Is Microsoft Really Fighting the Face Down Culture?

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a phone addict. I think back to how my parents interacted with us as kids and I realize that they, as a cohort, never had something as distracting and potentially damaging in their hands as a cellphone… ever. Maybe booze, but that’s a different post. I hung out with a bunch of phone bloggers yesterday and at one point we all had iPhones out at a table, all checking stuff. When I’m with the kids I check email all the time, so much so that my son says he’s checking email sometimes when he wants to wheedle the phone out of my hand and play a game. We’re a face down culture now, and it kind of sucks.

Microsoft, ostensibly, is trying to break us of this habit and I say ostensibly because, if you really look at the Windows Phone 7 UI, you’re actually dealing with more swipes and taps than you’d expect given the sparse interface they are presenting. Sure, the phones are fast and the UI, at times, is strikingly beautiful, but it’s still a phone and, as such, requires lots of attention. Back in the old days, when the first iPhone came out, I was amazed at how people gently fondled and petted those things like hamsters. At one of the early Techcrunch events I saw hundreds of San Franciscans all rubbing their iPhones gently and purposefully. It was a turning point for smartphone culture because although Blackberry users had always been addicted, suddenly an entirely new group was joining the smartphone camp and, as such, were now stuck tapping out messages and making status updates with an intensity that rivaled a drug addiction. Why? Because it was so easy.

I agree that the head down culture has to change, but it won’t change through software or hardware. As John Gruber points out, we rub our phones because we like them and want to rub them, not because of some massive failure in the UI/power equation.

Microsoft’s premise here is that WP7 has a dashboard and system-wide interface that’s optimized for getting you through a finite amount of “checking in” or “catching up” in significantly less time than other mobile systems. But I don’t think people are on their iPhones/Androids/BlackBerrrys all the time because of inefficient UI design. I think it’s because we want to be on them. These devices are where our minds are drawn — like moths to a flame, perhaps — whenever we’re otherwise unoccupied.

But the idea that a phone can save us from our phones is quite compelling in the way fad diets and P90X is compelling: it’s the promise that this time, things will be different. As a culture – heck, as a species – we love the idea of a quick fix and Microsoft, despite some minor misses, knows how to market to that part of our brains. Think about the “laptop hunters” ads which said, essentially, “Laptops are hard! Go Windows!” To someone stuck in a Best Buy between a pushy salesman and a sheet of specs, that’s manna. These Windows Phone 7 ads promise the same ease of use and freedom from worry. The statement here is, again, “Phones are hard! Go Windows!”

Does this mean your new Windows Phone will be easier to use? Probably not. Will you use it less? Absolutely not. But it’s a compelling message to a perpetually busy consumer who realizes, too late, that he or she missed baby’s first words because they were playing Angry Birds. In the end, Windows Phone 7 – and every other phone, for that matter – is S.O.S. We don’t need to change our operating systems; we need to change our heads.