Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Thoughts on Windows Phone 7

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a friend from Microsoft about going to a get-together that Microsoft was having. The reason for the meetup was Windows Phone 7. It was going to be at Alexander's Steakhouse, which is one of the best places to eat in the Bay Area -- at least in my carnivorous opinion. So I said that I was interested, even though I had done no development for WP7. He took that as an opportunity to hook me up with an LG Quantum running the latest and greatest version of WP7 and a Programming Windows Phone 7 book. I figured that since MS was being so kind to invite me to such a nice place, I should at least kick the wheels on WP7. Here's my take.

First, here's my impression of WP7 and the LG Quantum. I will give MS props for trying out some new user experience patterns. However, I am not a fan. I do not like the left-to-right organization of apps. Often I finding myself scrolling down a page trying to read something and accidentally scrolling to the next page on the right. This would just be a minor inconvenience if scrolling back to what I was interested in was quick and easy, but unfortunately the app starts loading another screen (the page on the right) and when I go back to the left one, it has to reload. Not only does this take awhile, but it almost always loses my context of what I was reading on the left page. It really sucks.

The other side effect of this way of organization screens in an application is that each screen feels narrow. Worse, most screens seem to use a small font. This seems to be true of all of the apps, from the built-in ones by Microsoft to the big-name ones like Facebook, Netflix, Foursquare, and Twitter. I have a much harder time reading text on these apps than I do on their Android or iPhone cousins. I think WP7 is to blame here, these apps are consistent with the platform and that's why they make me squint.

That last paragraph is clearly influenced by my experience with writing code for WP7. However, I would say that the development situation on WP7 is generally pretty good. The worst part is the "getting started". For me this involved installing Windows 7 on my MBP. I already had Parallels on there fortunately, but not Win7. Once I had Win7 running under Parallels, I followed the WP7 getting started guide. I was a little annoyed to see this involved a three-step download/install process. First download the WP7 developer tools. Then install the WP7 developer tools January 2011 update. And then install the WP7 developer tools fix! Really? Why in this not all one download? Why does that third download even (the "tools fix") even exist?

I've always thought that the Android tools installation process left a lot to be desired. But at least they had a reasonable excuse that IDE support was optional. So you could just install the SDK, but you had additional steps if you wanted to use either Eclipse or IDEA (and you got options here, which is nice.) Things are much better on iOS, but there are a lot less options there. WP7 is the worst of all worlds, as there are no options, but you have three installs including a "fix". Oh wait there are options, but they are for using Visual Basic which also requires that you use the "Pro" version of the tools. I'm not a big fan of an up-sale when it comes to developer tools. Do you want me to build for your platform? Make it easy and make it free until I want to publish something.

So there's my big gripe with the tools. Otherwise they are very good. If you've ever used Visual Studio, you know that it has a lot of nice features. The book mentioned earlier is a good companion too. Of course when you tie development so closely to a tool, then a book gets old fast, but for now it works. I wrote a neat little program that downloaded and parsed some XML and then used data binding to show the results in a list. Tapping on items in the list could bring up more information or open an external browser link. It was sweet and the tools made the development go by fast. I think this (along with the tightly integrated designer tools) may be WP7's biggest asset. There is no doubt in my mind that if you want to build some very "standard" looking apps, you can do it much faster on WP7 than on Android or iOS. It's not even close.

However the tale of the tools does not have a happy ending. I got my little app to run on the emulator, and I was pleased that the emulator loaded quickly and was responsive. However I don't trust emulators (and you should not either), so I was eager to run the app on the LG Quantum. However when I tried, I got an error saying "Zune software is not installed." Lucky for me that developing for WP7 was just a hobby, so I could laugh at this WTF error.

I have one last critique of WP7, and actually this came from Matt Trunnell. He's a bad-ass WP7/Silverlight developer who works for Netflix and wrote their WP7 app. We met at the MS event I mentioned at the beginning and shared with me some of his perspectives on WP7. I stated that I thought that MS seemed to be trying to "out Apple, Apple". What I meant was that they had followed Apple's lead on most issues, from how the OS ran, to what developers could do, etc. However Matt made me realize that I was wrong about this. He pointed out that MS had really done a lot of "triangulation" where they had tried to find middle ground between how Apple and Google had done things. An example of this is the multitasking in WP7 (well coming this fall to WP7.) MS adopted the pseudo-multitasking (fast app switching) of the iPhone, but also included "Live Agents" that could run in the background, but only in a limited way that is beyond the developer's control.

I think I have become immersed in the Android world so much that Microsoft's triangulation seemed like being very Apple-ish to me. But Matt was right on. MS has very consistently tried to "learn" from Apple and Google and come up with a best-of-both worlds approach. There are some very good things about this kind of strategy (you *should* learn from your competitors) but ultimately it is frustrating. Everything always seems second-rate.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Fragmentation? What fragmentation?

Fragmentation is a fun word to use in the mobile space. The devotees of Apple and the iPhone delight in the term because it makes Android aficionados cringe. Heck even the executives at Apple use the term at every opportunity. Some of the folks on the Android team deny it exists. However in a recently published study, most Android developers say it is a real problem. So what's the deal?

As with so many other contentious things in this world, a lot comes down to how you define something. If you write an Android application, you will have to test it on multiple devices. So I will use this as my definition of fragmentation. So obviously Android suffers from fragmentation. Here is a simple example of it:

HTC Thunderbolt winning

This is a screenshot of an app running on the HTC Thunderbolt. According to some folks, it is selling quite well. What's the point of the screenshot? Well take a look at the text field right below the "Your phone number" prompt. Here is the code for it:


See the problem? WTF is up with those zeros in the field? They clearly should not be there. This was the only phone I could find that produced this problem, but I will have to add code just to deal with this annoyance. This is fragmentation. Code has to be tested on many devices, and you may have to put in some device-specific things to get the app to work the same.

Now don't be fooled, fragmentation exists on all mobile platforms. Yes, even iOS. There is less of it, but it is not insignificant. Fragmentation is quite prominent on almost all application platforms. Do not get any web developer started about IE specific CSS for example.

So it is a huge problem on Android? My answer to that question is irrelevant, as the perception that it is a problem is all that does matter. I think this perception is completely reasonable. Many Android developers were programming for the iPhone in the past, and were used to testing on a single iPhone and nothing else. Thus Android seems arduous.