Opinion

How Windows Phone fails at something as basic as USSD messages

You know those USSD messages that you send from your phone to your network operator for stuff like balance inquiry? Ones like *123#, etc.? Yeah, those don’t work on Windows Phone 7. 

Actually, that’s not completely true. They do work, but only partially. For example, certain messages you send has one single response, for example on Airtel prepaid, you call *123# and you get the balance. Such messages do work on Windows Phone. 

There are however, messages that send you a list of commands as a reply. For example, when I call *567# from Airtel prepaid, I get a list of options to activate, deactivate or choose my EDGE data plan. Each option has a number and to select that option you only reply with that particular number attached to it. Once you reply with a particular number, say, 3, the system automatically recognizes that it is a reply to a previously sent message and responds appropriately. Do note that if you were to just send 3 before sending *567# and getting a reply the system won’t recognize it and point it out as the mistake. In fact, if you take too long to respond, the system ‘forgets’ about the previous message it sent and you have to start all over again. 

Anyway, enough about the system. The thing is, Windows Phone does not work with USSD messages that send back anything other than a simple text message. If it were to return a list of commands the phone simply says ‘Failed’. Failed, indeed. 

This is a pretty basic feature and when you think that your ancient Nokia 3310 was able to pull it off, its absence in this supposedly advanced operating system is appalling. 

I’ve already stated my opinion on the OS before. And instead of discovering things that would make me change my mind I only keep finding things that show me how right I was. 

Opinion

Why I think Ice Cream Sandwich beats the shit out of Windows Phone (or why Windows Phone sucks, in general)

Earlier today I tweeted that with Ice Cream Sandwich, Android blows Windows Phone 7 out of the water and a huge number of people replied to me asking why I think so.

Actually, that’s not true. Only four people asked. What is true, however, is what I said in the tweet. 

From the first time I used Windows Phone 7, my opinion of it was that it is a pretty OS with very little functionality. As Sreeyesh put it quite aptly, it is a dumb blonde. 

Over time Microsoft taught the dumb blonde some tricks so it could play with the big boy without getting its panties in a twist. It can now multitask, cut/copy and paste text and allow other devices to tether to it, all extremely complicated tasks, I’m sure. But despite all of that it was still as functional as compared to Android as a nail clipper is compared to a Swiss army knife. 

But there was one thing that Windows Phone always had over the competition and that was the user interface. Truly, the Metro UI is an extremely well designed interface and anyone with a pair of eyes and a brain behind them would agree to that. 

Design is also an area where Android has lagged behind since time immemorial. You can only expect as much from a pair of blind monkeys that Google hired for designing the OS. But for Ice Cream Sandwich, Google hired Matias Duarte, better known for designing Palm’s (now HP’s) webOS. With a human finally heading the Android design team, things were bound to improve. 

But they didn’t just improve. Under Matias’s watchful eye, Android flourished into a truly great looking OS. With the new design, Android is no longer miles behind Windows Phone 7 or iOS the way it was before. In fact I would say it is now completely on par with them. Only real ugliness you will now find on Android is within third party apps and not inside the core OS. 

But the design is just one part of the user experience. Here are some other things where Android beats Windows Phone hollow. 

  • The notification system on ICS is far superior to WP7. WP7 doesn’t even show basic information like time, battery and network status at the top inside apps. 
  • The Live tiles look cool but aren’t in the same league as widgets. I can have a widget for something as simple as Wi-Fi on Android but on WP7 I have to dig into the settings to enable it. 
  • Internet Explorer is a joke. The way it displays text reminds me of the browsers on the cheap Java phones. In comparison the ICS browser makes web pages look the way they do on a PC. 
  • Multitasking is an even bigger joke. Just shows you five windows at a time that too only if you remembered to press the home button and not the back button, in which case the app gets terminated. 
  • Relies on the Zune software for transferring media and for upgrading the software. Forces me to convert files that are not supported by the OS. The last time I had to use a software on my PC for my Nexus S was never. Also, I still don’t know why one has to use Zune on Windows to sync media when Windows Media Player could have done the same. Or, why the Mac version of the Windows Phone software is better than the Zune crap. 
  • Still cannot take screenshots.
  • The keypad is annoying. At first it seems nice but then you realize it works terrible with contractions such as ‘I’d’ and ‘I’ll’. Where the Android and iOS keypads automatically enters ‘I’d’ when you type I and D, WP keypad just puts ‘id’. You can’t even just tap at a place to place the curser there. You have to manually drag it there every time. 
  • A single volume for music player and ring tone volume. And I thought Android using a single volume for loudspeaker and headphones was bad. 
  • Bing search sucks. Hard. Most of the time I end up launching Google in the browser (where I’m greeted with an ugly looking version of their website thanks to Internet Explorer) and search for whatever I want. What I find most annoying about Bind search is that when you launch it it doesn’t even highlight the search bar and pop-up the keypad. You have to do that manually every time. And they have fixed the search button to this crap instead of making it application dependent. 
  • Bing Maps sucks. Google Maps or GTFO. Nothing else comes close. Not even Nokia’s Ovi Maps. 
  • Limited Bluetooth functionality. I can’t send photos over Bluetooth, for example. Heck, I can’t even delete multiple pictures at once from the photo gallery. 

There were some other things that I can’t remember them right now but I think you get the gist. The thing is before the general notion was that Android is a very functional OS but it’s sluggish and looks like shit. With Ice Cream Sandwich, that is no longer the case. It looks great, its smooth and it still retains all the functions from before. 

Windows Phone, on the other hand, is the same as it was when it was launched, with the ‘new features’ in Mango being things that should have been there since day 1. But even with all the additions it still feels terribly incomplete and incompetent. So much so that I’m not even sure if you can call it a smartphone OS. 

Of course, some of you will think that Android should be better because it is on its sixth major version whereas Windows Phone is on its second. But is it my fault that Microsoft chose to launch in incomplete product in a competitive market? And how does it matter to the customer that one OS is on its second version and the other on its sixth when both are on sale side by side for the same price? 

Microsoft had all the time in the world to get this right. They were in the smartphone OS business before Apple or Google. Microsoft was getting all cosy in its seat, peddling an ageing product when it was caught off-guard by Apple and later by Google. That’s when they suddenly woke up and started work on a new OS. But instead of releasing something attractive and functional they chose to go with just attractive, adding features as time goes by. Probably hoping people wouldn’t notice the lack of features if they made the tiles flip fast enough. 

This strategy would have worked great back in 2007 and in fact it did for one company but Microsoft launched their product in 2010, when the other platforms had almost matured. But what’s worse is that now that we are in 2012, Windows Phone still feels incomplete and as I said, incompetent, whereas the competition is now fully matured. 

And all of its shortcomings would have been tolerable if it at least had apps but even that’s not the case. Microsoft might claim more than 50,000 apps have been put up on the Marketplace but I still see the same 50 apps that I saw a year ago, at outrageous rates, no less. To add insult to injury, they don’t even work particularly well, despite the fact that the developers don’t have to worry about fragmentation like on Android and have just a couple of hardware configurations to worry about. 

This is why I don’t like Windows Phone 7. It’s currently one of the lamest things out there that you can spend your money on. Compared to this I would rather buy an Android phone running Froyo. I’m not kidding. Don’t waste your money on this until Microsoft fixes this shit. Or until there are some real apps that work properly that you can use on it. 

P.S. – I must mention here that I have a Windows Phone with me right now (HTC Radar) and have used several in the past. In fact I have used all the ones launched in India, so I’m not short on experience. Admittedly though, I have used Android for longer. 

Reviews

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich Review

The good stuff: 

The user interface has been completely revamped and unlike the lipstick on a pig that was Gingerbread or Honeycomb which tried too hard to look cool, Ice Cream Sandwich actually looks good. Most of it is tastefully done and although it is hard to please everyone ICS is bound to please a lot more people than the previous versions of Android. Ugly is no longer the adjective that one would use to describe Android anymore. 

There are a lot more transition animations at work here than before but they all fit right in and at no point did I feel that the designers have gone overboard with them. As before, you have the option to disable them completely but now you can even control the speed of the animation. I chose to leave them on at the default speed as it makes moving through the UI feel a lot more natural. 

The new font – Roboto- looks good. I’m not a huge fan of it or hate it like some people, but I appreciate the change because this is the first time the font on Android has been changed since it was first released all those years ago and Droid Sans was never a good font. 

There are some new wallpapers both the static ones and the Live ones. The good thing about the Live wallpapers is that they can now be used without affecting the UI speed, although I’m sure they still have a greater impact on battery life than static wallpapers. 

The new lockscreen looks better and is more functional that before. You can also access the notification tray without having to unlock the phone first. 

Homescreen folders are a welcome addition. Android supported folders before but the implementation was quite terrible. The new method resembles the one on iOS, wherein you simply drag an icon on top of another to create a folder. 

All the built-in apps have been updated. The contacts app now shows large thumbnail images for your contacts, the camera app has a panorama mode for stills and a time-lapse mode for videos. The calendar app now supports pinch to zoom to let you see more details. The Gallery app is vastly improved. Gone is the horrible Cooliris gallery of the previous Android versions and replaced with a much slicker version. It even has an extensive photo editor built-in. 

The browser is much better, too. It’s a lot smoother than before and also incredibly fast. It also lets you sync your bookmarks with the Chrome browser for desktop computers. 

Text input is now much better and more precise. Underlines mistakes and offers replacements on double-tap. 

Built-in screenshot utility. Finally. 

The bad stuff:

UI performance on the Nexus S hasn’t improved. There is still that stutter every now and then. 

The Nexus S homescreen has a permanent Google search bar which is pointless as the phone already has a dedicated search button. 

You still cannot move around icons. If you’re confused by that statement, let me explain. In iOS, when you press and hold on an icon it starts wiggling and then you can move it around and the other icons move to make space for it. That does not happen on Android. If you have to interchange the position of two icons, for example, you would have to move the first one to an empty space, move the second one to the now free space and then move the first one in place of the second one. This, of course, becomes impossible if your homescreens are full, so you have no choice but to delete the first icon, move the second and add the first back again. Strangely, though, this works perfectly inside folders, as it does on iOS. 

You can’t move an icon across multiple screens in one go. Initially, when you press and hold on an icon and drag it to the sides, the home screens would keep moving till you reach the last one. Now it moves one screen and stops, till you move your finger and then it again moves one screen only. Makes moving icons across multiple screens a pain. 

Folders don’t name themselves. Google copied the folder creation method from iOS they might as well have gone all the way. 

The lockscreen lets you launch the camera but you won’t know that until you touch the lock icon. The camera icon is hidden until you touch and start sliding the lock icon. You also can’t change or add other functions to the lockscreen. 

The new widget system is terrible. It instantly gets filled with crap widgets from all the programs you installed and finding one the good ones becomes a lot more difficult. 

The new iOS-style horizontal paginated application drawer is pretty with all the fancy animations but not as convenient as a simple vertical grid of icons as in the previous versions. 

The new volume control bar can now also be operated by touch but it falls bang in the middle of the screen and blocks whatever it is you are watching. 

Gmail UI is a clusterfuck of meaningless icons and buttons. 

The browser is smoother but it does that at a price. When you scroll around the browser blurs out the page and only renders it when you stop scrolling. This makes the scrolling smoother but often you will be staring at a blurred page till it takes its time to render the content. If the content is particularly heavy it could take couple of seconds. On heavier pages the constant blurring when you scroll becomes extremely frustrating. Makes you wonder whether the boost in speed and smoothness is worth it. 

No smart dialing, still. 

No built-in voice recorder, countdown timer or stopwatch, still. 

The new pop-up menu uses a list view instead of a grid of icons at the bottom of the screen. The list items are a much smaller target and the lack of icons means you have to read the text every time before clicking on them, so you can’t just instinctively click on something. Third party apps still use the older method but it’s only a matter of time before they adopt the new view too. 

Taking screenshots is tricky. You have to press the power and volume down button simultaneously and the timing has to be just right or else you either decrease the volume or switch off the display. It’s nowhere near as forgiving as the iOS system. 

The ‘OK’ and ‘Cancel’ button position in pop-up dialogues has been interchanged. No idea why they would do that. 

Terrible battery life, although I believe it is just a bug and is likely to be fixed in the next version. 

Opinion

The current state of the ‘The Big Bang Theory’ characters

Sheldon’s shtick has gotten old. 

Leonard was never funny. Ever. 

Howard was genuinely funny and the second best character after Sheldon. He was great at being the creepy guy who would hit on anything that moves as long as it belonged to the other sex and was not his mom. Getting married was the worse thing that could have happened to his character.

Raj has become incredibly annoying. Annoying enough to make you want to stop watching the show. Which is something we should all be doing by now. 

Penny is like those women in video games. Her sole purpose is to be the eye-candy. She brings no other value to the show. 

Bernadette is occasionally amusing, mostly when she’s imitating Howard’s mom. Otherwise she’s annoying. Very annoying. 

Amy is interesting but like Sheldon it’s only a matter of time before even her character gets boring. 

Priya ties with her brother to become the most annoying character on the show. In fact the entire Koothrappali family is the epitome of annoyance. 

Currently the only funny characters on the show are Howard’s mom and Stuart, the comic book store guy. 

Opinion

Android vs. iOS

It’s been a while since I wanted to write this and I finally got around to doing it. Also, in the time it took me to start writing this, I also managed to use both the operating systems a bit more and am in a better position than I would have been a few months from ago. 

If you have been reading my tweets, you probably expect me to praise iOS and blast Android till kingdom come. But don’t worry. That’s not going to happen. 

I’ll start with Android, since that’s what I’m using at the moment. There was a time I hated Android. I thought of it as a cheap iOS knock-off, which to some extent, it was. And although I don’t hate it anymore, the proof of which is the Android phone current in my pocket, I can’t say I have fallen in love with it either. 

For me, the biggest offense is still the design. I’m no designer but I can tell a good design from a bad one and Google has always struggled with designing visually appealing products. Usually their designs are more functional than aesthetically pleasing but on Android you can see they have taken a stab at the latter, and failed spectacularly. The 3D application drawer and image gallery are good examples of a piss-poor attempt at creating something cool. The OS doesn’t even dictate any specific UI guidelines, which means every app tends to look different. You can look at an iOS or a Windows Phone 7 app and know which OS it was made. That’s not the case with Android apps. There is no uniformity. Most of the time developers just design their apps to look like their iOS versions. Or design something so ugly my eyes have no choice but to bleed in protest. 

But once you get past the visual diarrhea that Android dishes out, there is that one thing that makes up for every bad thing about it: it gets shit done. At the end of the day, when it comes to functionality and getting things done few mobile operating systems can match Android. Out-of-the-box, it offers more functionality than every other mobile operating system. 

I can access basic functions like Bluetooth or Wi-Fi right from the home screen, transfer files like a boss without having to rely on any other software, access the file system, download torrents, and do a zillion other things that I’m too tired to write here or can’t remember at the moment. There are very few things that it cannot do natively or without the help of apps from the Market. And this is without rooting it, which I hear gives it the ability to cure cancer and stop tsunamis. 

iOS, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. Visually, iOS still looks great. Even after four years of existence my eyes don’t roll back inside my skull when I look at it and my first instinct isn’t to install a theme to stop me from wanting to kill the phone with fire, as it usually happens with Android. Apple’s UI design is simple and beautiful and although it is usually accused of being flashy and frivolous that’s far from the truth. Subtle things like the animation of the Flight mode indicator have been tastefully done and this is something that neither the Android fans, the developers nor Google will understand because this is good design. And because Apple’s own design is so good it has inspired the app developers to come up with even better stuff. iOS currently has some of the best looking apps on any platform on the planet. 

But this doesn’t change the fact that iOS still feels functionally inadequate. Even today iOS users are deprived of several features that other OS users take for granted. There are no widgets, no FM radio, no ability to record calls, no smart dialing and no Adobe Flash support in Safari. Just kidding, Flash sucks.

You still have to use iTunes in order to transfer data. Although I don’t share the same hatred towards the software as several others do I still think I shouldn’t be using it in the first place. One might argue that using it to drag and drop data is just as simple as using USB mass storage and while that might be true for Mac users it isn’t for Windows users. 

Macs come with iTunes pre-installed and over time its users curate their libraries so when they get an iPhone, for example, they just have to plug it in and sync it. A Windows user has to first install it, then add items to the library, then realize that none of the metedata is in order and then sit down to fix it, then connect the device and then transfer the files. This isn’t fucking drag and drop. It’s just a drag. Moreover most Windows users don’t use iTunes for playing music because it feels like using a hammer to kill a fly. 

And I don’t buy the argument that novice users find it easy to use iTunes than using mass storage. If one can find their music folder to add it to the iTunes library one can damn well find it to transfer music to the phone through mass storage too. 

Apple also prevents users from accessing the file system or transferring files via Bluetooth. The argument here is that they want to prevent people from illegally transferring data such as apps and music to other devices but this again doesn’t make sense because once the device is synced with a computer the computer gets all the data on the phone so if one has to illegally acquire something one can easily get it from the said computer. It doesn’t actually prevent anyone from pirating stuff. What it prevents is someone from sending an innocent image or contact via Bluetooth to someone else. For all practical purposes, the Bluetooth in the iPhone is just a checkbox for the specsheet. 

It’s because of shit like this that I cannot imagine using an iPhone as my primary phone. In order to simplify things, Apple has removed so many things that it makes me feel kinda stupid, as if Apple doesn’t think I’m smart enough to use those features properly. Imagine all the havoc I can wreak on the world with Bluetooth file transfers. Oh, the horror! 

And for an OS that claims to simplify your life, it’s not all rainbows and sunshine (I really wanted to say that). Take the Settings app, for example. Instead of having all the connectivity features like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 2G/3G switch and GPS under one menu (or better yet, let you switch them from the homescreen) it spreads them all across different sections. It also unifies all the settings from other apps which sounds convenient but having to minimize an application just so you can change its setting through the Setting application feels stupid. It’s like having the remote for the living room TV kept in the bedroom. 

Don’t get me wrong, I still love iOS but I don’t like knowing I’m using an OS that was designed from ground up for people who don’t know what a smartphone is, leave alone know how to use one. And I’m all for simplification of technology but I don’t appreciate the method Apple has used here, where simplification means simply removing the features to a point where nothing is left, instead of taking existing features or adding new ones and then making them easier to use.

To compensate for this, Apple adds some major features every year, features, by the way, that should have existed from Day 1. The first iPhone was bare bones and since then Apple has slowly conditioned its users to more advanced features. One can’t help but imagine school kids being taught new things every year because they are too dumb to learn everything in the first year. I don’t feel like being one of those kids. I’ve been using smartphones well before Apple thought of making one and I don’t want to start learning ‘A for Apple’, all over again. Give me some advanced level stuff, goddammit! 

This is where Android excels. It doesn’t do anything new but it instead gives you things you should have, things Apple doesn’t want you to have. I want to use an iPhone but then I wouldn’t be able to do some of the things I want to do.

Simply put, iPhone does three out of five things but it does them well. Android does them all but the execution needs improvement. I like the former method of doing things but I want it to do those other two things as well. Which is why I’ll be sticking with Android for now. I know Apple will never change, I don’t expect them to. I would rather wait for Android to catch-up. 

P.S.: I do intend to purchase an iPod touch or an iPad in the future. I think it would go well with the Nexus S. 

P.P.S.: Once the next generation iPhone comes out I might express my desire to purchase it. In that case, that’s just my heart talking. It still goes out to Apple despite my head telling it otherwise. 

P.P.P.S: I haven’t completely given up hope in Windows Phone 7. It wasn’t as good at launch as I hoped it would be but it’s improving pretty fast. Out of the box it is a happy compromise between Android and iOS. Unfortunately, it lacks in the apps department. Couple of major software updates and a few thousand apps later, I wouldn’t mind pitching my tent in the Microsoft camp.