Windows 10 Mobile, or Riding the Metro

10 12 2015

I’m not sure exactly when I became a Microsoft fanboy. I was pretty harsh toward them in the old days, even though I’ve really only ever used PCs. I’ve had to use Macs for work on occasion, but I could never really get into them. Back then, I was a PC out of convenience, a desire to play the latest games, and financial considerations. Somewhere along the way, though, I started to resent the stigma of being a Windows user, especially in the realm of graphic design. Around the same time, the glaring and very real deficiencies of Windows were being addressed, and it became clear to me that a well built Windows machine would run just as well as a Mac with about the same level of maintenance and general awareness of how to treat a computer. Also around the same time, Apple had begun its resurgence, and iPods (and eventually iPhones) were becoming ubiquitous. My comfort with Windows, the snide dismissiveness of the graphic design community to Windows-based (and, therefore, my) work, and some silly contrarian streak combined to make me say four fateful words (to myself):

I want a Zune.

Many people will read that as a laugh line, but it isn’t intended as one. Yes, the Zune was not a commercial success. Yes, the name “Zune” is pretty terrible. But you know what? It was an excellent MP3 player, and I liked the interface a whole lot more than that of the iPod. Even now, I fumble a lot when trying to select songs and albums on my wife’s iPod. I know that the world at large found the thing instantly intuitive, and I won’t ever say that it was a bad interface, but it wasn’t for me. The Zune, with its typography-centered design, instantly made more sense, and I loved using it. Sure, it suffered from a weird obsession with “sq” words, with Ballmer wanting us to use the squircle to squirt songs at each other, but the interface was slick and simple, and it worked really well.

In all honesty, the contrarian streak had already made my first smartphone a Windows Mobile 6.5 number, well after the emergence and massive success of the iPhone, so I can’t claim that the draw to Windows telephony was entirely aesthetic, but when I saw the first images of Windows Phone 7, it blew me away. It carried over the typography focused “pivot” design of the Zune interface and added big blocks of solid color as the primary interactive element. The Metro design language, a digital distillation of Swiss International style, looked like it had been pulled directly out of my dreams. As a designer, I always felt odd because I didn’t incorporate a lot of texture into my work. It was always blocks of solid color and carefully positioned text using just the right font. Windows Phone 7 was a validation of my aesthetic, and it looked amazing. I got a Samsung Focus as soon as I could and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Windows Phone 8 made a big concession to conventional wisdom right off the bat. Where Windows Phone 7’s start page of live tiles was slightly off center, with the larger right gutter serving as home to a slightly animated arrow at the bottom of the tile stack to let you know that a full app list was just a left swipe away, WP8 centered everything, seeming to say “Fine, fine – it’s centered now. No, it wasn’t a mistake in WP7, but if you’re going to keep complaining, here you go.” This was minor, and the rest of the OS stayed true to the aesthetic I loved.

Then Windows 8 happened.

For the most part, I really liked Windows 8. Obviously, I loved the aesthetic, but beyond that, I thought it was a very cool step away from the desktop paradigm, which was long overdue. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a lot closer to perfect that people like to claim. People’s intense reaction to the Start screen could have been managed by introducing it differently, leaving a start button on the traditional desktop and referring to it as a new iteration of the Start menu. Microsoft has done this with Windows 10, and people have responded really well to it. If they could have rolled a resizable Start screen/menu into Windows 8 as a means of easing people toward a new experience instead of dropping them into it immediately, it probably would have done a lot better.

Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. Windows 8 became something of a laughingstock. Microsoft had to make some big adjustments to win back users with Windows 10. In addition to the major steps, like the return of the true Start menu, it also provided an opportunity to tweak and refine the overall visual language, which hadn’t been called “Metro” for quite some time at this point.

On the desktop, these changes are mostly good. The phone is another story, though, and it’s one that has left me kind of bummed out.

The first thing that struck me was the spacing of live tiles. The gutters between the tiles are too small. What had been slick, elegant, and glanceable now feels busy and crowded, with what seems like a single pixel separating the tiles. This sounds pretentious as all hell, but it feels like WP7 and WP8 tiles could breathe – W10M tiles feel claustrophobic. I had thought this was a carry-over from the PC version of Windows 10, but pulling up my Start menu as I type this reveals that the spacing on computer 10 is much more in line with the old style.

Another change that bugs me to no end (and makes absolutely no sense to me) was the move to circular user icons. I get that many, many services use circular icons (including Microsoft’s own Skype), but they look terrible. Square user icons worked perfectly with the rectangular live tiles. The People hub tile sported an ever changing grid of my friends’ profile pictures, sometimes blowing one up to 2×2 among 1x1s, all fitting together perfectly. Now the people hub sports three rows of circles with big gaps between. I know I was just arguing for bigger gaps in tiles, but this is different. What had been clean and elegant now looks sloppy and accidental.

Similarly, when I received a call, the image associated with the caller filled the majority of the screen, edge to edge, with the remainder taken up by the call control buttons. It looked terrific. Now, the associated image sits alone, surrounded by pointless empty space. Again, it looks sloppy. It looks like no thought went into it. This is weird, because, as a change from the status quo, some thought had to go into it. Code had to be written to mask out the corners of images. This wasn’t an oversight. So… why? I can’t think of any good reason for it, and I can’t imagine that people looked at mockups of the People hub and incoming call screens and said “Yes, this looks genuinely better.”

It even extends into Groove Music, where albums are still square, but artists are circles. Maybe there’s some notion of immediate identification – people are circles, everything else is square. If that’s the logic, it’s not apparent, and it doesn’t really make much sense to me. What’s more, it solves a problem that didn’t really exist to begin with. It just looks bad. Maybe it was a sense that everyone else is doing it – there seems to be a trend toward circular user icons all over the place, but to that I can only ask Microsoft about their plans should everybody else jump off a bridge. Peer pressure is bad, m’kay?

Another change that had the Windows Phone fan community particularly exercised is the appearance of the “hamburger menu,” the three horizontal lines that have come to mean “more stuff hiding here” across Android apps and the mobile web. I… don’t entirely hate them. I think their typical placement in the upper left corner makes them a pain to get to for right-handed people, especially on bigger phones like my Lumia 1520, but… they work okay. The placement of the old Windows Phone “three little dots” that served roughly the same purpose was easier to reach and created a sense of an identity separate from the samey-samey world of Android and mobile web, but they weren’t perfect, either. There seems to be a general feeling that hamburger menus are the worst, except for all of the other options for achieving the same goal, and that’s pretty much how I feel about them here.

That said, the dreaded hamburger seems to have a deeper meaning in Windows 10 Mobile. Even if it’s not all that bad, it feels, much like the circular user icons, like a capitulation. It seems like a signal that Microsoft was stung by the harsh reaction to the bold moves of Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8, so they’re overcorrecting and embracing the mainstream. The big fonts and pivots have given way to more staid layouts. Maybe this is also a nod to enterprise users, a sense that business is scared of different. Whatever it is, it’s disappointing.

Another area of disappointment, albeit one I hope will improve over time, is the set of apps Microsoft provides out of the box, the ones that perform the basic functions of a smartphone. They’re generally okay (with the mobile Office apps being real standouts), but they’ve been demoted from their former privileged, part-of-the-OS status. There are some undeniable upsides to this. As parts of the OS, they could only be updated with updates to the OS as a whole. As stand-alone apps, that’s not a problem anymore. Also, forcing the developers to use the same tools and capabilities available to 3rd party devs should lead to big improvements in those tools and capabilities over time. For now, though, the removal of OS-level access makes them feel shackled. Multiple mail accounts in Outlook means inconsistent new mail notifications – one account shows a new mail count on its tile (though it’s usually wrong), another doesn’t. Sometimes the new mail counts don’t go away right away. If my personal account shows a new mail count (it’s the one that usually doesn’t), often the only way to get it to stop showing that count, even after reading and/or deleting any new mail, is to go into the app, use the hamburger menu to switch to my work account, and then use the hamburger to switch back to the personal account. Going to the Start screen after that will usually show the personal account icon without the new mail count. I have a feeling (unconfirmed) that the lousy three rows of circles animation on the People hub is down to the removal of special live tile options that came with the transition to a normal app, and that has a surprising impact on the visual punch of the Start screen as a whole. As I said, these things could spur the devs to demand approximations of the former less fettered functionality that the OS-level apps enjoyed, making that increased toolset available to 3rd parties as well. That would be great. Right now, though, it just makes the OS look unfinished.

The choice to get a Windows Phone has always been (outside of the low end of the market) a statement of sorts. Going WP meant making some concessions up front. Yes, I know I’m not going to get Snapchat, or Tinder, or any number of other big-name apps and games, but I’m choosing this anyway. For my part, it was mostly about the aesthetic – the elegant departure from a grid of icons that, for all intents and purposes, would look out of place on Windows 3.1 only because of their color depth, and apps that looked and acted like something you hadn’t seen before, without hurting usability or intuitiveness.

Does this mean I plan to leave the Windows Phone fold? Absolutely not. If I could, I’d drop $600 on a Lumia 950XL right now (man, I wish I could). Even with these new wrinkles, it’s still far more visually interesting than the competition, and there’s always the hope that the new Windows as a Service mentality and eagerness for feedback that have emerged from Microsoft will lead to these things being corrected (maybe “tweaked” is a less judgmental way to put it), perhaps even soon. It just feels like a collection of steps backward, and it dampens that wonderful “Holy crap, they pulled this right out of my brain” sensation that I always got from WP7 and WP8.

Full disclosure: I’m using the Windows Insider preview (most recent build as of this writing), so the retail version may be different (though probably not very different).

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