I’ve seen a lot of posts recently about how Windows 8, and Windows Phone 8, are failures. These posts inevitably talk about how the new user interface is a complete mess, or how, no matter how great Windows Phone 8 may be, the app situation is so bad that Microsoft should simply give up on the platform.
I actually disagree with these arguments as such. While OS X and iOS are my daily operating systems, Metro is, in my opinion, a great touch interface, and will make a wonderful tablet experience…once they remove the desktop. Almost all of the improvements delivered in Windows 8 on the desktop side of things were welcome, and I think that people will actually grow to love them…once Microsoft quits forcing its users to check into Metro every so often. On the Windows Phone front, Microsoft has made it clear that they can buy themselves out of the app problem—which, if not a solution I particularly care for, nevertheless seems to be working well for them right now. In other words, as much as these are genuine problems, I think they have solutions, and those appear to be the solutions Microsoft is actively pursuing right now.
Yet there is a subtler and more nefarious problem that Microsoft seems uninterested in fixing, and that problem keeps me from using Windows.
I was at Microsoft Build this past year. My focus was on learning about Azure and doing some labs with the .NET engineers, but, given that Microsoft gave every single attendee two free Windows 8 tablets, and that I happened to win a Windows Phone, it was kind of hard to ignore the consumer side of things. And, honestly, when I got those free devices, I was in need of both a new phone, and a new laptop. I used Windows at work; why not give it a shot at home?
So I tried. I really did. And even now, I sometimes break out my Surface, or transfer my SIM to my Windows Phone, just to see if things have changed. But the honest answer is that I can’t really use these devices as my main desktop and phone.
And it’s not because of apps. And it’s not because of user interfaces. And it’s not because of battery life, or whatever else you’ve read.
It’s because of mail, calendars, and contacts.
Last March, Microsoft rolled out an anticipatory update that removed support in their Windows 8 apps for talking to Google via Exchange ActiveSync, or EAS. This meant you could no longer access your Google calendars natively in Metro. Nearly a year later, Windows 8 still has no ability to natively work with Google calendars. Or, really, any calendaring system that doesn’t run EAS, because they don’t support the CalDAV standard that virtually every calender server except theirs uses. Their recommended solution? Oh, you know, just start using Outlook.com instead.
Meanwhile, Windows Phone, unlike its desktop cousin, works just fine with Google Calendar. On first blush, it works great with Gmail, too, so you’d think you’re golden. But try deleting a message from a Gmail account on your phone, and you’ll discover that your definition of deleting a message is rather different from Microsoft’s: despite the phone having a special workflow for registering Gmail accounts, and showing their unique status clearly in the accounts section, deleting a Gmail message results in your phone creating a new label called “Deleted Items”, tagging your message with that label, and then archiving it. And the situation with other email providers isn’t much better: Windows Phone allows no folder customization, so you get to enjoy all kinds of lovely dummy folders on your other providers. Don’t want your sent folder called “Sent Items”? Tough luck, because your phone sure does.
What about contacts? Windows Phone actually gets this right: you can have lots of sources for contacts, and it’s easy to link duplicates from across multiple services into a kind of übercontact. That makes Windows Phone better than at least iOS, and better than the last version of Android I heavily used, too. Yet when I jump back to Windows proper, again, it’s Microsoft services or bust. In practice, if I want to have ubiquitous access to my contacts in a Windows world, it’s again Outlook.com or bust.
These all have workarounds—using a web browser to access your calendars directly on Google, for example, or giving up on the bundled Metro apps and using your old desktop apps instead—but these workarounds remove any real impetus to use Windows in the first place. If I’m just accessing everything through the web, I’d be better off with a Chromebook than a Surface, or a Geeksphone than a Lumia. For all the accusations that Apple has a walled garden on their app store, their phone does a great job integrating tons of third-party services, from Outlook.com to Google to LinkedIn to Facebook, and you better believe that their mail applications know how to handle Gmail’s unique mail structure. It’s deplorable that Microsoft can’t get its act together years after Windows 8’s release and make it actually work with the rest of the world.
I don’t mind living in a walled garden of apps, but I’m not willing to live in a walled ghetto of services. If Microsoft wants me to use Windows, they’re going to have to admit that the world has changed and tear down that wall.