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Switched On: Windows Mobile success deserves a better successor

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Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

Last year marked the tenth anniversary of Windows CE, now the underpinnings of what is called Windows Mobile. Few Microsoft market entry forays have tested the software giant's patience as its miniature embedded operating system. At its debut on PalmPCs, as they were known before threats of litigation ensued, Windows CE was slow and ungainly while the incumbent Palm OS was speedy and elegant. Palm seemed to leave Microsoft in the dust when it unveiled the Palm V, the slim PDA that carried the kind of design buzz in 1999 that the Motorola RAZR or iPod nano did at their debuts.

But among developer platforms, Palm OS licensees vanished one by one as the operating system languished during Palm's notorious hand-changing history. Symbian -- begun as a reaction to Microsoft's mobile designs -- has so far failed to achieve the smartphone success stateside that it has in Europe. And despite the promise of Linux as a cellphone operating system, it has become a handset market force only in countries hosting next year's summer Olympics. All this had left Microsoft strongly positioned in a nascent market, but its perseverance is only now starting to pay off.


Microsoft has, of course, long offered two versions of its telephony-targeted operating system -- one aimed at PDA-like phones (with touchscreens) that evolved from the Pocket PCs, and one aimed at less expensive smartphones. The smartphone OS, in particular, was designed to be used with what Microsoft considered traditional cell phone form factors. Its omnipresent two button choices at the bottom of the screen accommodates the button layout of many traditional handsets.

But something unexpected happened last year; a trio of sleek handsets based on the smartphone edition but using QWERTY keyboards took off in the consumer market. Microsoft hit a small jackpot as the Motorola Q, Samsung BlackJack, and T-Mobile Dash by HTC trimmed the depth of the wide candybar form factor. The BlackJack is now available for less than $150 and the Q for less than $100 -- nicely priced for text-happy young adults or those looking for BlackBerry alternatives.

And yet, despite welcome improvements coming in Windows Mobile 6, the operating system still feels an unsatisfying graft taken from the desktop version of Windows. Worse, more integration of features such as Live Messenger and Live Search smacks of the kind of restricted choice that has gotten the company into regulatory hot water in the past. One would expect the big bad carriers to protect us from this, but so far they've played along with Microsoft in, for example, relegating non-MSN instant messaging to often disappointing third-party products.

Until now, the smartphone platform race has primarily been between Symbian -- which evolved from an optimized handheld OS -- and Windows Mobile, a lighter-weight cousin of Windows. But the iPhone will provide another option, an actual port (in a sense of the word) of a mass-market desktop operating system. Ignoring such unique advantages such as the touch-based user interface, the iPhone approach simply seems better at providing streamlined, direct access to what you need at your fingertips. In other words, what we need from Windows Mobile is less Windows, more Mobile.

Windows Mobile may face more severe hardware constraints than nearly any other Microsoft user interface. Nevertheless, when compared with other such interfaces, it seems the least suited to the task at hand. This is true whether you consider products where Microsoft controls the hardware (such as Xbox or Zune) or not (such as Windows Media Center, Portable Media Center, or even MSN Direct). Perhaps, as it did with Windows Vista, Microsoft must become more aggressive about imposing minimum specifications on its cellphone OEMs.

Disappointing software is nothing new in the U.S. handset business as manufacturers have focused on alluring hardware designs, but there are only so many ways to flip, slide, twist or otherwise reveal a wafer-thin keypad. Phones are increasingly turning into small computers, but that does not mean that their user interface conventions should mirror those of PCs any more than TiVo did, particularly when these devices still lack the PC's large screen and efficient pointing device. These devices that accompany us to work and play need to embrace the productivity and connectivity of today's Windows Mobile handsets with the fluidity and media prowess that the iPhone has demonstrated.


Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at http://www.rossrubin.com/outofthebox. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.
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