By Shadoe Huard

May 31st 2011

The Problem With Microsoft’s Idea of Social   

Microsoft seems to take great pride in the social media integration that’s built right into the Windows Phone platform. By creating a very focused platform designed with deep integration of messaging services within the operating system itself, Microsoft has adopted a specific design philosophy with Windows Phone which seeks to sets them apart from other Android, webOS and iOS devices. With the announcement last week of Mango, their latest Windows Phone software update, communication was touted as an important pillar of the platform moving forward. It’s a fantastic idea; with people participating in various social networks simultaneously, it makes sense to want to create a device that integrates all of them together in a meaningful way. Yet despite their best intentions, the way they’ve gone about implementing such a system just falls flat on its face. While seemingly well fleshed out, new features in Mango like the threaded messaging system and contact grouping show just how little Microsoft has actually considered the way someone might use their phones outside the confines of a controlled press event.

Consider how one might actually use something like threaded messages in real life. No real consideration seems to have been given to the reasons people use different messaging platforms. Is there really a need for using SMS, Facebook Chat and messenger simultaneously to stay in touch with friends when anyone you contact through SMS is bound to almost always have their cellphone near them? Conversely, there isn’t any point to using SMS for those people whom you exclusively contact through online messaging services precisely because you don’t have a number to reach them at. Microsoft doesn’t seem to have caught on to the idea that people use different messaging services to communicate with different people in their lives. Having a unified space for all your conversations only makes sense in theory. Besides, who has ever consistently carried out a single continuous conversations over multiple messaging services at the same time, if at all?

Although each is unique in their own ways, Windows Phone treats all messaging platforms the same. The problem is that a service like Facebook Chat is useful BECAUSE it’s built into Facebook’s larger network, where users can share posts and links together. Threaded messages in Mango don’t contain the same level of interactivity. They take messages out of their context. Everything is reduced to being an SMS message. If a user wants to have a Facebook conversation with multiple friends,or even just view a link he’s received, won’t he be better off using a dedicated client?

Microsoft takes social integration as a literal term, where various services are dumped together is some superficial manner, no questions asked, with users being left to dig any meaning out it themselves. This isn’t to say that there aren’t talented people working on the platform, it’s in fact probably one of the most innovative departments Microsoft has going right now. Somewhere down the line though, things seem to go awry. There’s precedent for this sort of social crowd “featuremandering” in their mobile division. The same problems seen with Windows Phone could also be observed in features of Microsoft’s defunct Kin phones. Similar to contact grouping in Mango, the “Loop” was feature on Kin devices that was meant to be a repository for updates from all the various social networks you were connected to. Engadget’s review of the Kin describes the issue at hand with Microsoft’s efforts:

“The basic premise of the Loop also presented problems. The idea is that you can quickly glance at all of your friends’ updates and respond to them quickly, but it soon becomes a daunting task just trying to understand who is saying what. The average Facebook user has 130 friends (we tested with accounts of over 700 and 200), Twitter adds noise to the mix, MySpace compounds it… and the phone only updates every 15 non-user-adjustable minutes. Sometimes less! What happens is that you can’t really keep track of any conversations, and your friends (or in our case, lots of people you don’t really know) become less about their individual voices, and more about random shouts in a big crowded room.”

Fast forward a few months to their review of the Windows Phone 7 launch and the message is eerily familiar:

“With Exchange or Gmail, this strategy is probably fine in most cases — contact sync is one of the main reasons you use Exchange ActiveSync. But seriously, Facebook is another matter altogether. If you’re a normal human being with maybe a couple hundred or fewer actual contacts, you’re used to just flicking through your contact list to get to whomever you need. Having all of your Facebook contacts mixed in with the rest of your friends and family could be a real mess, right?

All in all, unless you’re a hardcore Facebook user (which, let’s be honest, many people are), you’re going to be annoyed by how deeply and irrevocably integrated the service is in this phone. The fact that your Photo hub is populated by pictures taken by people you may not know that well is a little disorienting, and not giving users control over which groups of friends they see creates a feeling of chaos that isn’t always welcome.”

So now Mango introduces group tiles to solve the problem, simply dividing up all your friends into smaller, more manageable packets. Again, sounds good in theory. In practice, it makes sense for users to accumulate large groups rather than multiple small ones, a strategy with problems of its’ own. Staying up to date on Facebook requires staying in contact with large groups of people. The idea of a small, isolated social network is anathema to something like Facebook. Is this the solution Microsoft sees to make connecting and sharing easier?

Also perplexing are the things that aren’t incorporated into Mango’s new communication features. Why isn’t there support for Skype or messages from your Xbox Live contacts? Don’t they seem more useful in a threaded conversation, where you could jump from an SMS text conversation into a video chat, or into a game your friend as invited you to? In a way, the video demos of Mango only really show you half the picture; how to view your friends social activities. What it doesn’t show you, is how to actually reach out and participate in those activities. It may be that for those things, Windows Phone is still dependant on the browser and applications.

On their News Center webpage, Microsoft states its goal in regards to communication in Mango:

[The} next release of Windows Phone – available to consumers in early fall – was designed and organized around the person or group of people users want to communicate with rather than the various apps used to reach them.

Superficially, they’ve achieved this. Windows Phone is definitely a mobile operating system that attempts to roundup all your social activity into one place. The UI designed for this is actually pretty impressive and sells the concept pretty well. It’s too bad that doing anything beyond simply viewing updates from your live tiles or sending plain text messages to your friends is going to require using a web client or application to do so. Services like Facebook and Twitter by their nature require that they be used within their own ecosystems. While it’s possible to build software that could incorporate all these social networks together, using them simultaneously would be neither simple or useful. Microsoft’s quest to achieve something like this shows just how hard it is to get right. The truth remains that people who actually need to use multiple services at once have a need for deeper experiences than what Windows Phone is offering by itself. If you envision yourself actually wanting to use threads or group tiles, you’re going to want to be able to do more than just what’s being shown off in their promotional videos.

If your not one of those power users, then it is probably all rather useless to you anyway.

Posted at 3:10pm and tagged with: tech, mango, one column, microsoft, windows, phone, 7,.