Broken Windows


The Broken Window theory of criminology was popularised in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2002 book, The Tipping Point. The theory says that urban environments where vandalism and dereliction are present redefine social norms (reducing the pride people take in their communities) and leading to greater crime.

In Gladwell’s book, he highlights the effect of Giuliani’s zero tolerance policy on minor crime in New York City had in reversing a years’ long reputation for being dirty and dangerous.

I think the same kind of effect of the magnified effect of small issues applies just as well to another kind of Windows.

When Microsoft launched Windows Phone in 2010, they achieved something similar in a change of attitude. Screw the number of total features, apps or whatever, the Windows Phone team reversed a decade-long (Pocket PC first came out in 1990, Windows Mobile in 2003) trend of releasing software with lots of little bugs in it. And in doing that, they gave many of us hope that Microsoft could really rival Android and iOS in the mobile phone OS market.

Anyone who lived with a Windows Mobile devices (Windows Mobile 2003, Windows Mobile 5, 6, 6.5) will remember these little bastards the overwhelming feeling when one thing or another just failed to work wasn’t anger, it was resignation.

I’m not talking about UI failures – although there were certainly plenty of those. My favourite bit of non-user-centred thinking must be the snooze menu for the built in alarm clock which required the navigation of a pop-up submenu – this for a user that you can guarantee is half asleep. In later versions, SMS messages were threaded but with new messages appearing at the bottom of the list which would open at the top – often taking several minutes to scroll down to.

No, I’m talking about full-on bugs. In our office at the time, where these phones were standard issue, we gave up asking why people had failed to return calls, had hung up mid-sentence (I still believe the phone would drop the call if it received an email with attachment), or sent garbled and incoherent emails and texts.

I remember a conversation with the ‘mobile expert’ from our firm back in 2008 when he told me that the way to keep your WinMo phone working well was to completely wipe it and re-install everything each month.

You just learned that every so often, the phone would let you down and the only thing to do would be to suck it up.

It was a disaster. Ballmer even admitted as much in public.

Despite all this, the platform was pretty successful, commanding up to 20% of the marketplace. Because it was only competing with Blackberry (which was a bit more expensive and required a server for enterprise customers to get their mail) and Symbian which was late to make any kind of leap to the enterprise.

I’m sure Microsoft would kill to have the same share with Windows Phone today that they once had with Windows Mobile. And the fact is that Windows Phone – a completely re-designed mobile platform – deserves to be a serious competitor in the marketplace. It’s really good.

But the best thing about WP7 when it came out was that it wasn’t buggy. It didn’t have multi-taking (WM did), it didn’t have copy and paste (ditto) or all sorts of other features. But at least it didn’t have any bugs. Things would straight-forwardly work. Calls could be made. The screen wouldn’t stop responding or go all laggy. The UI was consistent. In fact, the UI was excellent and intuitive. So good in fact that it’s ended up on Windows 8, but that’s another story.

For once, it felt the Microsoft team behind the product really understood the need for quality in the product released. Better quality not more features. When Microsoft updated the OS to 7.5 (codenamed Mango) they brought a host of new features and capabilities to the platform and once again, maintained the capability. Of course it was and is an uphill struggle for the OS. Clearly it’s been slow to grow. But the people that have it like it, and that’s a great starting point.

So now it’s two years later, And Microsoft has recently launched WP8 for new WP hardware and a final update for WP7.8 for older hardware.

Whilst it brings a couple of new features and a new start screen, WP8 is really an engineering-led change for Microsoft, building on a long-story which dates back to before the somewhat calamitous release of Windows Vista.

Vista had been intended to improve the overall user experience of Windows, making a big step forward from Windows 2000. As it happens, the user-experience of the Windows Vista interface was very compelling. Unfortunately the performance – the most important element of any user experience – was not up to scratch. Frustrating many with the new OS.

By contrast, Windows 7 went on to be Microsoft’s best and most successful OS and it did this by making the heart of the operating system as small and efficient as possible and therefore dramatically improving the actual user experience. Project lead, Sinofsky did this by taking advantage of the ‘winmin‘ project which had been running at Redmond for many years to cut down core Windows NT.

With Windows Phone 8, Microsoft has replatformed – almost invisibly – their phones from Windows CE (a somewhat dated and clunky core) to a version of Windows NT (a long-standing but highly efficient system), just like Windows 7 and Windows 8.

There is no doubt that this is an amazing engineering achievement. Even though it has come of the cost of WP8 moving along very little from WP7 in terms of what the user sees. But it also seems to have come at the cost of quality in delivery, and not just the delivery of WP8, but WP7.8 too.

Nokia was kind enough to send me a Lumia 820 device early on. Aside from using the highlight colour for the button actions as well as the tiles, the devices can only really be told apart from the Lumia 800 by the removable back cover and the size (for my money, a bit too big). The screen’s actually the same resolution (but bigger so it drains the battery faster). It’s got NFC and wireless charging, both of which are cool. But it crashes. About every six hours, meaning I’ve got pretty good at taking the removable cover off. And the music player hangs the system. And you know what I thought straight-away? This is like having Windows Mobile back. Broken windows.

Because it’s careless. As I said earlier, I’m sure it’s a major engineering triumph but from a user’s point of view it’s taken a year to make a phone that’s bigger, has worse battery life, crashes (often at night, making it’s use as an alarm clock somewhat questionable), hangs, doesn’t have Gorilla Glass (the 800 does), has a much worse desktop sync client and doesn’t look as nice.

And the 7.8 update, a sort of parting shot to keep a Microsoft promise about upgrade cycles, is full of bugs. So now my 800 is broken too. The live tiles don’t work, mine at least is crashing regularly and there are small careless errors dotted here and there. Take for example my Music tile which has recently renamed itself (somewhat accurately) ‘Crowded House’!


Forgive me for saying that it doesn’t feel like a year well spent. A year in an industry which (Android at least) is moving ahead very quickly. Yes, we want new features but what I personally want more than anything is quality. Each new product should have fewer bugs than its predecessor, not more. And every time I find a ‘little bug’, it shakes the faith I have in Microsoft to win in phones.

Surely a successful phone is the most important key to Microsoft’s long-term consumer strategy. So why isn’t it their top priority to get it right?

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Comments

  1. My favourite issue with those old windows phones was also with the alarm clock. Say you’ve set an alarm for 7.30. But you had your phone off overnight and turn it on at say 10am the next day. The phone would remember it had to do an alarm and the alarm would start going off, however in the bootup sequence the alarm going off instruction started about a minute before the rest of the UI loaded – which included such functionality as turning off the alarm.

    • I remember that. If you were very lucky you’d be turning the phone back on after a weekend and it would give you all the alarms for the time the phone had been off, meaning you had to turn off all of them consecutively.

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