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?

Africa: outwardly mobile

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Mobile data and applications have always had a funny adoption curve. Who are the most connected in our society? A few dyed in the wool early adopters may have had 3G cards in their laptops for years now or spent many a wasted train journey like me trying to connect to the internet from their laptops  via their crappy mobile phones over pitifully slow connection speeds.

It is however, the management class who got their first. They probably didn’t even they were doing it, walking around with their flashing, buzzing, chemically addictive blackberries in their pockets.

Just like the laggards who ended up at the top of the sophistication tree almost by accident in the UK, we may soon see rural farmers in South Africa leapfrogging our very own ‘digital sophisticates’ in using their phones to manage their financial affairs.

If the slow uptake of desktop computers was once seen as a barrier to internet adoption in that continent, perhaps the PC will just be overtaken by the massive ubiquity of mobile. After all, it isn’t just the desktop PC that many of these people haven’t had access to,  but any form of banking at all – making these new services potentially economy and life-changing.

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Finally in the UK with the price plans that have been needed to make the iPhone work, it seems customers will start to understand the genuine concept of un-metered, always-on mobile access. Companies however must design around the relative merits of levels and types of communication.

Facebook may be a great rich, iPhone (or general mobile) experience, but text messages might be just as good for simple transactions.

The promise of on-phone banking is incredibly attractive, especially if phones themselves could play a role in the needs for two (or even three) factor authentication. Providing environments potentially more secure than traditional home computers.

Perhaps one day we will even have services to rival the market leaders in Africa.

On Tap

iPod Touch

As Andrew Orlowski points out, the new iPod Touch (the iPhone without the phone bit) is, on paper at least, an overpriced, locked-down PDA and one without any games or even an email client for when you’re on WiFi. It is also, however, the only piece of consumer electronics on the market today that will without fail turn grown men and women into delighted children.

In the five days since I bought it at Apple’s Regent Street store, everyone who’s taken the little black gizmo for a spin has ended up staring in disbelief, wide-eyed, slack-jawed and saying ‘wow’ a lot. Think how amazed you were when you first saw the tiny nano, and multiply it by a hundred. One colleague, a little carried away in the moment and flicking through photos asked whether you could put music on it.

How does it achieve this? Obviously it comes in a very good looking case – all of the chrome of the original iPod, the front panel almost entirely a large and bright screen and wafer-thin.

However it is the software which amazes, and in particular, the multi-touch interface. By – just about – managing to get the interface to respond in real time and introducing many levels of immediate functional mapping, Apple has made standard handset interface look decades out of date. It’s as revolutionary as the effect that Apple’s first GUI had on the DOS prompt.

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(Above: An add Macintosh ran to congratulate Windows on the tenth anniversary of Windows 95).

The opportunities presented by a malleable, multi-input screen are enormous, as we’ve seen a number of times with Jeff Haan’s demos. Apple’s actually been very retrained in their use of it, presumably on the grounds that people will need to follow a learning curve of some sort. However the interface is almost entirely intuitive with very few people needing even an introduction to the concept.

To start to see some of the potential of this new way of thinking, and how the relatively small screen size of the iPod Touch can be best put to use, we need only look to Facebook’s iPhone interface, which is an absolute joy to use. Perhaps 2008, at last really will be the long-awaited “year of the mobile”.

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Oh MY God!

Janice from friends

So, what’s the report on Chinwag Live’s second event Mobile Metamorphisis? Well I’m a little torn. I think without Jonathan MacDonald (one of the speakers), it would have stood the chance of being a little dull. However, with him, it descended into a hideous .com self parody. Jonathan should have turned up for the first Chinwag event: Wobble 2.0.

Jonathan was representing Blyk, a company aiming to make a free, advertiser-funded, mobile phone network. Blyk was one of the main reasons for a bunch of us to go along tonight. It sounded like a brave idea – and one which might espouse a new fairer relationship between brands and consumers. And the company has some very impressive team, including the ex-president of Nokia as CEO.

Aside from being – frankly – gobby, Jonathan came out with a lot of stuff which I thought we’d left behind in 1999 meeting rooms. Perhaps, he told us, they only needed a small audience to get big advertising revenues because their advertising would be so much more effective and engaging than everyone else’s. DM he told us, shortly before the batteries fell out his calculator, needed audiences of millions becuase its typical response rate is 1.5%. The advertising on Blyk was going to get 60% response rates (I think he actually said 90% but I don’t want to misquote!) so only 10,000 customers would be needed. Although he did assure us that he could do that sum becuase it was “all 10s”.

He also told us his advertising would be different and more engaging on their platform. For example, not just “Honda is great” but “Which do you prefer, Honda or Fiat” (ahem, I think the wiseness of advertising your competitors has been fairly well documented. And when was the last time you saw car advertising saying “Honda is great”).

Chair, Tim Green – from Mobile Entertainment Magazine – then asked: “but aren’t your target market (16-24 year olds) all skint”. At this point we were treated to another visit to 90s. The first credit card people have in their wallet, we heard,  is likely to be the one you use for life. He inserted a fictitious statistic at this point saying that this random statement was true in 80% of cases. Perhaps Jonathan should have a look at the stats from the most promiscuous market there is: the mobile phone market. But lets not lets the truth get in the way of a good story. I’m can only assume they’ll be whipping him with their two page business plan as they listen back to the podcast in the office tomorrow.

Very interesting points from lots of the rest of the presenters. In particular, Tim Green’s comments that most “entertainment” downloads are actually “self expression” – ring tones, wallpapers etc. And Russell Buckley from adMob who is saying he’s served 1bn mobile banners in the last 6 months.