My Smartphone Strategy

March 10, 2013 - Is My Plan Working?

In my September article Why I Don't Have a Smartphone, I laid out my master plan for evolving my use of all my personal computing devices, including my desktop and laptop PCs. The strategy hinged on my mail being in the cloud and settling for a powerful yet economical desktop, eliminating my expensive laptop in the process. The details are in that earlier article; the first step was a new phone.

In November I purchased a Nokia Lumia 920, switching from Verizon to AT&T to get that specific Windows 8 phone. In this article I want to update you on my master plan and then go on to give you some impressions of the physical phone and its software.

The Plan

My entire plan centers on staying in touch. Previously I did this by toting the laptop everywhere so I could deal with email. The plan says the phone will take over this role, allowing me to leave the bigger computers home. There's no need to dwell on this - half the planet seems to be using phones for email and I'm just the most recent addition to that crowd. It's working out fine. Previously I took the laptop with me 80% of the time; now I'd be surprised if the number hit 10% and it is still dropping. It is tremendously convenient to simply pick up the phone and go rather than packing a bag every time. And I am keeping in touch; if I need to reply to my clients, I can do it more quickly than before and that enhances my quality of service. The phone is not convenient for the preparation of detailed emails but at least the client sees that I'm responsive.

Now that I'm in a plan with unlimited text messaging, I'm less stingy about using it. This has opened yet another channel for me that in many cases replaces a quick phone call. There's less overhead in a text and it's passive. While I don't usually resort to the common texting abbreviations (LOL), the brevity of text messages is refreshing.

Communications is but one aspect of my mobile needs. My laptop is full of client information, some of which is handy to have if I'm on site or otherwise mobile but needing to answer a client question. Most of this information is in one of three places - my password vault, Word, or Excel. With a Windows phone the Word and Excel documents are covered by the Microsoft apps that come with the phone. My password vault is from SplashData. Although only one of that company's mobile apps is available for a Windows phone, it just happens to be SplashID, which I have used for a very long time. For my most critical information, the Windows phone meets the needs, requiring just a cabled synchronization to move the data to the phone.

The phone untethers me from my laptop case (it has wheels, but still). I can stay in perfect touch while I'm mobile. I have the information I need with me all the time. In short, the plan seems to be working.

In a few months the next part of the plan will start to come together, which is my new desktop and my laptop's retirement as a business computer. At this point, it looks like that will all work well, too.

The Deal

There were three big attractions for me - pricing, the phone, and the software - the combined weight of which was enough to persuade me to abandon Verizon for AT&T. I had been an AT&T customer for many years, starting at a time when the business service and national coverage from the old AT&T was superior to anything else in the market. In those days I put up with the fact that coverage at my house was never great. But five years ago I switched to Verizon because I was fed up with that coverage, which seemed to be getting worse. Coverage issues and dropped calls are top complaints with AT&T customers and have been ever since the iPhone came to market, so I was not looking forward to making this switch.

I'll spare you any suspense - I have coverage issues at my house and calls are dropped regularly. In this respect I miss Verizon.

I might have hung around Verizon had there been any incentive at all to do so. I even spoke to someone in a badly misnamed "loyalty" department. No joy. Thus the combined AT&T incentives of the 920 itself and some incredible pricing were enough to tear me away.

The pricing was compelling. The phone was $99 and the wireless charging pad was a free incentive (as of today, a deal that is still in effect). A three for the price of two accessories deal worked perfectly (case for my wife, car charger, car speaker). Had I waited around for the shoe to drop at Verizon, I would have paid a least 50% more, probably higher. There's no question that this pricing was a strong influence on me although Verizon's total reluctance to do anything at all to retain my business probably helped. (By the way, I'm being deluged with emails inviting me back, some with incentives. I guess it pays to switch.)

The hardware was also a better deal. Like an iPhone 5, the Lumia 920 has 1GB of system RAM. But the iPhone 5's storage capacity is 16GB while the 920 has 32GB, twice the amount. Given that the iPhone 5 was $199 and the 920 only $99, the 920 is a pretty good bang for the buck even without the freebies.

Anyway, the AT&T deal could not be beat, especially since I was buying for both my wife and myself.

The Hardware

The Nokia Lumia 920 is a big, heavy phone. Add a protective case and it becomes bulky. This was a big obstacle to me. I'd prefer something smaller even though the trend seems to be in the "micro tablet" direction. The Galaxy Note II is selling really well, a surprise to me. What finally put me over the top was my wife, who was also touring iPhones and Androids while I dug details out of the sales rep and played with the 920. I was sure my wife would choose the iPhone 4S, also priced at $99, but she surprised me by choosing the 920! In a twist, she said she didn't mind the added weight because the phone would be in her purse but she preferred the larger screen of the 920. It turns out that she preferred it even over the iPhone 5, meaning that it was not entirely the screen real estate but also the presentation. In her words, she found the 920 easier to read.

Both my wife and I, more her, take a lot of photos. In this regard we were definitely attracted the the Nokia 920's camera. This appears to be a distinct edge for Nokia; the camera technology is now finding its way into other models. Although I have not done extensive testing and comparison, the low-light capability of the camera is tremendous. That's important to me. It also happens to be helpful, as the camera's flash doesn't seem to work all the time. I'll soon be visiting the AT&T depot in my area to have them take a look at that aspect of the phone. I'm suspicious that an event with wireless charging may actually have caused some damage.

Wireless charging is one of the best features of the 920. Both my wife and I love it. It is tremendously convenient; just plop the phone on the pad. No wires, no muss. The pad is smart enough to shut down when the phone is not resting on it, so the charging pad and its AC adpater don't draw very much power when not in use. The charging pad, however, is the source of one very bad scare with my phone. I came down one morning and grabbed the phone, only to discover it was extremely hot, almost too hot to touch. I immediately touched the pad and it was roasting as well. I then checked the phone, which reported a 100% charge, so I thought perhaps the pad and phone had gotten their signals crossed. But five minutes later the phone reported that it was critically low on power, meaning that the overnight on the pad had actually reduced the charge on the phone. I decided the pad was defective and swapped it for a new one. I've had no recurrence.

I am worried that the extreme heat of that charging experience may have damaged the phone in some way. I have no proof, of course. After that incident, I starting noticing that the flash would not fire every time a photo was taken. I'm thus suspicious.

The phone does heat up. This appears to be more or less normal; I had experimented with an HTC Droid Incredible for a few months and I noticed that it heated up as well. My son told me he thought it was normal, that all phones did it. I think the Lumia 920 gets hotter than the Droid did, but then it does have a faster processor and better graphics. The heat mostly comes during games or anything else that consumes power.

The phone seems very rugged. I saw a destruction test for this phone on YouTube; in the third phase of the test the phone died when a car was driven over it although the case was intact and the glass screen unbroken. My own feeling is that this phone needs no protective case. The polycarbonate body is very strong.

About the only complaint I have relates to the three capacitive buttons below the screen. I think they are too close to the screen or at the very least too sensitive. When playing games, especially in landscape mode, I find myself brushing those buttons too often. All these buttons immediately take you out of the game. I might just have a clumsy touch but whether it's me or the phone, it's annoying.

On a more practical matter, battery life is an issue with this phone. There is no problem with a long business day (phone, text, email, Web); I'll have power to spare by the evening. But add in just a few minutes of play and the battery draws down fast. Again comparing to my testing with the Droid Incredible, the results are similar. It's hard to complain about that, but I get the sense that other phones are manging power better than the 920.

After a few months of experience, I find that I am not uncomfortable with the weight. And my wife was right about the larger screen and text presentation. I'm willing to accept the weight for that.

The Software

The first thing to talk about with respect to software is the operating environment, in my case Windows Phone 8. I think the phone works very well, but I'm surprised to find what I consider a lot of rough edges and missing features. Even so, Windows Phone 8 is ready for prime time, especially for someone like me who is tied to Outlook-style email and uses Microsoft Office heavily. This is one reason why I think the phone will do so well over time - it is well integrated into the Microsoft ecosystem. I've written before about this integration, which is a story only Microsoft can tell. I'm convinced that Windows Phone will be driven not by consumers but by business people who will then find the device entirely satisfactory for their personal needs.

Having experimented with the Droid Incredible and having a little experience playing with iPhones, I'm convinced the tiled interface is a great idea. I isolate that praise for the phone and the Surface tablets; I'm not sure how I'll feel about it on my new PC. I especially like live tiles, in which information is dynamically presented in the tile (e.g. weather, mail status, phone status, etc.). A lot depends on how the app developer uses the live tile, but when done thoughtfully it's a really useful feature.

But the real value of the tiles is that they are two dimensional. In the last 25 years a lot of time and effort has gone in to making our user interfaces three dimensional, giving them some depth and texture. I think that work has resulted in some important UI advances and I thus disdain "flatland" for full-sized PCs. For small devices like phones there is an important advantage - tiles don't waste space. Because the surface of a tile is flat, more of its area can be used for content and none has to be given over to the 3D appearance. That allows information to be presented effectively, even in the smallest of the three tile sizes. I have also found that it is easier to find a tile than a traditional icon, which more often than not is being presented over the owner's preferred background image and thus in a sea of clutter. I was struck by this difference between the Droid I tested and the Windows phone.

More needs to be done with the tiles. Microsoft touts the ability to personalize the phone with themes, but there are only 16 provided with the phone and they apply to almost every tile. I would much prefer the ability to change the background and text color of each tile, individually, which would allow me to use colors to set off the tiles and find them more rapidly. More than 16 colors are needed. Apps that do not want their tiles manipulated can prevent it; for example, SplashID has an image of a lock, in effect an icon, which is fixed no matter what theme is chosen.

I very much like the ability to size the tiles and arrange them in any way I desire. I have found that I can rearrange tiles and still find them, something I found extremely difficult when I moved icons around on the Droid.

Microsoft has chosen to have two screens for launching apps. One is the main display, the tiles, arranged as you like. The other is an alphabetical list of all apps except games, which is reached by swiping left from the main screen. I think I would prefer one more screen (swipe right) but because the main screen can be as tall as is needed, this is a minor quibble.

When I was experimenting with the Droid Incredible, I found that Android OS did a poor job managing app resource allocation and usage. My son had installed an AppKiller app, which simply closed any app that was open and freed up memory. I wish for such an app for the Windows phone because like Adroid I'm not sure Windows is doing the best possible job managing apps that are still loaded. There apparently was at least one version of the Windows Phone software (perhaps alpha or beta) that included a feature to kill an app - you held the back key down until all the active apps could be seen, then swiped one downwards to force it closed. This feature is not in Windows Phone 8 as released. My sense is that if something like a game no longer has the focus and is still running in the background, it will eat power. Although I can't prove this, I've started to make sure apps are killed when I'm done with them and the result has been an improvement in battery life. This empirical result implies that AppKiller is needed.

A key draw for the business user, like me, is the presence of Word, Excel, and Powerpoint on the phone. These are not individual apps; they all fall under a single, rather poorly designed tile for Office on the main screen. Touching the tile takes you to what I would call the Office app, which knows how to display and even edit those document types. The Office app has a "Places" panel that allows access to documents stored on the phone, in email attachments, in SkyDrive, and in Office 365.

An important draw for me was, of course, email and the easy integration with what I call Outlook-style email. This is a fancy way of saying that email on the phone plays nice with Microsoft Exchange email accounts. Integraton with both my MEO (Microsoft Exchange Online) and my email accounts was smooth and easy.

Nonetheless, I was disappointed. I've been using Outlook notes for 15 years and syncing them all that time with my Palm devices. The Windows 8 Phone comes with Microsoft's OneNote app and the email app on the phone does not sync Outlook notes. As I investigated this I discovered that notes are not synced with my MEO account either, which I didn't realize at first. I guess I'm a bit slow; the light finally dawned and I realized that Outlook notes are on the way out in favor of OneNote. OneNote notebooks can be stored in the cloud (SkyDrive) or the phone. There is no question that OneNote is an excellent notes app, so the outcome here is that I'll have to migrate notes. This might be good for me. We'll see.

The other thing that does not sync to the phone is Outlook tasks. Same story as with notes; I use them a lot and I used to sync them to Palm. Tasks do sync between Outlook on the PC and MEO; they simply can't be seen on the phone. Here I think Microsoft made a huge mistake and it's something I'd like to see addressed soon.

Other than those two issues, email and Office work very well.

The phone came with a suite of apps from Nokia, most highly touted. An example is Nokia Maps, recently renamed HERE Maps. I have not had a chance to give these the workout needed to form a useful conclusion, but overall I would say I'm impressed. Maps is certainly good. HERE Drive+, the GPS app, seems to work very well. I experimented with HERE Transit, which can give you the lowdown on public transportation based on where you're standing, and it looked impressive, accurately telling me how to get to downtown Baltimore from my neighborhood by bus. HERE City Lens may be the most fascinating of the suite; when you hold the phone flat it shows you a map with nearby businesses (food, hotels, shops, etc.) but when you hold the phone up it superimposes those same business icons over the rear camera's image. If you're close enough to the location, it will outline the building. If you hold the phone in portrait mode, it shows a list without the camera view.

I have a running (friendly) feud with my friend Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal. He, like many other journalists, takes the position that the quantity of apps is or should be a key determinant in the phone buying decision. My position is that quality is more important than quantity. The problem with our feud is that we're both right. I can't deny that Apple's collection of 750,000 apps is more likely to contain the one I'm looking for than the smaller 120,000 apps (is that paltry?) in Microsoft's store. Apps must inform the buying decision, without question. And they did mine.

  • Banking - I would not have bought the phone if there was not an app for my bank. Deal breaker. Fortunately, it did.
  • Vault - As I get older (and as security requirments get more demanding), I need a credentials/password vault. This would have been another deal breaker, but fortunately the app I use was available. (There are other SplashData apps I'd like to use, so I hope they bring more to market for Windows.)
  • Sudoku - I like Sudoku, so having a good app is important (although not critical). I had used Astraware's program on my Palm Centro but the company's current position is no Windows apps. The apps in the Windows store don't meet my standards, including the one from Microsoft Studios, so I'm going to have to wait for something better.
  • Office - This came with the phone, of course. Had it not (unthinkable) I would have needed something. On my Palm Centro I used Documents To Go, which I had previously used on my PalmPilots.
  • Database - This one might seem weird, but for years I used a program called ThinkDB on Palm and thus on the Centro. It's excellent. It's also dead. I can't find a decent replacement; HanDBase is not (yet?) available for Windows Phone 7/8, only for older ones. Here's a place where Microsoft is missing the boat by not having a mobile version of Access. I can live without it, but it would be handy.

There have been some popular apps that I would have liked to try on my phone, such as Instagram and perhaps one of those credit card swipers. The small size of the current Windows Phone market probably means those apps will be some time coming.

Walt's argument rings true. I might have tilted more in his direction had the deal breaker apps not been available. But they were, so the picture for my top apps is pretty good.

In fairness to Walt, I should mention that his focus is the consumer technology market. I'm focused on business. The trend towards BYOD means our positions collide, but when that happens I think things will tilt a little bit more in my direction because the primary driver will be getting a device that meets the needs of business, with the fun consumer stuff coming a close second.

I'm Happy

Overall, I think I made a good choice. I don't feel iEnvy at all. In fact, the Windows Phone experience has a lot to recommend it.

Most important, the phone and its software are fitting into my long-term strategy perfectly. A Windows 8 phone is the perfect phone for me given what I do and what I need to do.

Tags: Smartphone, Windows Phone

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