The new smartphone operating system from Microsoft is nice, but it hits the market too late to be a game-changer.
NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The smartphone industry is a little bit like the car industry these days: At more than a certain price, there aren't any bad products anymore. This happened in the last 10-20 years in the car industry, and in the last one to two years in the smartphone industry.
I have now spent a week with the HTC 8X smartphone, which runs the all-new Windows Phone 8 operating system from Microsoft (:MSFT). This is not to be confused with Windows 8 or Windows 8 RT, as those operating systems power PCs and tablets.
General Douglas MacArthur reputedly said, "Behind every lost battle there are too words: Too late."
This applies in many ways to Windows Phone 8. If this operating system (and the related phones) had been launched two or three years ago, it would have been class-leading. Today, the competition from Apple (:AAPL) and Google (:GOOG) has improved so much that I recommend iPhone and Android/Nexus products for most users.
First, let's take a look at the various phones that will be available for Windows Phone 8.
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Depending on your carrier, your hardware choices are these: Two phones from Nokia (:NOK), two from HTC, and one from Samsung. These will be available in various stages across geographies over the next 30 or so days. The admittedly very few Microsoft stores will supposedly carry all of them. Nokia: Thick and Heavy
According to camera experts, Nokia is the best. The Nokia also has inductive charging, for those who care about that. Now for the bad news: Nokia is extremely heavy and thick, even with its good 2,000 mAh battery. Unless you're a camera buff, Nokia isn't the best Windows Phone. HTC: Class-Leading Design
These new HTC designs give Apple a run for its money. I spent a week with the high-end 8X, which is extremely thin and light, and has a curved back, wrapped in a soft-touch material. You absolutely must hold this in your hand. If "feel" were among the criteria for display at The Museum of Modern Art, this phone would be hanging on the wall there.
The HTC 8X has some modest disadvantages as well. The 1,800 mAh battery is smaller than Nokia and Samsung, although I found the battery life to be competitive with the best products using Android, iOS and Research In Motion's (:RIMM) BlackBerry operating systems. The lock/power switch is very difficult to use, especially combined with the placement of the volume buttons, often causing you to press both. The corners are very square, perhaps not to everyone's liking. Lastly, I have not yet seen how that wonderful soft-touch back/side material works with someone who wants to add an extra cover/case around it. Samsung: The Bigger Battery
If you have seen a Galaxy S III, you have pretty much seen the Samsung ATIV. It's a fully competent, very thin, light smartphone with a relatively boring/standard design. Nothing wrong with that! Most importantly, the Samsung has the largest battery of all the new Windows Phones: 2,300 mAh.
Before I outline my criticisms of Windows Phone 8, let me note the system's positives. And yes, for some people these will be sufficient and legitimate reasons to pick Windows Phone 8 over iPhone and Android/Nexus. Software: The Advantages
Microsoft acquired Skype a year ago, and it will soon (days, weeks?) make available full Skype integration into Windows Phone 8. This is proper Skype, all-IP end-to-end. It will also work in a way that ensures it is connected persistently, but yet does not draw material battery power. No doubt, this is a huge selling point.
2. Microsoft Office
For the remaining souls who have not yet migrated to Google Docs, which I find to be so much better, the Office integration is superb. I might add "obviously" as that brings out the larger point of the vertical services integration for all the major ecosystems: Apple, Microsoft and Google.
Surprise! For reasons similar to Office, SkyDrive integration is great, and SkyDrive is much better than Apple's iCloud. It's not necessarily better than Google Drive, though.
4. Kid's Corner
This is basically a long-overdue "guest mode" for the smartphone industry. It happens all the time that you want or need to hand your phone to someone else, and the ability to put them into "guest mode" is a material advantage. I wonder how long it will take Apple and Google to match this. For the time being, however, this is a strong Microsoft advantage. Software: The Drawbacks
The downsides of Windows Phone are also material, for many users.
1. The Number of Apps
Superficially, the number of apps sounds great: 120,000, including allegedly 56 out of the top 60. The problem is that it simply doesn't match my own reality. Among the 25 or so top apps that I use the most, there are sufficient holes that Windows Phone 8 just does not work for me right now. Perhaps later, but not with the missing apps.
Just to give you a flavor of what Windows Phone 8 is missing: Sirius XM (:SIRI), OnStar, ChargePoint and the whole Google suite of services: Reader, Voice, Talk, etc.
Someone may argue: "But when you switch to Windows, you're supposed to get rid of all of your Google services, and use Microsoft's equivalent services instead." Yeah, good luck with that. I use Google Chrome, Drive, Reader, Voice, etc. on Apple's iOS products (iPhone, iPad, etc.) in most cases, just like they are built into everything Android.
The fundamental problem here is that with a few exceptions (OneNote, Skype), Microsoft is becoming a platform island to a greater degree than Google. Apple may be just as bad as Microsoft, but all this does is to argue for Google's multiplatform compatibility.
2. The Quality of the Apps
This one is tricky. What I mean here is that some of the Windows Phone 8 apps don't work as well as they do on Android or even iOS.
Gmail: Yes, Gmail. The email client on Windows Phone 8 is both beautiful and good, but once you go beyond the beauty, it doesn't perform any better than the Gmail client on Android/Nexus. Refresh the list? You can't pull down to refresh; you have to find/press a button.
Twitter: Again, an aesthetic beauty. Too bad it just doesn't work as well as it does on Android/Nexus. Pull down to refresh? No.
Browser: It seems like an OK browser, but it's not Chrome. Why can't I run Chrome on Windows Phone 8? I have Chrome on all of my other devices, so that I can access all open tabs from any device.
3. Other Issues
No AirPlay. Apple has the great advantage of selling the $99 AppleTV, which can play almost anything from/through the iOS device with outstanding ease.
Price. You can buy a Google Nexus device for as little as $299 unlocked, contract-free. Then you can trek to Walmart and buy unlimited data for as little as $30 per month. So far, Microsoft has only announced contract-based prices (industry-typical, at $199 and a little less), forcing you to pay outrageous monthly fees to carriers. With these, you lose the international flexibility of a SIM-unlocked device. I will never again buy any smartphone that's not SIM-unlocked and not contract-free. Bottom Line
Windows Phone 8 is great for some users but not for most.
The computing industry has now arrived at a point of ecosystem lock-in with only a few ways to be multiplatform as a user. In this brave new world, Windows Phone 8 is a strong performer in terms of its basic operating system stability. However, too many apps are still missing, and if you are already knee-deep into the Android and iOS ecosystems, I simply cannot see any compelling reason you would want to switch to Windows Phone 8 except for those mentioned above.
The vast majority of smartphone users are better off buying the Nexus 4 directly from Google for $299 (and up) and choosing the cheapest possible month-to-month data for as low as $30, which will save them more than $1,000 over two years, while at the same time giving them a smartphone with more and better apps. For those willing to spend a lot more money, the iPhone 5 is a worthy contender for the smartphone throne as well.
At the time of publication, Wahlman was long GOOG, AAPL and MSFT.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.