Phone Trials

Posted by on Dec 7, 2015 in Editorial

Last week I switched from my Galaxy S6 to a Lumia 640. Lest you think this is going to be some kind of screed for or against, it’s not. I think it’s more of a case of practicality, although it’s not been an entirely smooth transition.

The Lumia 640 was on sale last week for a measly $29.99. It’s a pay-as-you-go phone, but by swapping my contact SIM from one phone to another, it’s just another phone with all the bells and whistles I pay (an stupid amount of money) for. Taking a look at these “go-phones” is a good way pick up a backup device, or to evaluate another ecosystem if you’re that kind of open minded person.

I had used Windows Phones in the past, and really enjoyed them. Their UI is clean, logical, and informative, the devices are well constructed, and the battery life is astounding. I could go for several days of above-average use and still have a charge left. That’s worth something right there.

Of course, people with Axes to Grind will fall back on the party line about application availability, and I suppose that’s a legitimate factor if you’re a 14 year old who downloads everything on the device’s store homepage each week. Over the years of bouncing between ecosystems, I’ve realized that there’s only a few apps that I need to have. Twitter, Facebook, Netflix, Plex, Email, some kind of messaging, be it text messaging or some other service that People I Care About use. All platforms have all of these. I don’t play games on my phone. I don’t use the “hip” apps that Silicon Valley newsfeeds say that “everyone is using”. It’s not an age thing, though: I went through my own period of “download all the things” when smartphones first became available, and even then I kind of understood that there’s really no salvation in having 20 match-3 games, 10 different “build your empire and share friend codes for free in game rewards” games, or all the social apps that let you connect to strangers. Mind you, the Windows Phones do have those kinds of apps, but who cares? The mobile ecosystem is so monotonous that if you can get one app of a certain stripe, it’s just as good as any other, and you can really only commit energy to a handful of clones anyway.

What I’ve actually learned, though, is how much I want to move away from the Google ecosystem — and where I simply cannot. For example, I used to preach (in my own head if not out loud) about Google Plus, even while the rest of the world was crapping all over it. It never unseated Facebook in the public consciousness, but unlike pundits trying to score points, I realized that it didn’t have to. It just had to do it’s own thing and not be a carbon copy of Facebook, and that was enough for me and several of my friends. But if there’s one thing Google is good at it’s spastic flailing over it’s offerings. They’ll put herculean effort into developing and promoting a new service, and then overnight just shrug and move onto the next shiny that’s got them excited. Reader. Buzz. Wave. Probably a lot of other applications and services I’ve never heard of as well, all put out there with great fanfare only to have been left on the side of the road like an unwanted pet. Plus seems to be following that trajectory, as Google carves it up into parts: photos goes one way, Hangouts another, and the remaining shell of the social application seems in flux, transitioning from a great way to organize your friends and family to a place that caters to special interests and “discovery” of caches of people that the Google Algorithm suspects you’d like to hear from. It seems that most of the people I commune with via Plus have stopped their posting, or have at least slowed it significantly; most of them are far more prodigious with their posting on Facebook these days than they are on Plus.

What does this have to do with Windows Phone? Nothing, and that’s the problem. Google has a cozy relationship with Apple, pumping out all of their apps for both Android and iOS. But Windows Phone? Absolutely not. No. Never. Google has gone out of it’s way to stop third party apps from accessing it’s services, and aside from the apps from which it can derive revenue (Google Search, basically), Google refuses to create any native apps for the Windows Mobile platform. That means no dedicated Google Plus app (or YouTube, or Gmail, or Drive, etc.). I can use the Plus website, which has a nice mobile format, but I’m missing out on features like the ability to auto-backup photos to the Photo service where all of my pictures have been going for the past…half decade. The last straw was really when I went to install Waze, the traffic-sharing application that my wife and I use to track one another’s movements (not as creepy as it sounds, since my wife has a 45 minute one-way commute twice per day). Google bought Waze, and while the app is still on the Windows Marketplace, they said that they’ll no longer be updating it:

If it were just a case of “not supporting the competition”, then I’d accept that if Google wasn’t making iOS apps. Some would argue that Windows Phone doesn’t have enough market share for Google to bother, but we’re talking about a company that allows it’s employees to take Fridays off to “do their own projects”. The rise and fall of their other apps I enumerated above shows that Google’s not afraid to invest in a project regardless of it’s returns, so it’s not like they’re short on time or manpower; just the resolve. But removing support for an existing application that has been humming along with updates in sync with other platforms after having been purchased by Google? It’s not a case of being worthwhile; there’s bad blood between Google and Microsoft (I suspect mainly due to patent battles), but you’d only know it from Google’s behavior. Microsoft is happy to make apps for all platforms, opting to play nice. Who would have thought that Microsoft would be labeled as the magnanimous player in an ecosystem by creating apps for all three platforms?

The only real pain point is the LG Watch R that I’ve been using. Google’s refusal to play nice means there’s no support for the device with the Windows Phone (granted, the iOS support is present, but lacking). I’ve been using it recently on airplane mode, which means it’s just an LCD watch-face. I’m no longer able to use it in the way to which I’d grown accustomed, with it’s notifications, fast responses, and audio controls. Not having a smartwatch is something 99.9% of the world’s population gets along with just fine, but it’s matter of having it right there and not being able to use it to its full (and ingrained) potential.

I guess the take home message is that I’ve transitioned beyond the tactics that companies love to use to keep us tethered to their platforms, and see it as a sad attempt to control a conversation in which no one has anything interesting to say. One platform is just as good as another, really, because we can only devote so many hours a day to a handful of apps. Worrying about what is and is not offered is a losing proposition because at any point any company can opt to pull support for their app for even the lamest of reasons. So long as your device does what you need it to do — and so long as you’re honest with yourself in what you really need it to do — then I don’t see a reason to mistake “walled garden” techniques as a sign of platform superiority.