I can barely remember a time before smart phones. How did I know where I was supposed to be -- and when? How did I tweet? When the iPhone 3G came along, with its elegant software and giant screen and the Internet in it, it was like going from black and white to colour, like when Dorothy crashlands in Oz. Ding dong, the WAP is dead.
I loved the iPhone. It was pretty, it was fun, it did everything I wanted it to. Which makes it all the more weird that just a few short years later, I wouldn't be seen dead with one.
The original iPhone was revolutionary. That's just a fact. (This is the point where some early adopters start banging on about the Nokia N95 having the Internet and apps, but that's like comparing a steam engine to an Aston Martin because they both have wheels.)
Android came shortly after, and the new narrative was established for the mobile story: Apple's refined but restricted walled garden versus Android's liberated but chaotic hippy dreamland. I'm not going to argue that one is better than the other. I've lived with both and loved both -- but always with something missing, something that can only be found in the other.
The iPhone and iPad get the apps first, in classy and refined hardware. But Android puts you in charge of every aspect of your phone, with a far wider choice of blowers. If only there was some middle ground...
Wait, what just happened?
When the new world order of iPhones and Androids began, the old lags were caught flat-footed and left dazed for years. Nokia, BlackBerry and Sony Ericsson found themselves staring at Apple, Google, Samsung and HTC (who came from nowhere) and wondering what the chuff just happened. Microsoft too.
Microsoft at least had the nous to start afresh, chucking out the rubbish Windows Mobile and going back to the drawing board. On that drawing board some touchy-feely type drew some big squares, and the best mobile phone interface ever was born.
Interface is king
Yes, there are many aspects to an operating system. The app ecosystem. The extent to which it can be customised. The integration with the hardware.
But ultimately, the interface is the most important thing about a mobile phone. Everybody has a phone nowadays, so it has to be easy to use even if you don't know your app store from your elbow. We use them all the time, usually for very small tasks, so they have to be usable with one hand and one eye without breaking off from a conversation. We have to be able to dip into them while barely engaging our brains.
Processor speeds, screen sizes, app stores; all those things are important, but they mean nothing if the software fails to harness those smarts to an interface that's enjoyable to use. You could have the world's cleverest octo-core, eleventy-megapixel, high-definizzle phone in your pocket, but if the interface is a chore to grapple with then you're going to leave it there.
This may be news to some of the tech-frenzied readers who go ballistic at us in the comments whenever we emphasise interface -- hi guys! luv ya! -- but not everybody wants to feel like they're doing a maths exam every time they make a phone call, look up a film time or download an app. Interface is king.
Sure, we tech-savvy early adopters like a challenge, but mobile phones are no longer the domain of nerds like us who want a gadget to be complicated, so we can feel like we've mastered it. Mobile phones belong to our mums and dads now, our nieces and nephews, our ditzy co-workers who don't even read XKCD. The chumps.
My dad loves cars, but he wouldn't want to drive even the most souped-up supercar if it had a Rubiks Cube instead of a steering wheel and you had to line up all the greens to turn left. No sir: Interface. Is. King.
The king is dead
Until not so long ago, that meant Apple. But something insane has happened. Something that we simply wouldn't have countenanced just three short years ago.
One company makes a beautiful, intuitive, elegant interface, and the other makes a dated, clunky interface. But now it's Microsoft showing off the thing of beauty, and Apple that's behind the times. Microsoft is the underdog and Apple is the monolithic, restrictive monopoly. Has the world gone mad?
Sure, the iPhone and iPad interface is still slick and simple. But the shine is gone -- iOS 5 looks almost exactly the same as iOS 4. Android showed what you can do when you can truly customise the look and feel of your phone, with its flexible home screens, handy widgets placing information right at your fingertips, and the capacity to alter any feature you like.
Long live the king
Windows Phone strikes the perfect middle ground between the two. The slick, instantly recognisable and totally intuitive live tile interface is playful without being toylike, knocking Apple's once-revolutionary front end into a cocked hat. And on the other hand, widgets and dynamic live tiles give you the flexibility that marks Android.
It's utterly compelling, and that's why I won't be swapping my Nokia Lumia 800 for an iPhone any time soon.
Nope, Apple will have to do more than nick Android's notification system to tempt me back to that dated interface. No widgets? Pssh. Delving into the menus for simple tasks like killing the Wi-Fi? Whatevs. iTunes? See ya, most definitively would not wanna be ya.
Of course, I'm not saying Windows Phone is perfect. The pool of apps is more like a muddy puddle. It's only the arrival of Spotify in the Marketplace that has triggered this damascene conversion in your humble correspondent, as that's the first app I download on any new phone. And I still haven't got used to how when you zoom right in to a map it switches to satellite view.
But I love it how the directions tell you if you reach a certain road, you've gone too far. I love how if there's a problem with a text message, the smiley face messages icon turns to a frowny face. And I bloomin' love those big colourful tiles. Because, lest we forget, when you look at a gadget a hundred times a day it should make you smile every time, not want to kick it against a wall (the fate of my last iPhone).
My God. We're through the looking glass here, people. I'm a Windows fan now.