Three months with Windows Phone 7

I wrote about my first week with Windows Phone 7 back in January, and I meant to post an update but never got around to it until now. I’ve had my new phone (LG Optimus 7) for about three months, which I suppose means it is no longer new! I’m still really loving the platform, but I do have a better sense of what’s missing and what could be improved.

LG OPTIMUS 7
Photo by suanie

Fortunately I didn’t have to wait very long for the “NoDo” update (poor AT&T customers) so I have been enjoying copy & paste and the other benefits for a while now. It works as expected, without any issues. The only oddity is that the paste icon disappears after you paste something, and you have to swipe to get it back. I did notice an improvement in speed after the update, but that’s pretty much it. Oh the GAL for my one Exchange 2003 account now works as well, which is handy.

The real update is known as “Mango” and is slated to be delivered later this year, perhaps as “Windows Phone 7.5”. It’ll contain a ton of new features, such as IE9 Mobile, Twitter integration, improved SkyDrive integration, third-party multitasking, more Live Tile functionality, and improved software capabilities (making apps like Skype possible). Obviously IE9 will make a big difference to the overall experience, and the Twitter integration is nice, but I hope they fix a number of the outstanding issues in addition to delivering new features (such as the problems with Live Tiles).

There’s a giant wishlist thread on the Microsoft Answers site, but here are the things I’d like to see improved:

  • The camera app needs to be fixed to remember my settings. It’s so annoying to select anti-shake every time I want to take a picture.
  • Apparently custom ringtones are coming in Mango (finally I get a basic ring) and I hope it also provides the ability to change the ring volume independently of the other sounds (like alarms or reminders).
  • SkyDrive integration in the Office Hub would be great, so that I can open and save documents on SkyDrive. OneNote already syncs with SkyDrive, but not the other document types. Fortunately this is slated to come in Mango.
  • On the topic of the cloud, I’d love to have Windows Live Mesh support, if only to synchronize bookmarks in IE (which I already do across my computers).
  • I still can’t quite believe that Windows Phone 7 shipped without a Windows Live Messenger client. An official client still doesn’t exist, though there is a third-party one available. This is a pretty glaring omission, especially considering there are official clients on other mobile platforms!
  • There are a few things I’d like to see improved in the calendar app. A weekly view would be really handy, and the ability to sync more than just the primary calendar for an account would be great. I’d also love for both the calendar and Exchange to support the colored categories. I use them all the time in Outlook and Outlook Web Access and would love to see them on the phone.
  • An option for a unified email inbox would be really useful.
  • Something needs to be done with the Bing Maps app. I never use it, because it is so useless for me. Why do I have to specify “Edmonton, Alberta” for it to know I mean the Edmonton I am actually located in? It has my location information! Other issues include:
    • I have to enter actual addresses, rather than business names (which I can do with Google).
    • Directions only work maybe one out of every five attempts, and take forever to load (directions always load, and quickly, with Google).
    • There is no ability to get transit directions (which I can get with Google).
  • Maybe the solution would be to have a Google Maps app, but that doesn’t seem likely, at least not an official one.

It has been really encouraging to see the number of apps growing significantly, though it would be great to see a few more “official” ones (like Skype, coming after the Mango update). I still haven’t found a news app that I really love, nor a weather app (I am using The Weather Channel right now because WeatherBug’s live tile stopped working). That said, the apps I use most are all there and work really well (Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, etc). The only app I have issues with is Flickr, it always seems to crash for me. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a few apps as well, such as TuneIn Radio and LG’s QR Reader.

Overall I’m still really happy with my decision to go with Windows Phone 7. It helps me get things done on the go, easily and efficiently. It is also fun to use (Sharon and I play a lot of Fruit Ninja)! The platform works well today, and the future looks bright!

My first week with Windows Phone 7

A week ago I finally decided to replace my aging BlackBerry Curve with a more modern smartphone. I have been talking about this for a while, and for the longest time I was pretty convinced I would join the iPhone crowd. As I thought more about what I wanted in a mobile device however, I started leaning more toward Windows Phone 7. That’s ultimately what I decided to go with.

I don’t think my decision should shock anyone – it is fairly well-established that I am a Microsoft fan! As a result of that, Windows Phone 7 made sense for me for a variety of reasons:

  • I hate iTunes. So much so that I haven’t installed it on my new computer (which means I haven’t synced my iPod touch in months). All of my music is organized on my computers using Windows Media Player, which IMHO is a much better app than iTunes.
  • I have thousands and thousands of songs, photos, and videos all organized on my Windows Home Server.
  • I have an Xbox 360 that truly is the centre of my home media experience. It plays everything from my Home Server, and is my portal into Zune, Netflix, and other services. And though I am not a huge gamer, I do use Xbox Live regularly.
  • All of my email, calendar, and contacts are in Exchange (both personal and for Questionmark).
  • I use Windows Live quite a bit, such as to sync OneNote notebooks.
  • I’m a Microsoft platform developer, so the idea of being able to easily port existing code to the phone platform is appealing.

So for those reasons, it made sense to go with a device that is definitely going to work with all of my stuff. But there were some other key reasons that I was attracted to Windows Phone 7 as well:

  • The “hub” concept made a lot of sense to me, especially the “People” hub. It integrates with both of my Exchange accounts, with Windows Live, with Gmail, and importantly, with Facebook. So far, this is the killer feature for me. I simply added all of my accounts, and now I have one master contact list, without duplicates, that is updated on-the-fly when friends update their Facebook information. It’s incredible.
  • Xbox Live integration is such a smart idea, and is really well implemented for a first version. A few simple clicks and I had Fruit Ninja on my phone, and as soon as I started playing I was earning Xbox Live achievements. That’s a big value-add.
  • Everyone has an iPhone!

Once I had decided that Windows Phone 7 was the way to go, I started looking at devices. I have to admit that it’s nice to not have to worry about this extra step in the iPhone world. I wanted to stay with Telus, so that meant I had a choice between the HTC 7 Surround or the LG Optimus 7. I went with the much more attractive-looking LG phone:

  • I would never use the SRS slide-out speakers on the Surround.
  • The Optimus 7 features Gorilla Glass, yet is still slightly lighter and smaller than the Surround.
  • Specs otherwise are mostly the same (which is the case for most Windows Phone 7 devices).
  • And importantly, the LG Optimus 7 received a positive review from Engadget.

As a nice surprise, there are a few LG-specific apps that are really cool too. Notably, the “Play To” app flawlessly plays photos or videos I capture on my phone on my Xbox. Really awesome for sharing with others without having to go to the computer. Engadget was right, the Optimus 7 feels solid and well-made. The only thing I don’t like about it is that the USB cover is hard to open.

LG Optimus 7

I’d say my first week has gone incredibly smoothly. I remember the first few weeks with my old BlackBerry Curve – figuring out how to accomplish stuff was difficult at best. But even Sharon, who swears by her “dumb” phone as I like to call them, had no problem picking up my Windows Phone and figuring it out (she loves Fruit Ninja). It’s incredibly intuitive. Here are some of the really positive things from my first week:

  • Setup was simple and painless. In a matter of minutes I had all of my accounts syncing and was on to downloading apps.
  • One of the things I hated most about my BlackBerry was notifications. If I missed a call and someone left a voice message, I would have FIVE notifications: the blinking red light (which I don’t miss at all), an entry in the call log, a message, a text message, and an icon that shows that I had voicemail. Windows Phone 7 is just simple. A simple update on the lock screen and the live tile, and that’s it. If I happen to be using the phone when a text message comes in, there’s a “toast” notification at the top. Tap it, reply, press the back button, and I’m right where I left off.
  • Wireless synching with the Zune software is awesome (podcasts sync automatically in the morning, for instance).

Of course, there have been a few negative things:

  • I would rather sync music to my phone using Windows Media Player than the Zune software. At least I didn’t have to do anything to get Zune to recognize my existing collection.
  • The volume control on the phone is annoying. I want to set the ring volume separately from the keyboard volume and separately from the alarms volume. Either it can’t be done or I am missing something.
  • Bing Maps, at least as it currently exists on the phone, sucks. I can’t ever get it to find places let alone directions. I really hope they do some work on the app.
  • The camera app doesn’t seem to remember settings, which means extra taps to get what I want.
  • There are some basic apps that should have been included, like Weather, Stocks, and a Timer. I shouldn’t have had to download them.
  • I don’t like the ringtones. Why can’t I just have a plain old ringing phone? I don’t want music.

And yes, I have a wishlist:

  • More apps! I know this will happen over time, but it is the most attractive thing about the iPhone. Most of the apps I use regularly (Twitter, Facebook, etc) exist on Windows Phone 7, but there’s not much variety right now.
  • More advanced calendar settings would be nice. For instance the ability to ignore categories from a particular calendar, or to sync multiple calendars from Google Calendar.
  • I wish the “Share” feature of the camera supported Twitter (or could be customized to support other services).
  • Opera Mini. I use Opera everywhere, and I love the ability to sync bookmarks, speed dial, and other settings across devices. I’d love to see Opera Mini on Windows Phone 7.

Overall, I’m really happy with my Windows Phone. So far at least, I can confidently say it was the right decision for me. I can’t wait to see the platform grow and evolve!

Edmonton Journal launches 2D barcodes with ScanLife

Yesterday the Edmonton Journal launched 2D barcodes throughout the newspaper, enabling readers with mobile devices to scan the codes for access to related information. They chose ScanLife to provide the technology, the same company that Metro Canada chose back in September. Here’s what The Journal had to say about the barcodes, known as EZcodes:

Want to vent? Send a letter to the editor? Tweet at one of our writers? Find a map to that great new restaurant? Just scan the code and that information stays with you and your phone to take wherever you want. The standing codes attached to our regular columnists and bloggers stay under the history button in the ScanLife application on your phone, so you can read their latest columns and blogs even when you don’t have the paper with you.

Mobile barcodes are another technology that Canada (and North America really) is behind on relative to the rest of the world. In that respect, I guess you could say that Metro and The Journal are adopters of the technology. ScanLife isn’t the only player, another popular choice (at least in North America) is Microsoft Tag, which uses high capacity color barcodes rather than the black-and-white EZcodes.

To get started with the codes that The Journal is using, simply visit http://2dscan.com on your smartphone to download the free scanning software. Then whenever you see the 2D barcode, just scan it! There are more detailed instructions here.

Edmonton Journal ScanLife Launch

The Journal hosted a party last night at Earls Tin Palace to celebrate the launch. The patio was packed with people wearing nametags with EZcodes on them. Bistro columnist Liane Faulder was the host, appropriate as her section was the first to launch with the new codes. Here’s a video of Liane, Edmonton Journal publisher John J. McDonald III, and Caritas Hospital Foundation President John Boucher (the first advertising partner for the codes) talking about the launch of 2D codes in the paper:

It was a fun party! I learned that Sandra Marocco planted the seed for the idea after a trip to New York. She noticed the tags being used outside Saks on Fifth Avenue, and decided to explore them further. After she found that Esquire magazine was using them, she realized they might provide value to the Edmonton Journal. The rest, as they say, is history.

Edmonton Journal ScanLife LaunchEdmonton Journal ScanLife Launch

You can see a few more photos from the party here. You can also see some photos and a video at The Journal.

Thoughts on 2D barcodes in the Edmonton Journal

I have mixed emotions about the 2D barcodes now found inside the Edmonton Journal. I think it’s great that they are continuing to experiment, trying new things, and I hope we see additional innovations coming from The Journal in the near future. Having said that, I wonder if too much emphasis is being placed on the barcodes by management. More than a few times last night I heard “this is just the beginning” or as was printed yesterday, “the possibilities for connection are endless.” I have three main issues with the barcodes:

  1. Putting the barcodes inside the newspaper reinforces the importance of the physical product. It emphasizes the “paper” part of “newspaper” rather than the “news” part. It’s short-term thinking, not long-term thinking. I think The Journal is very much facing the innovator’s dilemma, and even though the smart people that work under management know what needs to be done, they hit roadblocks at every turn. Here’s a rough analogy for you: The Journal is like a long-time smoker, addicted to paper. Connecting the physical paper to the digital world with barcodes is like a smoker using a nicotine patch, even though we know cold turkey is the most effective way to quit.
  2. Speaking of reinforcing the paper, the barcodes give you more information than the actual website does. That’s just completely unacceptable. Take yesterday’s Bistro article on sliders. The EZcodes provide access to “a list of Edmonton restaurants with sliders on the menu…a tasty recipe from local foodie Shauna Faragini… and where to get slider buns and pre-made sliders”. The online story? Completely devoid of links. There are so many things wrong with this picture that I don’t know where to start. Writers need to do some extra work to create the codes, but I would much rather see that extra work be put into links on the website (and I’m positive that doing so would provide greater value to The Journal).
  3. Less of an issue but still important is that the EZcodes are somewhat generic. Columnists get a code, and some special features like the Bistro get a code, but individual stories do not get their own codes. This is partly a technology issue, but mainly a cost issue. I think that makes the EZcodes a little less useful (an option to “tweet this story” after scanning a code simply isn’t possible, for example).

Again though, I want to reiterate that this is a positive step for the Edmonton Journal from the perspective of trying something new, and working to provide more value to readers (and advertisers). Congrats to the entire Edmonton Journal team for making it happen!

I also want to commend The Journal on the way they did the launch. They had videos prepared online demonstrating the technology, and every article I read asked for reader feedback and suggested a variety of ways to provide it. I really do believe that they want to know how to shape their use of the technology based on reader feedback. The party was a nice touch as well. Most interesting to me though, was the use of the @EJ_Cares account on Twitter. It has been actively monitoring and engaging in discussion about the 2D barcodes and the ScanLife application. The online community are most likely going to be the early adopters of the barcodes, so it’s smart to engage with them right away – well done to the @EJ_Cares team!

I hope Journal readers find the barcodes useful, and I look forward to many more interesting ideas in the future!

UPDATE: Here is Jeff’s take on the party and the barcodes.

UPDATE2: Turns out the information is on the website, just on a different story page (this is another issue with The Journal’s online stuff). I think the link text could have been more clear than “Slider tips and toppings” but the point is the information was online – my mistake!

Telus and Bell team up, plan to roll out 4G

Big news today in Canada’s wireless industry. Telus and Bell announced they are partnering to upgrade their wireless network to 3G nationwide, laying the groundwork for an eventual move to 4G. The move should put both companies on equal footing with Rogers, but playing catchup is expensive:

Although both companies declined to provide any clear insights to the cost of the upgrade, analysts expect it to be approximately between $750-million to $1-billion, split two ways between Bell and Telus. Mr. Entwistle said that initial capital expenditures for the new network are included in Telus’ original guidance of approximately $1.9-billion this year and is expected to be $750-million higher than historical levels in the following year.

I’m not sure how I missed it, but apparently rumors of this specific deal actually surfaced back in July. The first rumor, that Telus would switch to GSM, started back in January. The announcement today covers the launch of a network with High Speed Packet Access (HSPA/GSM). Bell and Telus hope to have the network ready just in time for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. After that the goal is to move to LTE (4G), which is in line with the plans of most other carriers around the world.

Clearly this is great news for Canadians. Having a single network standard will bring cost benefits, and faster time-to-market for hardware. I’m looking forward to it.

Here’s the Telus press release, and here’s the Bell press release. Both are incredibly similar, though neither one mentions the other! I guess we should use the term “partnership” lightly.

Text messaging is not dangerous, get over it

cell phoneThe people who create violent video games must be breathing a sigh of relief at the moment – text messaging is the new enemy. Increasingly the media has been publishing fluff pieces about the apparent danger that text messaging poses. With news that the train engineer at the centre of the crash in California last week was text messaging at the time of the accident, things are only getting worse for the technology.

Maybe it’s just the natural progression of things – become popular enough and you’ll undoubtedly gain enemies. Text messaging is more popular than ever, with over 75 billion messages sent in the US in the month of June alone. That’s an awful lot of messages! In fact, Nielsen Mobile estimates that more Americans send text messages than make phone calls. I would guess the numbers are similar here in Canada and elsewhere in the world.

Of course, there are no facts that prove text messaging is dangerous:

Though there are no official casualty statistics, there is much anecdotal evidence that the number of fatal accidents stemming from texting while driving, crossing the street or engaging in other activities is on the rise.

“The act of texting automatically removes 10 I.Q. points,” said Paul Saffo, a technology trend forecaster in Silicon Valley.

I am sure Saffo is completely qualified to make such a statement as a “trend forecaster” so let me make a few statements of my own. I would venture to say that you lose I.Q. points while using the good old fashioned voice functionality of your phone. You probably lose 10 I.Q. points while rocking out to music on your iPod. You undoubtedly lose I.Q. points while stirring your Frappuccino as you cross the street too.

My point is that text messaging is no different than any other distraction. You’ve always got to remember to pay attention to the task at hand.

I love Facebook Mobile via text messages

facebookBuilding a mobile application that works really well is hard. In general, I think we put up with sub-standard mobile applications simply because they offer convenience, not because they blow us away. The iPhone is definitely changing things but for the most part, I still cringe when I need to use most mobile apps. Especially ones that claim to work over text messaging. There’s only one SMS app that I really like – Facebook.

I think Facebook has absolutely nailed the text messaging experience.

Use it for a while, and you’ll realize that the SMS functionality of Facebook is so much better than everything else. Take Twitter, for instance. One of its original claims to fame was that it worked well over SMS. Except that compared with Facebook, it absolutely sucks.

Here are a few of the reasons why Facebook over text messaging rocks:

  • You can do many different things. You can update your status by prefixing your message with the @ symbol, or write on someone’s wall by prefixing the message with “wall Name”. Similarly, you can send messages by prefixing with “msg Name”.
  • Facebook will ask for clarification. If I send a message prefixed with “wall Kim” it will ask me which Kim I mean if it can’t figure it out automatically.
  • Context! Let’s say someone sends me a Facebook message, which I have set to come to my phone. All I need to do is reply, and it will send a Facebook message back. Same goes for wall notifications. I don’t need to specify the “msg” or “wall” because Facebook understands the context.
  • Taking that to the next level, Facebook over text messaging is “multithreaded”. By that I mean, there is more than one number. If I get two messages, they’ll come from different shortcodes, so that when I reply Facebook knows which one I am replying to.

The key difference between Facebook SMS and other applications, is that idea of a session. The way that my reply to a notification is not isolated – Facebook understands some of the context around it. It makes the whole experience so much better.

Another major plus with Facebook over text messaging is that it’s both fast and reliable…unlike Twitter. I’ve never had any problems with it – it just works.

If you don’t already make use of Facebook Mobile, I encourage you to give it a shot. You can learn more about the SMS features here.

Five iPhone / iPod touch applications I want

appstoreI finally got my iPod touch updated to the new 2.0 software today. I had tried repeatedly yesterday, but eventually gave up due to all the errors. The download was about 230 MB, and it took about an hour to get installed with all my data restored. The update costs $9.95 for iPod touch owners and is free for iPhone owners.

The first thing I did was poke around the App Store in iTunes. Pretty quickly though I realized that the best way to browse it is actually on the device itself. So far I’ve installed Twitterific, Evernote, the New York Times app, and the Facebook app. The second thing I did was get Exchange working. The applications are cool, but right now the Exchange support is what makes the update worth it for me.

I know that more applications will appear over time, but right now it seems like there aren’t very many useful ones. Here are five applications I’d love to see:

  1. Remember the Milk – They’ve already got a web app for the iPhone, but I’d love to see a full app complete with offline access to my task list. I’d be surprised if they didn’t create one, actually. This is the app I want most.
  2. Buxfer – I use this app all the time to manage my personal finances, and I’d love to have on-the-go, offline access.
  3. Brightkite – Apparently they have one in the works, and it should be ready by the end of the month. I hope it has some sort of auto-check-in feature (based on the network I’m connected to or something).
  4. Ping.fm – The current web app works great, but it would be better to not have to open up the web page and possibly log in.
  5. WordPress or Windows Live Writer – I’m not sure how often I’d post to my blog from my iPod touch, but it would be cool just to know that I can.

A couple of honorable mentions: a better weather app than WeatherBug (from Environment Canada would be wicked) and some sort of FriendFeed app.

What applications do you want?

Extremely Handy: Google SMS

google mobile I’m a little surprised that I’ve never blogged about Google SMS before, because it’s a wonderfully useful service that deserves more attention. It’s amazing how few people know about it! What is Google SMS? Basically, it’s Google via text messaging. The power of Google in your pocket!

Using Google SMS is really simple. All you have to do is send a text message to 466453 (GOOGLE). There are a bunch of built-in commands you can use, but the default is just a local search. For instance, when Sharon and I were in Calgary last weekend, we used Google SMS to give us the address of Tubby Dog. I sent the following message:

Tubby Dog, Calgary

And Google SMS replied immediately with:

Local Listings: Tubby Dog 1022 17 Avenue SW Calgary, T2T 0A5

I’m not exaggerating when I say immediately either – Google SMS is incredibly fast.

The built-in commands or “search features” include: weather, glossary, dictionary, stocks, directions, flights, translations, calculator, currency conversion, sports, and more. There’s a full list with examples and an interactive demo here. The ones I use most are local search (as above), movies (such as “get smart t6p”), and the calculator (such as “0.45 lb in kg”). The weather search (“weather edmonton”) is also handy.

I’m fairly dependent on Google for looking stuff up, so Google SMS is great because I don’t need to be at a computer. Do yourself a favor and program 466453 into your phone now!

Telus Mobility surprises me with a free gift!

I received an interesting package in the mail today from Telus Mobility. A little white box with the phrase “Happy Anniversary” on the front was waiting for me! I opened it up to find a letter thanking me for being a customer since 2003. Actually, I’ve been a customer since 2000 but my first three-year contract was under my business partner’s name. I’ve written about Telus quite a few times on my blog, sometimes because of something bad, sometimes because of something good. This is obviously one of the good things!

Happy Anniversary from Telus Mobility

Wondering what was in the box? In addition to the letter, they sent me a three-in-one phone charger! It’s a pretty neat little gadget, plugs into the wall or a car outlet, and has a couple of cables with different connectors on it. And a little bag to store the cables in.

Letter from Telus Unboxing! 3-in-1 Phone Charger Cables & Charger

Thanks Telus! My current contract is up around November, and while it’s unlikely I’d have gone through the hassle of switching anyway, this makes it even easier to decide. Combined with some customer service improvements recently, Telus Mobility is starting to do more things right than wrong. Now if only they could get the cool new phones sooner 🙂

Telus Mobility switching to GSM?

Post Image It’s a headline I never thought I’d read – Telus considers dumping is ‘Betamax’ of wireless networks. Apparently executives are taking a look at how feasible it is to move from the current CDMA standard to the more widely used GSM. As a Telus Mobility subscriber this is exciting news! I’m not holding my breath though.

The idea "has been presented at the board level and is being actively considered," said one source familiar with the situation who asked not to be identified. The source cautioned that there were no guarantees Telus will go ahead with a changeover, which analysts say could cost about $500 million.

The Rogers network is the only GSM one in Canada at the moment, with both Telus and Bell operating on CDMA. There are significant advantages to being on GSM – most new phones are launched for it first (such as the RAZR and iPhone) and Telus could get a cut of the roaming fees that Rogers collects.

Seems to me that if they were going to do this, they should have done it years ago. The article points out that "4G" networks are on the way, though no one knows how many years it will be until a standard is adopted. It would suck if Telus switched to GSM, only to have to build out a 4G network soon thereafter.

Read: TheStar.com

UPDATE (10/6/2009): The new HSPA+ network built by Telus and Bell will be live in November, when both carriers will start selling the iPhone.