My Microsoft Transition: the Biggest Challenges So Far

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I’m well into my transition from a mixed Windows/Android world to one that’s all Microsoft products. I’ve been using Windows Phone 8.1 on the Nokia 925 and a Surface Pro 3 for over a week now, along with my Dell Venue 8 Pro, and other than grabbing screenshots for comparison purposes haven’t touched any of my Android (or iOS/OS X) devices.

So far, the experience has been mixed. On the one hand, I love Windows 8.1 on the Surface Pro 3; I’ll write about it more at length soon, but in short it’s the best overall computing experience in my 30 odd years of using technology. Windows Phone 8.1 has been more problematic, but has still offered up some advantages. But in both cases, there have been some challenges in making the transition that are worth noting.

Windows Phone in a Google Household
Everyone else in my family uses an Android smartphone and/or tablet and the Chrome browser, and so far the biggest challenge has been replacing those Google properties that we’ve used to communicate and collaborate. The following have been the most problematic:

  • Google+: In spite of ourselves, we’ve grown accustomed to backing up our smartphone pictures to Google+ and sharing them from there. We’re not fans of Google+ itself, as far as the social network aspects go, but the photo sharing and auto-enhancement features have been invaluable. Unfortunately, there’s no way to completely duplicate the experience on Windows Phone.So, I’ll have to ask everyone else to switch to another option, quite possibly OneDrive. It’s an uphill battle, though, to convince busy people to switch basic services when they, themselves, have no compelling reason to do so. The challenge here isn’t necessarily technological—other than the auto-enhancements that Google+ offers, OneDrive is a good enough photo upload and sharing replacement—but social, in that my transition to Microsoft products is causing my family to make changes to their workflows for no other reason than to accommodate me.
  • Hangouts: So far, I haven’t found a good messaging alternative that’s well-supported on all of our platforms—Windows 7, Windows 8.1, Android, and Windows Phone. Hangouts, via Chrome, is supported on the Windows 7 desktop via a native standalone app (of sorts; it requires Chrome, but it runs in the background with solid notifications), but its Windows Phone support via third-party apps is limited to the now-defunct Google Talk standard. No group messaging or video messaging allowed. Finally, Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, and the like don’t have standalone Windows desktop apps (or Windows apps at all), thus orphaning our desktops and notebooks.

    As much as I hate to admit it, having never been a fan, it’s looking like Skype might be the best alternative. We all use it on occasion for video conferencing, so that’s a plus. But, it seems like a fairly heavy client for simple instant messaging, and we haven’t used it for instant messaging on its own—meaning that, once again, it’s going to require an adjustment on everyone else’s part. However, it seems like the only option that works on all of our devices as a standalone app,  albeit with some hefty system requirements, and so it just might be the only option.

  • Out of Milk: This is a great tool for creating and sharing shopping lists, and while it might seem like a minor thing, the lack of an Out of Milk client on Windows Phone means that we’ll need to find something else that works cross-platform. Managing a busy household, including what food to buy, when, and where, is a complex process, and Out of Milk just worked for us.

    So far I haven’t found any solution at all, but then again other priorities have taken precedence. If anyone knows of a good shopping list app that works on both Android and Windows Phone and allows for easy sharing, please let me know.

  • Life360: As I mentioned in a previous post, there’s a Life360 app for Windows Phone that doesn’t currently run well in the background. The developers have promised an update soon to resolve the issues, but I’ve heard nothing yet. This is a great app for keeping tabs on family members, and we all like it quite a bit. Update: An update went live on 7/9/2014 that seems to have resolved the issue. So, it looks like it really is up to developers to ensure that their apps run in the background properly, something that Windows 8.1 appears to be much better at supporting.

    There are likely other options out there, and this isn’t something inherently wrong with Windows Phone—unless you count developer support as one vital aspect of a platform, which you might very well do. If Life360 doesn’t fix this soon, we’ll have to look for another option, but for now I’m giving them a chance to make things right.

Evernote Support
I’ve been using Evernote for quite some time now. In fact, I was one of the note taking service’s first 500 users, and they now have tens of millions. I have literally thousands of notes store on Evernote, all of them important, and while I was also an early OneNote user back in the Windows Tablet PC days and have always considered a return to it, I still rely on Evernote for keeping my information and thoughts organized.

The thing is, the single best Evernote Web clipper available today is their Chrome Web clipper. It simply provides the best overall clipping experience, with some surprising intelligence in terms of suggesting how notes should stored and tagged and a variety of clipping options such as full page, simplified article, and others. While I can certainly keep using Chrome on the Desktop, that doesn’t help me keep passwords, bookmarks, and open tabs synced with my Windows Phone. However, the Internet Explorer Web clippers on the desktop are a bit weaker, and there’s no clipper that I’m aware of for Windows Phone.

The Internet Explorer Web clipper (desktop version) is only passable, with an older and less robust interface that offers fewer clipping options. It’s a a workable solution, but nowhere near as good as the Chrome version. At the same time, the modern UI version of Internet Explorer only “shares” the URL of a page to Evernote, which simply won’t suffice for any reasonable workflow. Because of this limitation, I’ll need to set the Desktop version of Internet Explorer as the default, including for modern Windows 8.1 apps.

Oddly enough, Internet Explorer on Windows Phone won’t even share URLs; Evernote simply doesn’t show up as a sharing option. Incidentally, as far as I can tell, there’s no third-party option like the excellent EverClip app for Android. Nevertheless, although that’s disappointing, it doesn’t really impact the IE vs. Chrome decision.

This one’s tough to fix, because it relies entirely on Evernote to provide better support on Microsoft’s platforms. I’ll be pushing them to do so, but I’m sure I’ll be just another voice in a very loud crowd. Ultimately, I’m very disappointed to be facing this choice—either stick with Chrome and lose syncing with Windows Phone, or use Internet Explorer and lose the most robust Evernote functionality available.

Media Consumption
On my machines running Windows (7 or 8.1), media consumption is excellent and arguably superior to any other platform outside of OS X. The reason is simple: even if HBO, Showtime, Starz, and others haven’t written native modern apps for Windows 8.1, accessing their content via the browser is an essentially equivalent experience. As a bonus, Hulu is available on Windows 8.1 tablets without requiring a Hulu Plus subscription, by virtue of their being recognized as desktop, not mobile, devices.

On Windows Phone, however, the situation is very different. Few if any content providers provide apps for Windows Phone, meaning media consumption options on a Windows Phone is pretty much limited to Netflix. This is a very disappointing and, I have to say, surprising discovery—Microsoft has apparently pushed media support on every platform except Windows Phone, and seeing such a poor showing (no pun intended) this long after Windows Phone’s debut is hard to believe.

I’m not too terribly upset personally, simply because my family has decided to cut the (virtual) cord and cancel our DirecTV service. First, it’s very expensive, and second, we often find ourselves with the TV on and playing nothing worth watching. We decided that we can benefit from at least a few months without access to so much mindless drivel, and so I won’t be missing HBO and the others on my Windows Phone. That will change, however, should we change our minds and turn TV back on (which will likely happen once Game of Thrones returns to HBO, but that’s another discussion).

For anyone else considering a move to Windows Phone, however, media consumption is likely an important consideration. While I can recommend Windows 8.1 wholeheartedly in this respect, recommending Windows Phone is more difficult. If media consumption is important to you, Windows Phone may not be for you–unless you’re satisfied with Netflix support and pretty much nothing else.

Conclusion
It’s easy to get caught up with what doesn’t work and to lose sight of what works really well. Overall, I’m enjoying the transition to all Microsoft products, particularly on the Windows 8.1 side. The Surface Pro 3 is a powerful, well-built, and incredibly versatile machine, the Dell Venue 8 Pro is a great casual tablet, and Windows Phone, while its limitations are frustrating at times, has a great deal of potential and is generally a pleasure to use.

The challenges I note in this post are important, of course, and need to be resolved. But none of them are showstoppers, and I expect all of them to be resolved in time. I’ll update this post as I come across other challenges or as I resolve these, and please let me know if you have any solutions to the ones I discuss here.

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