I would tend to doubt it as there are paid voice recorders in the Windows Marketplace already.

 

As you can tell from my pros and cons list, the cons currently outweight the pros. I'm sure Windows Phone 7 will get better in the coming months and years - and I really hope it does. I still do like it better than Android, and about the same as WebOS. But WinMo 7 isn't right for me yet. I'm still sticking with the phone that does most things right, my Verizon-powered iPhone 4.

Is PayPal run by a bunch of monkeys?

Last week, I got locked out of my PayPal account "for security purposes." What this means is that I can no longer use my PayPal account until I go through a tedious verification process that will take up to 2 weeks. In the meantime, I can't buy anything with PayPal, and recurring transactions automatically fail.

PayPal's account verification process is senseless, and I will never use recurring PayPal payments for business transactions ever again (and you shouldn't either). Here's why:

PayPal's Account Verification Process

Why did this happen? I created a second PayPal account to use in testing an app. After creating the account, I transferred $1 from my regular PayPal account - you know, the one I've had open for 10 years. Well, this move triggered something at PayPal, and they limited my account. To get my account reinstated, here's what has to happen:

  1. Change my password
  2. Update my security questions
  3. Wait for verification of my location, by waiting 7-10 days for PayPal to send me a verification code IN THE MAIL. (PayPal has an alternate phone verification process, but they couldn't verify my location with that.)

Flaws in PayPal's Account Verification Process

Aside from the fact that I'm annoyed that my account got locked in the first place, I present several flaws in their current account verification process:

  1. If I'm a hacker who is logged into a PayPal account, how it changing my password going to solve anything?
  2. Also, if I'm a hacker, how is RESETTING my security questions going to help?! If anything, I should be challenged to ANSWER them, not reset them. This defeats the purpose of security questions.
  3. If I happened to be out of town for a while, or unable to check mail at the address on my PayPal account, I'd be screwed, since that's the only way to complete their verification process. What if my address were out of date?

Why I will never use recurring PayPal payments for business transactions ever again

You see, when PayPal decides to limit your account, any recurring transactions - you know, any payments that are processed monthly - straight up fail. You'd think if you had pre-existing recurring transactions, PayPal would run them, since they were set up before there was any "suspicious activity" on your account. Nope. Instead, several critical subscriptions for my business have now been cancelled. This includes my Springloops SVN subscription that I use to manage and check-in all of my code, a mission critical service for me (there were others, too). What a joke.

I thought it would be nice to use PayPal to manage recurring subscriptions when it's available, so I could manage recurring transactions all in one place. Instead, this little incident makes me realize that I can't even depend on PayPal for that. As if I didn't already hate PayPal enough, this puts the icing on the cake.

So the moral of the story is, if you run a business and charge recurring payments, don't even bother providing PayPal as an option. You and your customers will only end up getting screwed.

    Why the Verizon iPhone won't be any better than the AT&T iPhone (It's not the network)

    People across America are excited that Verizon Wireless is getting the iPhone. AT&T has been blamed for network problems that prevent current iPhone owners from being able to do just about anything on their wireless network, like making a phone call. But I'm not so sure Verizon will be all that better, and I blame the iPhone itself.

    I seriously think there's a fundamental problem with the iPhone itself, and how it is made.

    Let's face it, there's a reason cell phone makers have never built a cell phone with the same type of materials Apple has: reception problems. If you look closely, you'll realize that the majority of people who complain about AT&T's network problems have an iPhone. People with other types of phones don't complain nearly as much about getting dropped, or not being able to place a call altogether.

    When it comes to data speeds and connectivity, if you try to complete the same action on an iPhone as with any other smartphone (on the same network), there's a good chance the other phone will finish first. This happened to me the other day. I was with a buddy in downtown LA and went to check traffic on my iPhone with Google Maps. I couldn't get anything to load. (Same with my iPad, by the way.) Absolutely nothing. Zilch. He pulled out his Windows-powered Samsung Focus and Google Maps and traffic loaded instantly.

    For this reason, I am skeptical that the iPhone on Verizon will perform significantly better than its AT&T counterpart.

    I'm not saying AT&T doesn't have their issues. They do, and they have plenty. But I think Apple's problems are far worse than anyone would like to think.

    (This problem extends to other Apple products, as well. Anyone who has used a Mac laptop knows that the range on the internal wireless card is far inferior to other laptop makers due to the metal casing. And yet, somehow, Apple has managed to dodge blame for that as well. While Apple makes "pretty" products, their aesthetics come at a price.)

    I base my reasoning on my own hunch and experiences, and no published facts or statistics. I'd be interested in hearing what you think.

    Update: Here's more proof.

    SPEED TRAP AHEAD - SLOW DOWN

    I want to start this post by saying that I'm a fan of cops. I respect them greatly for what they do, and the police in my area are extremely fair and honest in their dealings with people who reciprocate respect. I've been called a snitch before. I've also helped solve a case or two with footage from my outdoor office security cameras.

    But when it comes to officers conducting speed traps, especially with cops on motorcycles, I hold a completely different opinion. Catching a speeder who is clearly driving reckless and endangering lives (or those who speed around schools) is one thing, but cops who hide out, waiting for a driver who is slightly over the speed limit is another thing. And that's what's been happening this week in Tustin, a quiet little town in the heart of Orange County.

    Yesterday I was driving to my office and received a citation from the "random taxation crew" (don't worry, mom, I wasn't driving any faster than you normally do). I wasn't driving recklessly - I was just doing my normal thing, as most people do (very few people actually drive the speed limit - they're absurdly slow for today's day and age). The only problem was, there weren't many people around, and I was a sitting duck.

    In the last 24 hours, I have seen at least 5 people get pulled over by motorcycle cops.

    If this were a normal routine - cops nabbing people all the time for speeding - it would be one thing. But they clearly have a campaign going on this week to ticket as many people as they can.

    My beef is with the lack of inconsistency. If you're not going to enforce something on a regular basis, don't bother enforcing it at all. Rather than stopping upstanding citizens who are going through their normal routine, why don't you go fight the real crime that happens all the time in the alleyways and dark corners of your jurisdiction?

    So to be a "good neighbor," I decided I'd hang a sign warning drivers of the upcoming speed trap.

    Who knows how long it will last, but if I can help one honest person avoid a ticket, it will have paid off.

    iPhone faux pas

    If you use a touchscreen phone, chances are you've sent a text message saying something you didn't intend to say, thanks to the sometimes overly ambitious auto-correct.

    Recently I've tweeted some iPhone auto-corrections that I've come across, and some friends have @ replied with ones they've encountered. Here are a few:

    psd --> LSD
    iOS --> UPS
    podcasting --> Piccadilly
    awwwwwwww --> seedeater
    swimmer --> Weinberg
    hahaha --> habanera

    But none of these beat the list published by damnyouautocorrect.com in November. Check it out.

    The moral of the story is... always double-check your messages before sending, or your recipient might be a little confused.

    Have you encountered any strange or memorable auto-corrects? Share them in the comments!

    Wanted: English translator for Chinese electronics manufacturers

    One of the best parts of buying small electronics straight from China is the joy of trying to understand the product packaging. The words make sense, but they're never in the right order for the English language. It's like they use Google Translate to get their copy into English, rather than hiring an interpreter. 

    Here are a few shots off the box of a remote control helicopter I got for Christmas.

    And if you haven't seen them yet, last year I posted a few shots from the box for a remote control plane here that I think are even funnier.

    With Apple, you have to drink ALL the Kool-Aid, not just half a glass.

    Many Mac users talk about how "everything just works." For me, this has never been my experience with any Apple product. Ever. I finally realized why: because I don't do everything their way.

    Today I had to get a replacement iPhone from Apple. When I restored the backup of my phone to my new device, I was frustrated to discover none of my apps synced, among a litany of other odds and ends. As it turns out, this was because I didn't have "Sync Apps" checked within iTunes.

    Despite the fact that I "backed up" my iPhone, I got screwed because I didn't submit to Apple's entire - and narrow - use case. (Also, Apple failed to explain that a "backup" doesn't actually back everything up.)

    So to the rest of you who have a habit of going your own way and not following all the "rules" - or in this case, letting Apple manage everything for you - look out. Because if you don't drink ALL of the Apple Kool-Aid, you too might find yourself in a world of hurt.

    Downtime happens. So let's have some common courtesy, people.

    Skype had some technical difficulties today. So far, they've been mostly down for 10 hours. A couple weeks ago, Tumblr was down for two days straight.

    When things go wrong, people make a stink. And quickly. While it's reasonable to be upset when our favorite websites go down, people often overreact. Some run their mouth about how angry they are; others threaten to move to a competing service. I find the sense of entitlement that people claim, to be both comical and depressing at the same time.

    Here are a few tweets about Skype I found on a quick search:

    And here are a few about Tumblr:

    Clearly no one has broken the news to these people that they are NOT the most important person in the world. The fact is, it's not like the people behind these websites want their sites to go down. Downtime sucks, but it can happen to anyone. Behind these faceless websites are people who devote their lives into making the products you love. And guess what? They hate downtime more than you do.

    So the next time your favorite online service goes down, here's what I propose: Go outside, get some fresh air, and realize that a few years ago, this awesome technology that you rely on didn't even exist. We are blessed to live in an age where we can communicate with people across the world in realtime. Our grandparents would have killed for that.

    As hard as we try, things will never be perfect. So instead of just complaining, let's try to look on the bright side once in a while.

    Startup acquisitions, offers, and exits, and why the next few years will be interesting...

    Internet startup acquisition prices keep trending upward. A few years ago, Myspace sold to News Corp for $580 million. Then YouTube sold to Google for $1.6 billion. At that point, that $1.6 billion price tag was unheard of. That came shortly after Facebook rejected an offer from Yahoo! for $1 billion.

    More recently, Groupon supposedly rejected a rumored $6 billion acquisition from Google. Then Foursquare rejected an offer for $140 million. Heroku just got acquired by Salesforce.com for $212 million in cash. It's pretty incredible that these websites have managed to create such a large perceived value in such a short amount of time.

    The companies that have chosen to stay on their own - mainly the more "fringe" web apps like Groupon and Foursquare - make me wonder if it will be worth it for them in the long run. It makes sense for a company like Facebook, who has managed to put themselves in the center of the internet, but for companies like Groupon or Foursquare, I'm not so sure. Sometimes I wonder if they rejected these large offers because of an inflated sense of self-worth, or because they think they'll be able to make themselves worth 10x that in a few years.

    Time will tell.

    I'm sure the hot shots like Groupon and Foursquare have great plans for their companies, but it will be interesting to watch them, and to see if their multi-million dollar - or in Groupon's case, multi-billion dollar - gambles pay off.

    As much as startups are the culmination of dreams that these founders have, if I was offered a large sum of money for something I built, I can't say I wouldn't cash out, go buy a mansion and a yacht, and enjoying life for a little while.

    So I guess kudos to these companies who believe in themselves, think they'll be able to accomplish greater things in the next few years, and to those who don't see money as the end goal in life.