Better phones, but lagging peers

Better phones, but lagging peers

Better phones, but lagging peers

The Nokia-Microsoft combine makes good smartphones. But the lack of developer support is hurting them, says Farhad Manjoo.

If the tech business were fair, you would be considering the Nokia Icon for your next smartphone. The Icon, which went on sale recently for $199 (Rs 12,288) with a two-year Verizon contract, has a lot to like: a graceful design, a brilliant display, a remarkable camera and an innovative set of microphones to make better-sounding home videos.

The Icon runs Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system, which has a cleaner and more coherent user interface than Google’s Android, and a more flexible and more informative home screen than Apple’s iOS.

But the tech business isn’t fair.

While the Icon is nice, you should not make it your next phone if you expect to be able to do everything with your phone that you can do on Android or iOS. Like any Windows Phone, the Icon is a fundamentally hobbled device, all but locked out of the teeming ecosystem of new apps and smartphone-powered gadgets that are expanding tech’s frontiers.

While this disadvantage might not be apparent in your day-to-day use of the Icon - you’ll have no problem making calls and sending texts - the phone’s shortcomings will haunt you whenever you want to try the next great thing. If you want to use your phone to play the latest games, to experiment with new social-networking apps, to try the newest ways to pay for merchandise or to control the newest smartphone-connected devices (say, a smart thermostat), Windows Phone isn’t for you, at least not now. If you do choose a Windows Phone, go into it with your eyes open to the fact that you are most likely volunteering for a second-class digital existence.

The Nokia Icon illustrates the tragedy of Windows Phone - and, in a larger sense, the tragedy of Microsoft and Nokia, two companies of once-legendary prowess that have struggled to find a foothold in the market for smartphones and tablets. Two years ago, the two entered into a strategic partnership, and last year, Microsoft announced a plan to acquire Nokia’s mobile phone division.

Judged by their products alone, the partnership has been a staggering success. The Icon is just the latest in a series of fantastic Nokia Windows Phones, which have combined deep technical innovations (like the 41-megapixel camera in Nokia’s Lumia 1020) with a striking design sensibility. Nokia is making just about the best phones on the market today. Its lineup beats Samsung, HTC, and Motorola, and it is nearly on par with Apple.

The tragedy is that the technology industry is not a meritocracy. Making great products is often not sufficient for success, and sometimes it’s not even required. In tech, marketing, branding, partnerships and timing can be as important as how well your product works.

What’s more, how a company’s product works is largely dependent on the company’s position in the market. Microsoft and Nokia’s consumer businesses are governed by the vicious rules of network effects - the economic idea that products get better as more people use them. The more people who use a particular operating system, the more likely an app developer is to build for that system. And the more apps that are developed, the more the operating system appeals to consumers. The cycle builds on itself.

For more than a decade, Microsoft rode a network-effects engine to great success; you used Windows and Office because everyone else used them. But in the smartphone business, Microsoft and Nokia were caught flat-footed by the popularity of the iPhone and its Android imitators, and they were far too late in creating similarly powerful touch-screen smartphones.

Microsoft loyalists will argue that I’m exaggerating the downsides of choosing a Windows Phone. In the last few years, Microsoft has aggressively courted developers - including sometimes offering payments - and the store is now growing quickly, with about 500 apps added every day. And Windows Phone has managed to attract many of the world’s most popular mobile apps. There are apps for Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Netflix, Vine and Pandora.

I sympathise with the position, too, that apps are overrated that right out of the box, modern smartphones perform most functions that most people need, and lots of people can get by just fine without filling up their phones with extras.

And Microsoft’s market position is on the upswing. According to ABI Research, which tracks global mobile phone sales, shipments of Windows Phone devices in the last quarter of 2013 were up 104 percent over the last quarter of 2012, a higher growth rate than all other mobile operating systems. Yes, Windows Phone’s market share is still tiny - ABI says that only 4 percent of the smartphones shipped for the holidays ran Windows, compared with 18 percent for Apple and 77 percent for Android. But at least Windows Phone isn’t a dying platform like BlackBerry. It’s more accurate to call Windows Phone a long-shot platform, a system that could still catch a lucky break and take off, as sometimes happens in that unpredictable business.

But that’s small comfort to any potential customer. Even if you don’t crave every new app, you’re bound to run into situations where your phone’s limitations will stand in the way.

Google, for instance, doesn’t make any apps for Windows Phone. You can still use some of Google’s services on the device, including Gmail, but you’ll be shut out of Google’s most innovative features, like the predictive personal assistant Google Now (which is available on both Android and iOS). Yes, this is Google’s fault, not Microsoft’s, but it’s still a headache. Like I said - this business isn’t fair.

Other Google services, including YouTube, are available through so-called unofficial apps created by programmers who aren’t associated with Google. The Windows Phone Store is clogged with these unofficial apps, and many aren’t quite up to snuff. The YouTube app - created by Microsoft - is barely worthy of the name. It simply opens up the video site in your Windows Web browser; I found it mostly worked, though slower and without much of the design polish of the official YouTube apps found on iOS and Android. Other unsanctioned apps are disastrous. The unofficial app for the house-sharing service Airbnb - the only Airbnb app I could find - is in French.

But wait, there’s less. Windows Phone doesn’t have access to almost all the latest games that crowd the most-popular list on the iOS App Store and it lacks some of the most creative and useful apps by startups (like the credit-card reader Square). And Windows isn’t supported by many of the companies making intelligent devices that are controlled by your phone, like health-tracking devices or smart home appliances. There are no official Windows Phone apps to support the Fitbit health tracker, the Withings bathroom scale, the Nest home thermostat or Sonos’ multiroom speaker system.

Android doesn’t have some of the latest apps, either. But almost every app developer I talk to thinks of Android as an eventual priority, the second platform to aim for after iOS. Windows apps aren’t considered a similar necessity among developers. Often, they aren’t even considered.

This month, Charles Arthur, of the British newspaper ‘The Guardian,’ published a persuasive column calling on Microsoft to throw out Windows Phone and instead create a custom - or forked - version of Android, much like Amazon has done for its Kindle Fire tablets. Microsoft’s forked Android might carry the look and feel of the current Windows Phone, but it would be optimized for Bing, Outlook, OneDrive and other Microsoft services, rather than Google’s. Because it would share Android’s guts, current Android developers might need to adjust only a few lines of code to let their apps run on Microsoft’s Android - almost instantly solving Microsoft’s app shortage. (Microsoft declined to comment on that possibility.)

I was sceptical of the Android plan until I began using the Icon and bumped up against the phone’s shortcomings again and again - ugh, there’s no app for the ride-sharing service Uber, and, ugh, there are no plans for a Windows Phone version of the addictive trivia game QuizUp.

Ben Thompson, who runs the insightful tech blog Stratechery and who also supports the plan to fork Android, argues that until Microsoft has a more robust app store, none of its other smartphone ideas are going to matter. “The problem for Microsoft and Nokia is that innovations like a great camera just aren’t enough to overcome the holes in their app store - you can’t get past the app store to even consider things like the great camera,” he said.

That’s the feeling I got while using the Icon: Here’s another fantastic Nokia device that has been hamstrung by Windows Phone.