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Zune 4.7 Leaves Room for Improvement

If you have any interest in Windows Phone then you should download the Zune 4.7 software for your PC since it lets you browse the Windows Phone app Marketplace now. I’ve been playing around with it since it’s been released and there are some phenomenal aspects to it and some things that need to be fixed.

I’ll keep the ‘good’ brief because many of you are familiar with Zune software already and I really prefer to focus on the Windows Phone marketplace aspect since that’s new. But simply put, the Zune software is beautiful. When an app appears you get a transparent image in the background to fill the screen along with a description, customer ratings, reviews and screenshots, as well as purchase and version info. If the developer did their job right (and provided sharp images and icons) then this is about as good as it gets. But let’s go deeper into the software.

By default the start page is Quickplay and it’s a black background with the shortcut to Marketplace in grey in the upper left corner. It’s not white and even though it’s a minor nuisance, it should be bold and white on black like the rest of Metro. By the way, you can go to settings and change the startup view to Marketplace so it begins there for you.

Ok, that was small, so let’s go to a big one. Go into Marketplace and go to the ‘games’ category and you’re greeted with Xbox Live games only. That’s the default so you do not see all games – just the Xbox ones. To see all games you need to go to the upper right hand corner and toggle between “All, Paid, Free and Xbox Live”. Based on its location, it’s not something that stands out (since the rest of the categories and controls are on the left). OK, so now I know how to toggle it, I go to ‘all’ and I look at a game. If I go to look at more games and hit ‘back’ I’m put back to the Xbox Live games page and have to go to ‘all’ again and that’s true every time I look at a game or go into the games category. I understand that they want to push the Xbox Live games (since that’s their selling point) but they’ve almost gone out of their way to put the rest of the game developers at a disadvantage and it doesn’t always reflect the quality of the games and the end user is also constantly diverted away from the majority of the games (since Xbox Live games are and always will be fewer in numbers).

Let’s turn our attention to app localization. I can already see apps that are not in English in Marketplace. On top of that, there are apps that are in English (in the screenshots) but the descriptions are not in English. Maybe I’m missing something here, but I was expecting localization to prevent this.

Speaking of screenshots, if an app has multiple screenshots there are no controls on the screenshots to advance to the next one. You need to click on the thumbnail to go to the next screenshot. Minor, yes, but we’ve all gotten used to using ‘next’ and ‘back’ buttons within images to advance through them. And if an image was taken in landscape it is irrelevant – it’s going to appear in portrait mode in all cases which is just odd.

Let’s go back to another feature that is already a nuisance for developers – reviews. There’s no method for the developer to respond to reviews. This means when someone does something like uses the free trial mode that prohibits certain functions and then writes ‘the app fails to…’ the developer has no way of explaining this. We’ve long gotten used to replying to negative feedback on Ebay and on other markets and it’s sorely needed here as well.

When searching for apps you’re given the typical list of subcategories that developers have to decide where to place their apps. There’s lot to cover here. Let’s start with the fact that multiple apps can have the same name. There are already two Panic Button apps. One is filed under ‘social’ and one under ‘health and fitness’. This raises two issues. Multiple apps with the same name is just a bad idea since it’s harder to identify the app later (without a url or developer specified). And while I understand that MS is leaving it up to the developers to choose the category that fits their products the best, a little guidance by MS to group similar apps together may be in line. But let’s keep talking search.

If you want to see all of the apps you need to click the little ‘maximize’ button on the home app page to the right of where it says ‘top free apps’ and then you can see a full list of top free apps and you can filter the top apps for each subcategory as well. The other option is to go to a subcategory and once you do that then the ‘view all’ genre finally appears (but it’s not on the main page). I could have sworn that there was an ‘top paid apps’ screen feed on the main page the other day but it’s not here now (you need to go to the sub page, then go to view all, then toggle to ‘all’ to see it now). Finding the ‘all’ maximize button is something you need to know to look for. On the main page there’s no genre for ‘all’ which should then default you to the top rated page. And once you get to the all page, there aren’t a lot of filters. In fact, sorting it to ‘paid’ apps only gives me a ‘no apps found’ page but under ‘all’  (so ‘all’ apps and ‘all prices’)I can see the paid apps.

And I don’t know what makes Flowerz the ‘top app’ right now. Is it based on the number of downloads, user ratings, some algorithm? I think it’s an algorithm they’re using (since that’s what we were told would be the case) but some filters here would be great. I mean, Bing should be on the backend here so I should be able to search through all of these apps using multiple parameters across the board, right? Maybe limit it to apps below $5 that are new to the market. I think that’s a fair request.

And the current search for some reason doesn’t actually pick up everything. The new Facebook app is now live and a search for ‘Facebook’ yields no results. OK, so go to ‘all apps’ and filter it by most recent and it’s not there. In fact, the only way to find it is to go to the Social subcategory and it’s visible only if it’s sorted by top selling but if it’s sorted by release date then it doesn’t appear. No idea what’s behind that…

One other item I want to touch on is the security features that are utilized so you can know what elements of your phone are being used. I’ve long complained that in Android these ‘warnings’ are consistently so broad that they lose all meaning. In Windows Phone the sandboxing and other security features built into the OS prohibit any significant personal data from being distributed through malicious code. But look at the info provided in Marketplace for Windows Phone. I’m not identifying this app since I don’t think it’s atypical. Many free apps have similar notifications (some of which may be because the apps are ad based so more location and information is needed to serve ads better). But I can’t tell the specifics of what this app is doing. It makes use of my phone calls and phone identity? I can rationalize all of the services being used, but a little hover over would be great here and if it’s using MS’s ad services (and that’s why it needs the info) then just tell me that so I know that’s who is collecting my data and not some rogue developer who is data mining. I think this broad overview is too generic at this point to be useful and instead I presume most people will ignore it so it fails to add any layer of security.

There are other small nuisances, like apps being submitted with transparent images as their icon which don’t appear in Marketplace properly yet still got approved. And the text with the app description should be stark black and not grey so it’s easier to read especially against an image that’s stretched across the background. There’s also a limitation on devs using URLs in their description (presumably this is also for security reasons) but I’m used to going to developers websites and watching videos and going to their forums to learn more about their products. Now there’s no way to go do any of that or to sort by developer (except for doing a search and typing in the name). Also there’s nothing on the app page that tells you the limitations of a free trial. Some of the formatting of Zune is also done for lower resolution screens since I have a lot of blank screen here and I’d love to have it used. When I look at top apps, for example, instead of switching pages to the apps main page I’d love to keep the list on the left and a preview of the apps page on the right (like the new Twitter website) or at least more info than the title, genre, version, icon and ‘more info’ since there’s plenty of room for far more than this and it would add to both the look and function. In fact, the one thing I ‘learned’ here is that maximizing Zune to full screen (I’m using a widescreen) actually hinders the app since it’s stretches it out and gives you more white space and the info just gets dispersed and doesn’t fill the voids.

I don’t want to get caught up in the negatives. I haven’t held an actual device yet and I presume most purchases still take place that way, but I think it’s fair to point these issues out now while it’s still early in hopes that they get resolved soon. What do you think? I’m I being too soft? Too hard? Did I miss anything? Should I just be happy that there’s standalone software at all?