Nokia's great Windows Phone hope: Beauty without brawn

The poor fit of Microsoft's 'Mango' OS to business needs is no surprise, but the Lumia 900 flagship device's weak hardware is

Nokia may sell more cellphones than any other company in the world, but it's been all but excluded from the United States for years -- and it's seen its global sales steadily shrink as the iPhone and Android smartphones have become the darlings of buyers in an increasing number of countries. Nokia's relevance has been fast receding, and its Symbian, Maemo, and MeeGo efforts became a pattern of failure for a company that just didn't get it. In response, a year ago, Nokia bet its future largely on Windows Phone 7, Microsoft's answer to Apple's iOS and Google's Android.

The first fruits of that partnership -- the Lumia 600 and 800 -- shipped last fall in Europe to disappointing sales. But the Nokia and Windows Phone faithful told skeptics to wait for the Lumia 900, which would prove that both Windows Phone and Nokia were poised to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat across the globe, particularly in the United States where it would be Nokia's turnaround product. Unfortunately, this Windows Phone flagship is no battleship. In fact, it can't even engage the competition in any serious way.

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That's too bad because aspects of both the Lumia 900 and Windows Phone show real promise and class. It's easy to be entranced by the "basic black dress" simplicity of the Lumia 900's design (available in blue, white, and black models), and the tiled interface of Windows Phone is truly inspired, elegant, and alluring. But if you look deeper, you find that the Lumia 900, like Windows Phone 7 itself, is a deficient product whose surface beauty masks a weakling.

The Lumia 900 costs $550 ($100 with a two-year contract) and runs on AT&T's network. It uses the standard Windows Phone 7.5 "Mango" operating system, adding nothing to address Windows Phone's many business shortcomings. Windows Phone 7.5 can't be used in most businesses because it lacks security features such as on-device encryption, VPN support, and support for Microsoft Exchange ActveSync (EAS) policies beyond the very basic set. Its Office suite is also primitive, with bare-bones capabilities far exceeded by apps available for other mobile OSes, such as the popular and capable Quickoffice for Android and iOS (but not for Windows Phone).

The iPhone's iOS of course offers the essential security and management capabilities, as well as business app selection, that make it a great fit in business. Android devices also have a decent selection of business apps. Though Android itself has weak security and management capabilities, Motorola Mobility's Android devices all add such iOS-level capabilities, as do some Samsung Android smartphones. A mom-and-pop shop might get away with using a Windows Phone device, but not most businesses. Windows Phone 7 -- and the Lumia 900 -- is more plausible for personal use.

HardwareIn many ways, the Nokia Lumia 900 is similar to the Samsung Focus S, perhaps the best-known Windows Phone smartphone in the United States. Both are as thin and light as an iPhone but a tad wider and taller (0.25 inch in each direction); they deliver a nice-size screen without taking up much more space in your pocket -- the same strategy of many Android smartphones. Their screens are 4.3 inches in diameter versus the iPhone's 3.5 inches. It's the size an iPhone should be, and the size of many Android smartphones.

At first blush, the Lumia 900's AMOLED screen is attractive: clear and bright, without the cartoonish colors of some Super AMOLED screens. But the more I used it, the more it bothered me. The screen resolution is a paltry 480 by 800 pixels, for a resolution of 217 pixels per inch (ppi). An iPhone's smaller screen has a resolution of 640 by 960 pixels, for a 326-ppi resolution. The Samsung Galaxy Nexus flagship Android smartphone has a 720-by-1,280 screen (316 ppi), and the no-nonsense Motorola Droid Razr Maxx has a 540-by-960 screen (256 ppi). In other words, the Lumia 900's screen is coarse by comparison and gives the impression of being lower quality.

The screen is just the start -- the Lumia 900's hardware is underpowered across the board. Like the Samsung Focus S, it uses a 1.4GHz single-core CPU, versus the faster dual-core CPUs of Android and iOS devices. Its 512MB of system RAM is half that of its Android and iOS competitors; its graphics coprocessor is also subpar. The 8-megapixel camera sounds impressive, but the results are disappointing compared to what the iPhone 4S and flagship Android devices' cameras deliver; the Lumia's pictures are a bit muddy and have a narrower tonal range. The battery power is also on the low side. Like the Focus S, the Lumia often can't make a full workday on a single charge, and its rated usage times are about half to two-thirds that of competing Android and iOS smartphones.

I'm surprised and disappointed that the Lumia 900 -- meant to be Nokia's best foot forward -- uses the same middling hardware as the Samsung Focus S, a device not trying to be the king of the hill. It's almost as if they are the same device in different bezels. The only real hardware difference is in the cellular radio: The Lumia 900 supports LTE 4G networks in addition to 3G GSM connections. As AT&T's LTE service is available in only a few dozen cities, that faster radio speed is one you may only rarely experience.

Few serious apps are available for Windows Phone, so the Lumia 900 feels snappy, but only because it's not doing much when in use. Microsoft is working on Windows Phone 8 (code-named Apollo) that allegedly will fix the many gaps in Windows Phone's capabilities, but I find it hard to trust that the underpowered hardware of the Lumia 900 will be able to run serious applications or games as Android and iOS flagship devices can today. I simply don't see the Lumia 900's hardware being able to keep up with Windows Phone and new apps if Microsoft were to get serious about the OS.

The Lumia 900's bezel is pleasant to hold. Although a slab, it's an elegantly simple one that draws character from its minimalism and subtle lines. There are the usual volume rocker, audio jack, MicroUSB jack, camera button, and front camera (1.3 megapixels), as well as the Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and 3G-plus-LTE cellular radios. The simple design means the power and camera buttons are both unlabeled and identical in appearance, so it's easy to press the wrong one until your motor memory kicks in. There's no video-out capability, so forget about using the Lumia to make presentations via an HDTV or projector as you can with iPhones and many Android smartphones.

Beyond the hardware, the Nokia Lumia 900 offers no alterations to the Windows Phone 7.5 OS; you get the standard "Mango" experience.

Email, calendars, contacts, and social networkingWindows Phone 7.5 can connect to Exchange, IMAP, POP, and Gmail accounts; make and synchronize appointments; and manage contacts. For Exchange access, "Mango" supports push synchronization, and for both Exchange and IMAP, it preserves your Exchange and IMAP folder hierarchy for mail. But the lack of meaningful EAS policy support in Windows Phone means you likely won't be able to access your corporate email, as any company concerned with even basic security will impose EAS policies beyond the few that "Mango" supports, as I detail later in this review.

Be aware that "Mango" imposes the EAS policies it does support, so you may find yourself -- as I did -- with a smartphone that requires a password lock even though it can't access your email. (A password lock is a good thing, but if you can't access your corporate data, it's not as useful.) I wish Windows Phone would give me the option of rolling back the imposed policies if all are not met; currently, all rules must be met to access the corporate data the policies are intended to protect.

Email. Although "Mango" displays nice, big text for your messages' From addresses, it suffers from the use of tiny, thin, gray fonts in the message itself, so it's very hard to read. There are no controls over text size -- it's clearly designed for the eyes of teenagers and 20-somethings.

I like Windows Phone's way of handling message groups such as unread and flagged messages: Just swipe to the right to see lists of unread messages; repeat to see flagged messages. "Mango" also implements a color highlight on the subject of unread messages in the All message list, but the Unread list is simpler to use. Windows Phone normally provides a separate tile on its Start screen for each email account, but you can use its linking feature to get a unified inbox both in the mail client and on the Start screen. If you look carefully at the tiny To text, you can see which account the message was intended.

Unfortunately, "Mango" doesn't handle mail folders well. When viewing your mail list in Windows Phone, you have to press the More button (the ... icon) to get the Folders menu, which you then use to see messages in a specific folder. The good news is that Windows Phone 7.5 supports message threading, which you (counterintuitively) have to set up in the Settings app's Applications section, under Messaging, not in the mail client. Selecting multiple messages in Windows Phone 7.5 is easy -- once you realize you need to tap the left side of the screen to open the selection bubbles.

Windows Phone 7 isn't so savvy about opening attachments. It can open Office documents in its mobile versions of Word, PowerPoint, and Excel, though PowerPoint is strangely restricted to version 2007 and later (.pptx) files. It also can open Zip files, unlike the iPhone. But to open PDFs, you'll need a separate PDF viewer, such as the free Adobe Reader. Also, Windows Phone doesn't automatically download attachments, which saves on cellular data consumption. You must tap an attachment to download it, then tap it again to open.

You can easily search for mail, as well as reply to, forward, delete, and select multiple messages, though you can't select or deselect all messages.

Composing messages is straightforward in Windows Phone, though it doesn't support rich text formatting as iOS 5 does. However, "Mango" looks up names as you enter them, drawing on your address book and previous email history to speed data entry.

Calendars. Windows Phone 7.5 lets you view and update your calendars, as well as sync to Exchange and Google calendars. You can also send invites to other users, and any .ics invitation attachments received show up in your calendar automatically.

Windows Phone 7's day and agenda views are pretty, but the tiny colored text for your appointments is very hard to read on the black background. The month view is all but useless; the supertiny text for each appointment in each date is easily overlooked. What will help is to change the device's display setting to use the Light background; that gets rid of the hard-to-read light-text-on-black background in many apps such as the calendar and uses a more traditional, more readable, paperlike color-on-white display.

Contacts. "Mango" has a capable contacts app, called People. One blemish is its unintuitive way to quickly jump to sections of your contacts list: Tap the # icon button near the top to get a list of letters that you then tap to jump to. It's not slick, but it works.

Windows Phone doesn't offer a Favorites feature for contacts, but it does let you "pin" an individual to the Start screen for easy access, such as to click an email address or phone number to initiate a message or call. That can quickly clutter your Start screen, though, making it overly long to scroll through. Windows Phone 7.5 lets you create groups of contacts, as well as link contact cards to create virtual groups. For example, if you have separate entries for a couple, you can link their cards so that each person's contact information appears in both of their cards.

Social networking. Windows Phone's People app provides a convenient location to monitor your social feeds -- Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and others -- and engage in any conversations; use the Me tile to initiate a message to all your networks simultaneously. The app is not as full-featured as the social networking services' own apps, so you still need to use them for more sophisticated actions, including sending a direct message. A bizarre implementation issue on Windows Phone is that if you install the separate Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn apps, you have to sign in separately -- the sign-in you provided for the People app isn't shared with the social networking apps themselves (as with iOS 5's Twitter sign-in).

These social networking capabilities are where "Mango" shines brightest, and they represent the most compelling reason to consider a Lumia 900.

ApplicationsIf running applications is your thing, get an iPhone. Nothing else comes close in terms of rich application options that in some cases can do much of what a computer can do. Windows Phone 7.5 is more suited for lightweight widgets.

Apps. Windows Phone's big app is Office, a collection of rudimentary touchup tools using the Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote labels. Word is barely more capable than a typical note-taking app, and PowerPoint only lets you edit text, not adjust graphics -- and slide creation is limited to textual displays. Excel can't edit cell contents, so it's good only for viewing and searching spreadsheets. Windows Phone 7.5 comes with a SharePoint client, but it's hard to imagine, given the OS's lack of security, that any significant business would let users into such corporate assets through a Windows Phone. OneNote -- Microsoft's cloud-synced note-taking app -- is a basic app even on a PC, so its "Mango" version doesn't feel as compromised as the rest of the Office suite.

The truth is, you can do more with Google Docs than Office on Windows Phone 7 -- a sad comment, considering how poorly Google Docs works on mobile clients, even Google's own Android OS.

Windows Phone has no way to present PowerPoint or other slide presentations to a projector or TV, as iOS easily does on an iPhone via a cable or over the air through an Apple TV -- another reason not to consider a "Mango" device for business use.

The Windows Phone Marketplace has mainly lightweight, data-feed-oriented widgets like stock tickers, weather checkers, and bill reminders. Widgets are the perfect fit for the Windows Phone tile metaphor, where the app "icons" are usually live tiles that can show status, such as current stock price or current weather. Opening a tile shows more of the data feed, but rarely lets you manipulate it in any deep way.

But even nonfeed apps tend to be more simplistic on Windows Phone; a survey of newsreader apps showed they contained less information generally than their Android and iOS counterparts. An exception is the USA Today app; despite Windows Phone 7's markedly different presentation style, the USA Today app proves an information app doesn't have to compromise on depth. (And now that Gannett has ruined USA Today on the iPhone with its impossible-to-read new design, the Windows Phone version really stands out in a good way.)

When it comes to games, "Mango" has a good selection, including modern standbys such as Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja. Otherwise, there are relatively few apps as yet in the Windows Phone Marketplace.

Microsoft's Windows Phone Marketplace is curated, like Apple's App Store, so it's much less likely to hold malware such as the phishing apps that plague the Android Market.

App management. To switch apps, go to the Start screen, swipe to the left to see all your apps, and tap an app to open it. You can also pin apps to the Start screen so that their tiles are available for easy access. Long-tap the Back button to get thumbnails of all running apps so that you can switch among them easily.

Windows Phone uses its Start screen as the equivalent of iOS's and Android's home screen. But "Mango" becomes increasingly difficult to navigate the more apps and tiles you have, as you need to scroll further and further to access them. The end result is that Windows Phone becomes harder to use as you accumulate more apps. You can leave a tiled view for a list view, which is more compact; over time, you'll learn to use the tiles for common apps (as how Mac OS X's Dock or Windows's main Start menu is used) and the list for everything else (similar to how you use Windows' Programs menu).

"Mango" does not support app folders to help manage a growing collection of apps, as iOS and Android 4 do. Windows Phone 7.5 also lacks a notification feature like that in Android and iOS; instead, it expects you to check your Start screen tiles periodically to see what's happening. But like competing OSes, Windows Phone alerts you to app updates and lets you download them wirelessly.

Location support. Like any modern smartphone OS, Windows Phone supports GPS location and can triangulate location based on Wi-Fi signals. You also get a maps app that works like those in iOS and Android, providing your current location, directions to your destination, and navigation assistance. Nokia provides its own Nokia Maps app, which adds an Urbanspoon-like mode that shows popular nearby destinations to a basic mapping capability. But it does not support navigation capabilities as the native Microsoft Maps (or Apple's or Google's Maps) app does.

Developers can integrate location information -- another native feature in "Mango" -- in their apps, but you get only gross-level location privacy controls: disabling or enabling the GPS and Wi-Fi location services for the entire device. Windows Phone apps can ask if it's OK to use your location, but there's no central way to manage these location permissions as there is in iOS.

Web and InternetMicrosoft has long lagged the field in support for the new, still-evolving HTML5 standard. Based on the HTML5 Test site's scores, "Mango" has clearly made major strides in HTML5 compatibility versus its competitors, but it continues to trail all other mobile browsers. "Mango" scores just 138 (out of 500 points) versus 324 for iOS 5, 273 for BlackBerry OS 7, 273 for Android 4, 235 for Android 3.2, and 189 for Android 2.3.

From an operational perspective, the Internet Explorer browser interface in "Mango" is spare, with a persistent URL box and an icon button to refresh the page; you use the standard Back hardware button to go back in your browsing history. To create or access bookmarks -- which "Mango" calls Favorites -- and to open a new tab (really a window), you use the More icon button to view a menu of options. Windows Phone 7 also lets you pin a Web page to your Start screen, as iOS and Android 4 do.

You can share pages via email, as well as via your social networks. You also can select text and graphics on Web pages to copy and save them.

Windows Phone uses its physical Search button to open the Bing app, but it can't search your current Web page as iOS and Android 4 can.

In the browser's onscreen keyboard, Windows Phone offers a .com button when entering URLs, a significant timesaver. Plus, it pops up a list of alternative domains, such as .edu and .org, when you tap and hold the .com button.

"Mango" offers settings to control cookies and history, but unlike Android and iOS, it has no option to manage other personal information such as cache, form data, passwords, image loading, autofill, fraud warnings, and debugging. Like Android 4, Windows Phone has the welcome ability to tell websites it's a desktop computer, not a mobile device. This comes in handy when you don't want the mobile-optimized version of a site, which often strips out information and services.

User interface The Metro UI in Windows Phone is clean, elegant, simple, and inviting -- you quickly figure out how to work with it. It's much simpler than Android and even simpler than iOS. There are some inspired touches beyond the tiles, such as the ability to pull up an icon button to its label when you don't know what the icon means.

At the end of the day, Windows Phone's simpler UI reflects its simpler capabilities; it's hard to imagine how the "Mango" UI could handle sophisticated, multilevel interactions, for example.

Operational UI. Windows Phone is highly consistent in navigating: Swipe to the right for more, and press the More icon button for features not displayed. However, Windows Phone's spare design hides more capabilities from the user than other mobile OSes, so you're more likely to turn to its More icon button than the equivalent interface elements in iOS or Android.

In addition, I have two bigger beefs with Windows Phone's UI:

  • Windows Phone consistently uses thin, small text that many adults will not be able to read without glasses. Worse, it favors low-contrast text display (such as gray-and-white) in everything from its onscreen keyboard to its email messages. Where it doesn't do that, it uses thin, colored text on black backgrounds. Both are fundamental design no-nos that a company claiming to be as heavily invested in ergonomics research as Microsoft does should never have allowed. I initially thought older folks who want a simple messaging device, not an app-heavy minicomputer like an iPhone, would be the perfect audience for Windows Phone devices -- but they won't be able to see what they're doing beyond the top-level menus.
  • Windows Phone's tiles and lists quickly fill up the screen, and it becomes burdensome to find them in the ever-longer vertical scrolls that result. In effect, Windows Phone makes you stick to a few core functions, whereas Android's junkier interface at least gives you ways to organize a larger set of capabilities so that you can actually use them.

Windows Phone also offers a universal voice-command feature: Long-tap the Start hardware button and it asks you to issue a command. Problem is, "Mango" rarely understood what I said. Android and iOS fare better in this regard, though Android's "sometimes it's available, sometimes it's not" approach to voice commands is frustrating, as are the very basic voice command capabilities of the iPhone 4 and 3G S (phone calling and rudimentary iTunes control). None of these offers the universality of the iPhone 4S's Siri.

The Settings app in Windows Phone has the same straightforward, simple approach of the OS, so you don't get lost as you can in Android and even iOS. Of course, there are fewer elements to manage settings for in Windows Phone than in its competitors. But like iOS 5, Windows Phone lets you set custom sounds to various alerts, so you can more easily tell your device from someone else's.

Pinching and zooming, as well as autorotation as you turn the device, work the same on Windows Phone as in competing OSes. But "Mango" does little more in terms of available gestures beyond those and swipe -- a real contrast to iOS. Instead, Windows Phone 7 relies on menu actions after you tap the More button or long-tap objects you want to manipulate.

For text entry, Windows Phone's onscreen keyboard is fine, but its keys are less readable than those in Android and iOS. Like iOS, Windows Phone uses contextual keys like .com and underscore (_) more often than Android, which is a real help in browsers and email clients. However, Windows Phone's jumbled placement of some basic symbols, such as the asterisk, is annoying.

Text selection and copying. Windows Phone handles text selection decently. It's fairly sensitive to when you want to insert the cursor within text, and it displays a large colored insertion cursor when you do so, providing a visual clue as to where the cursor will end up before you lift your finger. I find text selection in "Mango" not quite as easy as in iOS but easier than in Android.

Copy and paste, even basic selection, are not always available in Windows Phone. You can't, for example, copy and paste selections from a tweet -- just the whole tweet. But the process works fine when copy and paste are available.

Security and management As I said at the beginning, "Mango" lacks any meaningful security or management capabilities that a larger business would need. The handful of Exchange policies it can enforce include requiring a password to use the device, requiring a complex password, expiring passwords after a period of time, preventing password reuse, and allowing a device to be remotely wiped if it's lost or stolen. There's no VPN support and no on-device encryption -- two typical enterprise needs.

Like iOS, "Mango" works just fine with certificate-based wireless LANs, such as those using the PEAP protocol. Android does not have this capability.

Windows Phone has no backup facility for your settings, as Android does, nor anything remotely like the settings and data backup available in iOS 5's iCloud. But it does let you find your smartphone from Microsoft's website if you lose it, as long as you've entered your Windows Live credentials as an account on the device.

The smartphone that cried wolfMaybe "Windows Phone 8" this fall will fix the OS flaws and in its third try make Windows Phone a viable mobile OS for business users. Until it does, I would not spend the money only to risk being disappointed again. It's the OS that cried wolf.

Even if you're willing to bet on Microsoft, I'm not sure you should bet on Nokia. Its flagship Lumia 900 is based on mediocre hardware with uncertain scalability. That's not how a flagship should be built, and it makes me wonder if Nokia's bite will ever match its bark -- or even if Nokia could tell. An OS can be updated, but hardware needs to be replaced.

On both the Windows Phone 7.5 OS and the Lumia 900 hardware, there's beauty but no brawn. You can get both in the iOS and Android worlds.

This article, "Nokia's great Windows Phone hope: Beauty without brawn," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

Read more about mobile technology in InfoWorld's Mobile Technology Channel.

This story, "Nokia's great Windows Phone hope: Beauty without brawn" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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