Thursday, April 17, 2014

Living With Cortana

Microsoft recently released the developer preview of the Windows Phone 8.1 update, which is a significant overhaul of the current Windows Phone 8 operating system.
The process of installing the developer preview involves registering with Microsoft as a developer, downloading the Windows Phone SDK to a PC, performing a developer unlock of the phone, installing an app on the now-unlocked phone, and them simply choosing to run an over-the-air update on the phone.
There are some risks involved – the developer preview is, after all, a beta product, installing it may void any warranty you have, and once the update is installed it’s not possible to roll back to the previous version of the OS – and the update does not contain any device-specific updates provided by the handset manufacturer that are typically included with the MS update once the update is officially released by your mobile carrier.  In the case of the manufacturer of my phone – Nokia – those device-specific updates are often rather substantial, with bug fixes and new features.
Given the glacial pace at which AT&T rolls out available updates – I just recently received the “Lumia Black” update, a combination of Microsoft’s third GDR (General Distribution Release – a minor update consisting primarily of bug fixes) and Nokia-specific enhancements, despite the fact that it had been available for carriers to distribute for months prior to my receiving the update, and was installed on all new handsets – I decided that I found the promise of new features in WP 8.1 compelling enough to install the developer preview.
After all, by the time AT&T makes it available, the odds are that MS/Nokia will have already distributed the first WP 8.1 GDR and will be ready to distribute the second GDR, and it will be nearly time for me to upgrade my phone anyway.

So with that preamble out of the way, let’s dive into the point of this post:  my experience using WP 8.1…after some more in the way of preamble.
I was an early adopter of the Windows Phone platform back when it launched in 2010 as Windows Phone 7.
While there were definite shortcomings, overall I was pleased with the experience, finding the user interface to be rather compelling, with more visual appeal – to me – than the iOS and Android options.  The dynamic Live Tiles, which bounced around on the Start screen, frequently changing to give at-a-glance updates on the people and things I was interested in struck me as much more useful than the comparatively static icons found elsewhere, and, again, I though the flat “modern” design of what was then known as the Metro design language, seemed much more fresh and appealing than the dated glossy icon look.
The “app gap” wasn’t – and still isn’t – really an issue for me, particularly given the “hub” approach that MS took, which allowed me to centrally manage multiple accounts and services.  For example, the “Me” tile, which contained information about me, allowed me to post a status update to Facebook and see any and all notifications from connected services, while the “People” hub created detailed contact cards for collating all of my contacts’ information from various services into one spot, allowing me to easily follow their social media activity, and even keep track of my recent interactions with them.
And it’s worth mentioning that in order to get all of this information, I just had to sign into the phone with my Microsoft Account, and all of the heavy lifting of bringing in my contact information was done for me.
So who needed a Facebook app, or a Twitter app?  On other platforms, there may be an app for that, but on WP 7, there was a hub (and Live Tile) for that.
Beyond that, I don’t care about the latest and greatest Angry Candy game or whatever, or need dozens of different fart apps (or even one, for that matter), so the “app gap” was a non-issue for me in that regard as well.
Beyond any of that, I was already pretty well entrenched in the Microsoft ecosystem – mostly for pragmatic and financial reasons; having no reason to attach any special significance to my computing platform of choice, I simply went with what provided the most ease of use and hardware/software compatibility for the lowest cost, so…Windows – having just come to the end of my contract with my second Windows Mobile device, Microsoft’s previous smartphone platform, which was an outgrowth of the moribund Pocket PC/PDA market.
Prior to my first glimpses of the Windows Phone 7 interface, I had assumed that I would more than likely move to the Android platform once that contract expired, but I was swayed by the potential I saw in Redmond’s offering, and so I became one of the select few who invested in that platform.
Since that time, Windows Phone has made substantial gains in market share – and in closing the app gap – particularly outside of the US, but it remains a very distant third behind the various flavors of Android and iOS devices in terms of number of apps, market share, and mind share.  A Windows Phone in the wild is a rare sight indeed, and when people see mine – it is quite eye-catching, after all, particularly given its brilliant red color and its sleek design – they express surprise at the idea that there is such a thing as a Windows Phone.
All of which is to point out that investing in the Windows Phone platform was something of a leap of faith, given that it was a completely new platform, and in many ways an entirely different paradigm compared to the market leaders.  Ultimately, it was a matter of believing in its potential, and being willing to overlook – or at least live with – its shortcomings.  Out of the gate, for example, it lacked any sort of multitasking, or even basic functions such as copy and paste.  Indeed, not only did it fail to achieve full feature parity with its primary competitors, it failed to achieve parity with its predecessor.
(In many ways, Windows Mobile was an amazing smartphone OS, with many strengths and features that are lacking in all current smartphone platforms.  Where it was most lacking, however, was in its interface.  I may write a future post discussing some of the things I miss about WinMo.)
With 8.1, Microsoft is making a surge to close that gap, approaching the problem from multiple fronts beyond the OS itself, and to build on the foundation that they built with WP 7, and then rebuilt with WP 8.  So how well does it do that?  It’s difficult for me to say, as my experience with other smartphone platforms is limited.  All I can tell you is what I know, and what I’ve discovered over the past few days.
So, finally, let’s get to it.

At a glance, not much here has changed.  From my perspective, that’s a good thing.  Given that the tiled interface is a major component of virtually all devices in the Microsoft/Windows ecosystem – desktop PCs, tablets, Xbox One – it makes sense to retain a consistent look.
That said, the interface is rather polarizing.  I won’t dive into the complaints and comments from the haters, but clearly, there are a lot of people who hate it.  That said, regardless of the distribution, most people seem to fall into the love it or hate it camp (though it’s worth mentioning that many of the people in the “hate it” camp have a sort of context-aware hatred; they hate it on a standard desktop PC, but are a little warmer to it on touch-enabled devices).
As mentioned, I fall into the “love it” camp.
In any case, while there is little in the way of obvious changes to the interface, a deeper dive reveals some rather significant changes.
With GDR3, Microsoft added support for larger, higher-resolution screens, such as those found on the Lumia 1520 and the Lumia Icon.  As part of that support, they added the ability to display three columns of medium tiles – there are three sizes available:  small, medium, and wide, with wide taking up the amount of space of two mediums – but this feature was only available on 1080p screens.  With 8.1, they’ve made the third column available for all handsets, regardless of screen resolution.
I’ve found that I like having the third column available, though many users complain that it makes the text on the tiles too small, and makes the small tile size unusable.  Fortunately, it’s an optional setting.
While it’s always been possible to customize the Start screen to a certain extent through the arrangement of tiles and through the choice of accent colors, there have been many users over the years clamoring for the ability to add a background image to the Start screen.  I’d never seen the point, personally, as the image would be almost entirely obscured by the tiles.
It is possible to have a background image on the Start screen on the PC/tablet side, but there it makes slightly more sense, as there’s a larger area and that iteration of the Start screen is rather more open.
However, with WP 8.1, that option is now available on Windows Phone, and I have to say that the implementation is rather clever.
Essentially, if a background image is a selected, the non-text areas of the Live Tiles – assuming that the app developer allows for it - become transparent, revealing the image behind them, but also maintaining the background color in the gutters between tiles, which makes the background image look rather like a jigsaw puzzle, albeit one with very simple rectangular shapes.  It’s a nice look in and of itself, but MS went even further and created a parallax effect, whereby the background image scrolls at a much different rate than the tiles above it.  The tiles, as they scroll, reveal a different part of the image.
It just plain looks cool.
And the last thing I’ll mention about the interface is that it’s possible to sync your phone’s theme with the theme of your Windows 8.1 PC or tablet in the same way that you can sync your PCs/tablets with each other, though I personally haven’t done so.

The Start screen with a background image.

The parallax effect; note how the background image hasn't
moved as much as the tiles have.  Also?  Run Pee is one of
the greatest, most useful apps ever.

Calendar and Office:
There have been a lot of apps put out by various developers to replace the default Calendar app, which since WP7 has had only minimal options.  With 8.1, the Calendar is much improved, adding a Week view, which was one of the most requested features.  Beyond simply listing your appointments for each day of the week, the Calendar also displays weather information for your current location, which is a nice touch.
As far as I’ve read and seen, there haven’t been any changes made to the Office apps.

Internet Explorer:
Users don’t really have any options when it comes to which browser they use on Windows Phone.  It’s Internet Explorer, period.  It’s possible to install other browsers, but they’re essentially just “skinned” versions of IE, and it’s not possible to make any of then the default.
That complaint aside, 8.1 sports a mobile version of IE 11, which brings several enhancements, such as the ability to open unlimited tabs, the ability to upload files to sites, the ability to save passwords, and the ability to sync passwords and favorites with your Windows 8.1 PC.  If you have a tab open on your synced PCs (in the “modern,” Windows Store version of IE), you can choose to open that same tab on your phone.  Again, this is a feature that was already available on PCs/tablets running Windows 8/8.1.
Additionally, you can pin individual sites to your Start screen, and, presumably through looking at RSS data (or through some other mechanism), that pinned site will become a pseudo-Live Tile, changing to show updated information from the site.  For example, if you were to pin Threshold to the Start screen, it might (I haven’t tried, so I don’t know) alternate between showing the titles of the most recent posts.
(Update:  Nope.  It just shows a static image of the page.)
The other enhancement – and this is dependent on whether or not the site supports it – also comes from the PC version, and allows you to view a page in “Reading Mode,” which strips much of the sites formatting and multimedia content, rendering it much more readable on a small screen.

And now on to the two most substantial changes to the Windows Phone platform…

Action Center:
Another demand users have been making for years is the inclusion of a notification center, one place where they can go to see a listing of recent calls, texts, e-mails, and social media notifications.
This function has always been a component of the Live Tiles – as well as the Lock Screen – but this system wasn’t fully centralized, nor did it always provide a lot of detail.
Additionally, “toast” notifications, or banner notifications as they’re now called, appear only fleetingly, and if you didn’t catch what they said when they popped up, there was no way, short of looking through your Live Tiles and finding what app had notified you, to view them after they disappeared.
Enter the Action Center, which can be accessed – even from the Lock Screen – by swiping down from the top.
Beyond seeing notifications, you can also toggle WiFi, Bluetooth, Airplane Mode, and Rotation Lock through buttons in the Action Center, and quickly launch All Settings.
I’m told that this is pretty much the same as what’s available on Android and iOS.  Which…fine.  It works.  Not everything needs to be a radical new paradigm.
I have some additional thoughts about the Action Center below, but basically it does what it’s designed to do.

And now the biggest change…

“Technically, that would be Bill Gates.  No big deal.”
While voice commands have been a component of Microsoft’s mobile platform going back to the Windows Mobile days, pretty much the most famous example of voice command is Apple’s Siri, which, beyond being able to respond to simple commands, has a personality and is able to talk back to the user.
After Siri’s launch, Android got Google Now, which is a bit less chatty, but has a better contextual understanding, able to look at various pieces of data about the user in order to serve as a more efficient virtual “personal assistant” than Siri, or at least that’s my understanding; again, my experience with other smartphone platforms is limited.
With 8.1, Windows Phone introduces its own virtual personal assistant in the form of Cortana.
Taking its name from a character in the Halo series of games –an artificial intelligence that assists the Master Chief character – Cortana is something of a hybrid of Siri and Google Now, with a similar contextual awareness to the Google iteration and, like Siri, packing a personality of her own.  The title of this section is Cortana’s reply to the question, “Who is your father?”
She will also tell you jokes – “There are two kinds of people in the world.  Those who need closure.”  - sing songs, and tell you, “I’m sorry, Dave.  I’m afraid I can’t do that.” If you tell her to open the pod bay doors.
Beyond the gimmicky aspects, however, Cortana serves many useful purposes, with several unique – so far as I know – tricks of her own when compared to the other virtual personal assistants available.
Cortana actually replaces the Bing app; clicking the Search button now invokes Cortana.  Beyond search – which now extends to searching your SMS messages – she can launch apps, take notes, send texts and e-mails, dial your phone, set reminders, and perform all of the other functions you would expect a virtual personal assistant to perform.
If, like me, though I am warming to it a little, you feel strange talking to your phone – I so rarely use my phone as a phone that I even feel a little strange talking on it – she can also accept text input.  Indeed, she’s smart enough to know that if you aren’t talking, she probably shouldn’t talk either, so you don’t have to worry about her loudly announcing that she found that German scheisse porn you were looking for while you’re in the middle of a meeting.
Where she differs from Google Now is that you have a degree of control over what she knows and can know about you.  In creating Cortana – which was originally just a code name, but after information on the project leaked, thousands of users signed a petition for that to be the actual name – Microsoft interviewed several real world personal assistants, and found that many of them kept a notebook filled with information about their clients.
Cortana does the same, and you can go in and edit her notebook at any time, telling her what she can and can’t look at when gathering information about you, and also correcting any false assumptions she might make, because Cortana actually learns about you the more you utilize her services.
There’s a lot more I could say about Cortana, but plenty of others have already done so in-depth, so if you want to learn more about her, hit the interwebs and check out the various articles and videos.
Instead, I’ll just focus on my own experiences with her and say that I have, in fact, found her to be helpful, and have been amazed at how well she responds to natural language queries and commands.
I’m particularly impressed by her ability to understand context.
For example, if I ask her, “What’s my day like tomorrow?” she’ll provide me with a listing of all of my appointments.  I can then ask, “What about Saturday?” and, based on the context of my previous question, she’ll know what I’m asking.
Similarly, if you ask her to find you a Thai restaurant nearby, she’ll present you with the information on the nearest one, and if you then say, “Call it,” she’ll know that you want her to call the Thai restaurant.
Her contextual and place reminders are also pretty cool.  If I tell her “Remind me to tell Scott that Cortana is pretty cool,” she’ll take a note of it, and the next time I interact with Scott, whether on the phone, via text, or e-mail, a reminder will pop up.   (Admittedly, I might have to take additional steps to ensure she knows which Scott I mean if I have more than one in my Contact list, but even so.)
Similarly, she can set up place reminders.  For example, I can say, “Remind me to buy condoms that will sit in my drawer unused until their expiration date the next time I’m at Target,” and the next time I’m at Target, the reminder will pop up.
If you have to travel to get to an appointment – provided it has an address in the appointment – she can look at traffic data and tell you when you need to leave in order to arrive on time.
In the morning she will provide a “Daily Glance,” showing your appointments, the weather, and headline news, though I have to say that it’s pretty adorable that she thinks my day doesn’t start until 7 AM…
Again, there’s a LOT more stuff she can do, but the info is all out there, and so far these are the primary features I’ve utilized.
At present, you have to invoke by hitting the Search button or opening the app, but there is, apparently, a plan to give her an always listening mode, which would allow you to invoke her with a voice command, much like the “Ok, Google…” command, or, for the douchier among us, the “Ok, Glass…” command.

So far, I think that 8.1 is a substantial improvement to a platform that I was already well-pleased with, despite its shortcomings, many of which have been addressed with this update.  I definitely look forward to getting the final, fully-baked, Nokia-specific update, probably sometime late this summer or early in the fall, but in the meantime, the developer preview has been a worthwhile update.

Complaints (There had to be a few):
One aspect I don’t like about Cortana is that while I’m able to specify my interests, I’m not able to modify the sources of information she pulls from when presenting me with the latest news.  This seems strange, as she’s pulling from the Bing News app, which does allow me to specify sources, and yet she’s giving me a lot of headlines from a source that I’d removed from Bing News.
As for the Action Center, while it is useful, and I like it overall, it kind of renders the “Me” tile, which had been a key differentiator from the Windows Phone competitors, irrelevant.  Indeed, much of the functionality of the tile has been stripped.  It no longer shows me my notifications, and the social media integration has been changed for the worse, in my estimation.
Previously, I could post an update to Facebook (or Twitter as well, if I so chose) directly from the Me tile via a customized WP interface.  It wasn’t robust, by any means, but it was quick and efficient.
Now, however, MS has opened up the API to allow apps to integrate with the Me tile rather than providing a built-in integration.  I understand the reasoning behind this – new features can be rolled out more rapidly via app updates than via OS updates – but the implementation, at present, is clunky.
I can still go to the Me tile and click “Post Update,” but this now results in launching the Facebook app, which isn’t exactly smooth and seamless.
Beyond the Me tile, these types of functions have been de-integrated from most of the hubs.  It’s still possible to view your photos that are in Facebook or OneDrive albums via the Photos hub, but, again, it’s not entirely seamless.  Additionally, the new Photos hub no longer has the panoramic wallpaper that it used to (which also served – and now only serves – as the background for the Photos tile), and by default it opens to an “All Pictures” view – arranged by date, and which does not include non-local files – rather than a list of available albums.
The Music app – now Xbox Music – has also changed for the worse, though oddly enough, and contrary to the experiences of other users, I find it to be a little faster.  Still, the overall experience actually marks a regression.

Many reviews have stated that this really should be considered Windows Phone 9.  I agree that it’s much more than a simple point upgrade, but I don’t entirely agree with that assessment.  Even so, with this release MS is providing something that is a much more credible alternative to Android and iOS than any previous iteration, at least for those who are less ensnared in the Windows ecosystem and who don’t already feel an enthusiastic affection for this smartphone platform.
It also demonstrates that MS is committed to continuing to develop the platform, which is never a sure thing with anything that MS produces outside of its core business.
As Cortana continues to learn – she mostly exists in the cloud, and as such new features can be rolled out without requiring an update to the app or OS – and gains new functionality, she’s likely to become a strong selling point, and is less likely to become little more than a gimmick that gets old fast, which is the way many of the iPhone users I know feel about Siri.
If Microsoft rolls out a version of Cortana for its other platforms – Windows PCs/tables and the Xbox One – which they bloody well should, though, again, that’s not a sure thing* with Microsoft, there’s the very real possibility of her becoming a major game-changer.
And finally, with relaxed hardware restrictions that allow pretty much any device that can run Android to be quickly adapted to run WP, making the OS free to OEMs, the looming acquisition of Nokia’s devices and services division, and the incremental move towards a universal app model, the continued growth of the platform is there waiting to slip through Microsoft’s fingers.  Hopefully, they can manage to grab it.  Honestly, I’m kind of counting on them to screw up, but I’m hoping I’m wrong, and in the meantime, I’ll continue to be a fan of the platform for as long as it lasts.

*I’m still mad about Courier.  I will always be mad about Courier.

1 comment:

frog said...

I agree with you about courier. That was genious in a box and they chickened out.