Smartphones … It all began with the BlackBerry phone in 2003. Or perhaps with PDA devices earlier. But it with was the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 (was it really only seven years ago?) that the smartphone began to evolve into what it has become today—mini computer powerhouses with hi-res screens and an explosion of features and capabilities.
Today, BlackBerry is all but extinct, and there are three major players on the smartphone scene: Android, iPhone, and Windows Phone, with the latter being a distant third in terms of popularity. iOS and Android systems have a very similar look and feel. Windows Phone, on the other hand, is something different. All these systems have many, many capabilities in common, so what do I think makes Windows Phone special?
Live Tiles and the Start Screen
Here are screen shots of the the iPhone 5 home screen, the Android Samsung Galaxy 4S home screen, and a screen shot of my very own Windows Phone’s start screen. The iPhone and the Android basically present you with static icons with which to launch you into various apps. It works fine, but the screen itself is rather uninteresting. Windows Phone, uses tiles instead of icons. These tiles are “live” with activity, receiving updated information and presenting that information before you ever have to open the app. The calender, weather, and to-do list apps are great examples of the usefulness of this function. It makes the start screen itself useful, in addition to being a launching point to get to the other useful stuff. It’s dynamic and beautiful. And in fact, the screen shot does not wholly communicate what sets the Start screen apart from the other two home screens because the Start screen is busy with motion–tiles changing, animating, or flipping around with relevant bits of data for you to see at a glance.
The second thing that’s special about Windows Phone is the ability to “pin” almost anything to the start screen. Obviously, you can “pin” or position app tiles on the start screen. But different apps will allow you to pin other things so you can get at them quickly and directly. It’s hard to describe this without showing it, but for example, OneDrive lets me pin a particular folder to my start screen. Spotify lets me pin a favorite playlist to the start screen. Maps lets me pin a particular destination, which is really nice. Facebook lets me pin a Facebook group. Several sports apps let me pin favorite teams to the start screen. My timer app lets me pin a particular preset timer. The weather app, cities. My YouTube app, videos. I could go and on. Basically, any app can allow you to pin elements within the app directly to start screen so you don’t have to dig for them in the app any more. You can go straight to them. It’s really cool.
Windows Phone still only represents a small percentage of all smartphone usage, and it has done better outside the U.S. than in its own home country. But that’s too bad, because Microsoft has built something unique here, with a fantastic user interface that is quick and dynamic and easy to navigate.