How I (might) stop worrying and learn to love the Start Experience

LAS VEGAS -- I want to noodle a bit about the Start Experience in Windows Phone 7 series, but before that happens I need to get something off my chest as a way of opening the conversation: I have an unhealthy obsession with notifications in Windows Phone 7 Series. There are two reasons for this.

The first and most important reason is that Microsoft is following Apple's cue by suggesting push notifications can replace functionality normally handled by third-party multitasking. If you remove the ability to multitask, you better make damn sure that your push notification replacement system works well.

The second is that we already have two mobile operating systems that do an excellent job handling notifications -- Android and webOS. Both allow notifications to appear without interrupting you, both let notifications "stack," and both offer a unified place to view and manage your notifications. Knowing that there are two systems out there for handling notifications well makes me want to see a similarly elegant system from Microsoft. Despite what I wrote in a recent tweet, WP7S does have a way to manage (some) notifications -- but it's going to require a shift in how users think about their messages.

Read on for more on notifications and how they relate to Start.

Four kinds of alerts

By my count, there are 4 kinds of alerts in 7 Series. Let's go through them one by one.

'Toast' alerts

Toast alerts pop down from the top of the screen like toast out of a toaster. They are short messages that let you know you've received a push notification for any app. Compared to the iPhone, Toast alerts are better because they're non-interruptive. When you receive a toast alert, it doesn't prevent you from interacting with the app you're currently using.

Unfortunately, that's where the good news ends. Toast alerts appear for a short amount of time (measured in seconds) and then they go away. Completely. If you missed the alert or forgot it, the onus is on your frazzled mind to try to remember what that toast alert said and what app it pertained to.

Toast alerts also do not stack -- they appear one by one in serial fashion as they appear. So when you get off the plane and turn your radio back on (or when you unlock the phone after a long time in standby), you best pay close attention to the top of your screen to see what all the alerts are -- or trust that you have all your important apps promoted to the Start screen.

If there is an alert that I care about but for some reason I don't have that app promoted to a live tile that's always front and center, I'm out of luck when it comes to having a persistent or manageable notification for that app. I like using my alert area on Android and webOS to line up what I need to do next. Even the iPhone allows apps to "badge" their icons when they have unread notifications -- allowing apps to at least put a badge or an asterisk on the right-hand-side app list would go a long ways towards allaying my concerns.

Pop-up alerts

Pop-up alerts are a new kind of alert Microsoft just revealed Wednesday at MIX10. We don't know much about them since they're not built into the build of 7 Series we're seeing here, but it sounds like they're modal alerts that obscure and pause the app you're currently using. These alerts are probably not going to be offered to third-party developers; instead they'll be reserved for system alerts (like low battery) and reminders. You'll need to act on them or dismiss them to get back to your app.

In-app alerts

The next kind of alert are in-app alerts. If your app is open and it receives a push notification, they developer can opt to have the app itself respond to the alert. For example: If you have a new e-mail, it would simply fade in to the screen in an elegant way as you're looking at it.

Many hubs and/or apps also will have a "What's New" panel where these sorts of alerts will appear.

Start tiles

I've saved the best for last. A developer can code the Start tile for their app to show a very small amount of information -- like new photos from a Flickr stream with the most recent photo visible behind the number.

How I (might) stop worrying and learn to love the Start Experience

You'll see that what's lacking from the above description is an integrated way to deal with all incoming alerts -- as I said you'll need to go app-by-app to hunt down all the new stuff that's getting pushed to your phone.

The solution is to make sure that all the apps whose alerts you care about are in your Start screen as tiles. That will give you an integrated way to see notifications. In that sense, I do need to give Microsoft proper credit for staying consistent to its vision of a different kind of phone experience and to the primacy of the Start experience. If you are willing/able to get all the apps that push updates into your Start screen as tiles, it's perhaps a more elegant way to handle notifications than what's available on Android or webOS.

However, I'm not sure I'm willing to go all-in with this Start experience. I don't know yet (obviously), but I wonder if there will be cases where I'll want an app to be able to receive push notifications but won't want to give up precious Start real estate for a tile. I imagine if it's important, it'll get a tile. But that same space is also acting as a shortcut menu, a home screen with glance-able information in widgets, a speed dial screen, and more.

Like so many other things with 7 Series, I won't know until I live with it for a few weeks whether Start truly can replace what I feel I need from a dedicated notification area. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that most people are underestimating just how much functionality and joy that Microsoft is packing into Start.

Right now I often think of my phone as a triage nurse handing incoming patients (messages) at the emergency room. Start on WP7s might let me think of it as the family refrigerator, covered in random sticky notes from people I care about, the family calendar, and notes I've written to myself about stuff I need to do that day. Microsoft is trying to rethink what a phone is and perhaps in the process make it less stressful -- their users will have to make as big a cognitive shift in what they expect from a phone as Microsoft did when they created it.

If I can learn to stop worrying and love the Start Experience, I suspect it's possible I'll fall in love.

Phil is the father of two beautiful girls and is the Dad behind Modern Dad. Before that he spent seven years at the helm of Android Central. Before that he spent a decade in a newsroom of a two-time Pulitzer Prize-finalist newspaper. Before that — well, we don't talk much about those days. Subscribe to the Modern Dad newsletter!

  • Seems like another half-baked feature in iWP7S. So if you dont pin your application to the start menu you will possibly not get notifications? Compounded by the fact that MS themselves say notifications may take up to 30 mins to arrive and even then are not guaranteed? And how efficient will that be if you have a lot of applications pinned and you have to scroll all the way down then all the way back up again to see other notifications? And how many applications CAN be pinned, what happens if you reach the limit? Someone please tell us again why you should buy this very bad iphone clone when you can have the original or any other mobile OS that is not a closed system and does all the things you might expect from a mobile device.
  • You shouldn't buy it because it isn't available. Why don't save your final opinion until you get your hands on a final device in six months?
  • There is still a long ways to go before RTM, so how about reserving judgement and not commenting on an incomplete OS? The iphone's case was different, it shipped with it's incomplete feature set. In this case, you're seeing features that just aren't yet implemented in the final product. Just like the copy and paste thing. WP7 isn't even at RTM yet; stop saying the rediculous nonsense that it DOES NOT have copy and paste, when you don't even know whether it will or will not in the final revision...
  • did I mention copy and paste anywhere in my post? I addressed the notification system as described in the article and the questions it raised. And MS themselves provided the information on notifications possibly taking 30 mins and not guaranteed so what more information do I need to evaluate this feature?
  • Do you see my post in reply to yours? No...
  • To repost what I quoted from Engadget: Update: We just super-double-ultra-plus-confirmed this with Microsoft -- Windows Phone 7 Series will not have copy and paste functionality. There is a data-detection service built into the text-handling API that will recognize phone numbers and addresses, but Microsoft says most users, including Office users, don't really need clipboard functionality. We... respectfully disagree? Sure, let's leave it at that. Feel free to fantasize that the RTM will be different, most of us will continue to form opinions based on evidence.
  • I am curious myself to know who "Microsoft" is as their source.
  • Not sure about Engadget's "Microsoft", but CNet's Ina Fried cites the following:
    "We don't enable copy and paste and we do that very intentionally," Windows Phone executive Todd Brix said in an interview. And . . .
    "It's actually an intentional design decision," he said. "We try to anticipate what the user wants so copy and paste isn't necessary." And . . .
    Brix insists that most users won't miss copy and paste and said that it was a matter of focus; Microsoft said it wanted to really do well the tasks that 80 percent of users wanted.
  • istartedsomething has information from msft indicating that copy and paste at the os level didn't squeeze into the release deadline code-freeze needed for winpho devices in store by 'the holidays' and is planned as an update after innitial release. this is good news if this can be independently verified.
  • [Edit: I've removed a misattribution I made to I Started Something. Nevertheless, ISS' article only cites "a person close to the den", who, "explained that copy & paste is definitely a scenario and feature that the team is putting a lot of thought about and hope to bring to the platform soon after initial release"; while Engadget quotes at least two Microsoft employees by name.] Yet another citation from Engadget: So let's set the record straight on what we were told, since it wasn't ambiguous in any way: Microsoft says leaving clipboard operations out was a conscious design decision based on user research showing that people don't actually use copy and paste very often, and that instead 7 Series features a systemwide data detection service which recognizes things like phone numbers and addresses so you can take action on them. Further: We also specifically asked if copy and paste was coming later and were told no, although we'd guess that it's at least being worked on for a future version. The article linked to above has a 3-minute interview with Todd Brix that makes it absolutely clear that (a) their consumer research tells them that users don't use C&P, and (b) they intend to use "smart linking" to anticipate what action the user wants taken with a selected piece of text. They are philosophically opposed to C&P, not technically challenged by it. Incidentally, Neil Patel mentions a "Mike" someone (I couldn't catch the last name) in the interview, which sounds like the person who confirmed the lack of C&P in the last Engadget post I cited.
  • as i stated, this is good news if it can be **independently verified.**
  • Listen to the interview with Todd Brix linked to in the post you replied to (it's only a couple of minutes). If that doesn't remove any doubt that MS is abandoning C&P, then feel free to believe what you want. As for me, even if C&P is added, the lack of removable storage, USB mass storage, full multitasking, file explorers, etc., has eliminated WP7 as a future option. I'm not bitter, and I'm sure it will sell, but Android is the least restrictive platform right now, and therefore the most attractive.
  • What I'm finding especially true about Microsoft products these days is the ecosystem thing. If you commit to the Microsoft ecosystem, everything works well. If you decide you only want 3/4 of it to be MS stuff, and the remaining 1/4 to be third party stuff you are likely to be disappointed with the result. How long do you figure before some application developer makes a "super notification tile" that watches all the notifications and puts them in a tile for you. Heck if someone else doesn't I might just do that. Back to the ecosystem argument - the system works under the principle that there is a tile for the important stuff that you want/demand right away, and the other notifications can hide in their apps until you get bored and go looking for them. Remember the topic about "glanceable info"? That's the tiles. Clever developers (including the ones at Microsoft) will make this one hell of a useful tool for getting what you need to know, when you need to know it to you.
  • I just ordered a Telus Motorola Milestone on eBay after using WM for 7 years. That is what I think of WP7S.
  • i wish they would just release this mess so i can get my hands on it and test it for myself. im sure i wont like it. but at least then i will no so i can go buy a phone already!!!
  • LOL that is funny if you are so sure you won't like it than just ignore it and move on. I don't understand how people do try new things with open minds. If you go into something thinking it will fill you, then 99.9% of the time it will cause that is what you are focusing in on.
  • I'm sorry that is a fill on my part, I meant don't
  • "If I can learn to stop worrying and love the Start Experience, I suspect it's possible I'll fall in love." I suspect you're rationalizing because you WANT to like WP7. I just don't get why they can't do both: make a new experience and keep the good stuff about other, older experiences.
  • As the bearer of so many bad tidings in the last couple of days, Dieter's handled MS' "Retro" platform announcements with an impressive amount of class and restraint. Of course, as readers and not representatives of WM Experts, no one else is professionally obligated to like WP7's apparent direction, or lack thereof.
  • Can speak for WebOS (haven't tried it) but as for Android the notification system is great, no push rubbish, and it really does work well and doesn't get in the way at all.. Why couldn't MS copy that rather than again copying Apple.. If they don't distinguish themselves and copy so many of the features (and faults) how are they going to gain traction against Apple? People who want a real OS and not a feature phone go Android, people who want to be told what to do will stick with iphone as they have a HUGE headstart.. I just don't see MS gaining anything over their current marketshare with this approach. Happy to be proved wrong, time will tell...
  • Experience of using windows series 7 is such a beautiful. It is simply amazing and having great features. I am fan of it.
  • I have to say that it has been pretty impressive with the integration that MSFT has finally added to its aging OS. I have been a fan of the OS due to its flexibility on what you can do with it. Although at times it seemed like you would have to sacrifice performance for feature on certain devices, i am happy that MSFT has put a tighter belt on hardware specs. I am surprised about the OS UI and how much easier it is to use your device. No longer will you have to stare at a desktop=like UI and small print. I think they became a serious competitor in the mobile space. I think that this was a must for them to be viable in this ecosystem. my current device has a somewhat integration with my PC in that it can sync, and control media on my PC without actually using it. I think that MSFT should bring the sideshow for mobile and really use the platform on the PC to boost integration. I like the services like Xbox are bound together. The videos of these services look amazing. Personally i don't foresee myself upgrading to a new device anytime soon. I am not too connected to the internet that i must have notifications all day long like from facebook, etc. first and foremost, its a phone, with PDA/GPS functionality. I like these new devices, and i like the iPhone a lot. I like the technology that has been coming out for these devices. I personalized and customized my device down to the UI's feature set and some visual appeal. Its easy for me to operate and that's just what i need to do. It can get e-mails, mms, i can view the full desktop web pages from Skyfire browser. It can cut, copy and paste, and touch a phone # in e-mail or SMS to begin my phone call. Overall, i like these devices, but i will wait until the platform imrpoves once it comes out. Chances are, it will be buggy to a degree. Lastly, i will wait until certain features come out and stability improvements are made. Plus i dont not use Xbox Live so i won't be taking full advantage, don't have a Zune account, nor do i have Netflix account. It is amazing though the power these litte devices have.
  • My simple point is this: how people can dismiss an OS that wont hit us for 6+ months is beyond me. We cant say that the features that we use in wm 6.x(.x) are going to be needed in the same sense in this OS because we don't know what the final product or true implementation is yet. This is Still Microsoft, they have a concept of what an OS should be and it looks like this is going to be a different kind of experience than what we are used to but what other assumptions can we make right now? Be real with yourselves and just be appreciative that a company like MS is looking to re-invent themselves as opposed to just doing the same old thing over and over again.
  • People can dismiss it based on the stated direction. If we're told by Microsoft the devices won't have USB mass storage, file explorers, C&P, sideloading, etc., then why should we believe otherwise? I refuse to purchase any device without removable storage or C&P, having already been burned by the Pre (which actually had C&P, but was limited to editable text at the time, a limitation that's since been corrected). I'm sure anyone can argue that we don't need removable storage due to larger onboard memory, or that we don't need C&P due to smart linking, or that we should prefer syncing to drag-and-drop file transfer. The iPhone obviously does well under these constraints, so even if WP7 doesn't appear to offer any added value over the iPhone, I'm willing to accept that the consumer market will be more sanguine with these limitations than your typical WME reader. On the other hand, these aren't free devices that exist in a vacuum. With the Nexus One and the Supersonic coming to Sprint (which have a user-accessible file systems, clipboard functionality, removable storage, UI customization, etc.), I can't think of a single reason why I would skip these and wait for WP7 phones on the horizon. Natually, my current opinions of WP7 are based on current information. If it turns out that MS reverses course on the handicaps currently imposed, perhaps I'll feel differently. As you said, we really don't know the specifics of the final implementation. All I do know is that the platform that's been presented so far, for me at least, is a total nonstarter.
  • Well Said Gameboy70!
  • Android is most boring phone and features are ok nothing special. Apps are bs. Phones freeze all the time. All the phones do the same thing
  • If you remove the ability to multitask, you better make damn sure that your push notification replacement system works well.I'm willing to accept that the consumer market will be more sanguine with these limitations than your typical WME reader.