What happened to Nokia's customization of Windows Phone?

Evan Selleck
Contributing Editor from  Arizona
| Published: December 1, 2011

Way back in the beginning of the year, February to be exact, the world watched as Microsoft and Nokia came together to build a “strategic partnership.” There were plenty of people out there who thought the move was an excellent one, which would see both companies profiting quite a bit from the partnership. And how could it go wrong, right? Nokia hardware with Microsoft’s brand new mobile operating system, Windows Phone. But, the one reason I was looking forward to Nokia-branded Windows Phones seems to have completely disappeared: customization.

If you’ll recall, after Microsoft and Nokia announced the new partnership, rumors and speculation regarding Nokia’s presence within Windows Phone began to run rampant. It didn’t take long before it got settled down, though, with one of Nokia’s executives saying that customization was indeed part of the plan, but that software updates would not be hindered by these customizations. In fact, this executive said that Nokia would be able to customize whatever they wanted, referencing “high-level customizations,” along with changes that are “deep in the fold of Windows Phone 7.” As intriguing as it was back then, now that the first Nokia manufactured Windows Phone devices are out and about, it seems pretty obvious that those customizations didn’t really happen.

In the world of mobile operating systems, customization is a tricky thing. Some people want it, while others just don’t really care. Sure, you can change around the colors, the Live Tiles and Hubs, and even insert some rectangular tiles onto your Windows Phone homescreen, but other than that you don’t have many options. (You can turn the theme to “Light” or “Dark” too, let’s not forget that.) But, while customization may not be that big of a deal to someone who is buying a Windows Phone device, there has to be a certain point where you look at an HTC-branded device, a Samsung handset, and a Nokia newcomer and say, “Wow, those aren’t the same phones?”

The hardware is different, and that’s great. Nokia makes great hardware. But, there are people out there that say HTC and Samsung make great phones, too, so why would they go out of their way to pick up a Nokia handset? It’s great that we’re using hardware to make devices stand out, and that’s obviously the way it should be. But that shouldn’t be the whole picture. The reason why Apple isn’t bogged down with this kind of talk is because they release one phone a year, so the consumer isn’t looking at a plethora of different devices that all have the same mobile OS, at least at face value. I’ve outlined why I think HTC Sense needs to get a facelift, and that’s a proprietary user interface atop Android. So when is Windows Phone going to get its facelift?

It probably won’t, if these Nokia devices are any indicator. We already know that Microsoft keeps the customization of their software on a tight leash for the phone manufacturers. HTC wasn’t allowed to put their Sense UI over Windows Phone when they launched their first Windows Phone handsets, and they still aren’t. They’ve got their HTC Hub, which gives you some kind of experience like Sense’s weather app, but it isn’t the same. Samsung has their News application on their Windows Phone handsets, but again the experience isn’t the same.

However, what is the same is the experience and user interaction on every single Windows Phone. I can pick up the HTC Trophy on Verizon, the HTC Arrive on Sprint, the Dell Venue Pro on AT&T and the HTC Radar on T-Mobile, and the experience is going to be the same. The same goes for the Samsung Focus Flash, the HTC HD7S, the HTC Titan, and the Nokia Lumia 800. All the same. The hardware is different, but that’s where the differences end and the similarities begin.

So changing the color is great, but where are the Nokia customizations? Where are those high-level customizations that Nokia hinted at? What would that even include? Is there even a way for manufacturers to customize Windows Phone, but keep the “glance-and-go” approach that Microsoft has been striving for? I’m sure there are plenty of people out there smart enough to figure out a way, but it doesn’t look like that will ever happen.

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