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Is Windows Mobile Broken, or is it Alive and Well?

I’m no Microsoft apologist.  I’ve used both Apple and Microsoft products, and I just appreciate good quality software.  I look at products with a critical eye, but I’m fair.  I have had the honor to write software that is used in several companies to this day, and I understand the challenges inherent in producing quality products.  So with an open mind, I present 9 reasons why I feel that Windows Mobile is Alive and Well.  So don’t buy that iPhone/Symbian/Palm just yet.

Before we begin, let’s take a look at the task before Microsoft.  They must produce an OS that will work with Smartphones, Pocket PCs and Pocket PC phones.  They must provide engines that allow access to the internet, email, bluetooth, instant messaging, 3rd party software, and allow the flexibility to customize these units, all the while providing stability and speed.  Whew!  Wait a sec, aren’t there vga and qvga devices they must account for as well?  In fact, there are a multitude of things for the Microsoft OS developers to consider.  Perhaps this task is not so easy, hmmm?

1. The Internet

Windows Mobile provides an effective means to access the web.  Most users of Windows Mobile OS devices find that getting connected is a rather simple affair.  The underpinnings of the OS get them connected without much intervention.  In fact, most people don’t look under the hood.  They just turn WiFi on and off they go.  They may not like Pocket Internet Explorer, but then, there are many available browsers available from 3rd party developers such as Opera, NetFront, Minimo and Picsel.  Jenn K. Lee at Pocketables has written an excellent article comparing them all.  Certainly a newbie will find Pocket IE just fine, but once you gain a little experience it’s nice to know you have alternatives.  You may ask, “Why doesn’t Microsoft provide a better browser?” 

Great question!  My guess is that there are several reasons.  A better browser will increase the cost of the OS.  Further, it would add more bloat, and we certainly don’t want Windows Mobile to be more like Windows Vista, do we?  My feeling is that Microsoft is just providing the basics with the OS, and allows us to upgrade as we see fit.  Heck, if we wanted a company to dictate what software we can and cannot use, we could buy an iPhone!  Look at this another way.  When you purchase a car, you get a crappy included car stereo.  If you want to upgrade, you can buy another crappy, overpriced car stereo from the manufacturer, or you can get a high quality stereo OF YOUR CHOICE for a lot less.  And chances are, if Microsoft did include a higher end browser, would it be the browser YOU want?  Choice is a good thing.

I suspect that Microsoft will one day buy another company that has developed an excellent browser, after all, they are not known for their innovation.  In fact, they purchase a heck of a lot of companies in order to get new technologies.  Didn’t they purchase DOS when they were just beginning?  Point made.

Meanwhile, MS provides the means to access the internet using whatever system we have at our disposal, including WiFi and 3G.  Sorry, no 3G on the iPhone.

NetFront

NetFront on my HTC Advantage

2.   Customization

I love the iPhone.  It is beautiful.  Has lots of cool features.  But it’s not customizable.  You are stuck with the OS for good or bad.  But Windows Mobile allows tons of room for making it your own.  Want a cool background photo of your kids?  Want to make it look like an iPhone?  No problem. 

x50v

WinMob 6

MyToday

My today screen – iLauncher

iPhone

iPhone

I don’t know how you can customize the iPhone, but if you look at the top two pictures and you knew nothing about WinMob, wouldn’t you be surprised to find they both are from the same OS?  With products like iLauncher you can create some great looks and quick shortcuts to the programs YOU want to access.  Schweet!  I’m not dissing the iPhone, but I’m a unique individual, and I don’t want the same screen that everyone else has.  Do you?

3. 3rd Party Applications

I like Microsoft.  But I don’t love any company more than the ability they give me to accomplish my tasks.  Microsoft does include tons of software on their WinMob software, but it may not be the best software for the job YOU want to do.  Like I said earlier, if you want a better browser then you have to upgrade.  Likewise, IF you want a better contact management system, then you have to upgrade.  Is that a bad thing?  Let’s put it this way, if I want the Cadillac of contact management programs, the Mercedes of music players, and the Rolls Royce of movie players, then I have to upgrade.  But MS provides all these programs already.  Admittedly, their versions may be classified as simplistic, but then that keeps the cost down, provides the basics, and most importantly, they allow for 3rd party innovation. 

Would it be a perfect world if MS provided the top end of all the different software you wanted?  If you say yes, then you are a complete nimrod.  Need I explain?  I will for those of you who are newbies.   You experienced WinMob people can skip ahead to the next section.

If Microsoft provided the top end software in every category, your WinMob device would cost several thousand dollars, be massively bloated, and have tons of stuff you don’t need or want.  If MS wanted to provide the best in each category, you would have to carry a WinMob device that weighs several pounds.  Check out PocketPCMag.com’s Best Software Awards from 2007.  There are 10 categories and hundreds of titles.  Should MS provide the best software for each category?  If you want to buy all your software from one vendor, then get the iPhone.  Otherwise, give me FREEDOM OF CHOICE!

I use lists, so I bought ListPro.  For contact management I run with Pocket Informant.  They are affordable, well constructed, and what I want.  And for each of those softwares there are many competitors.  That’s nice.  If someone else wants to step up and offer something better, then you and I have the freedom to change.  And if we’re happy with the included software, then we don’t have to spend another penny.  That’s what I’m talking about!

Seriously, there’s nothing wrong with alternatives like the iPhone, Symbian stuff or Palm doodads, but I like choice and I like cost effectiveness.  If I want to spend a minimum of $399 for an iPhone plus the higher fees AT&T charges, that’s my right.  Right?

But is their (iPhone) included software the best in class?  Are there alternatives?  Yeah, that’s what I thought.

4. Finger Friendly Apps

I use my stylus to write notes on PhatPad, other than that I don’t care for it. 

phatpad

When Apple introduced the iPhone, they brought some beautiful innovation to the table.  And chief among their introductions are finger friendly apps.  This has spurred some innovation on the WinMob side.  For example, I now use ZoomBoard as my main text input program.  To be sure, WinMob includes four input methods, but ZoomBoard kick’s their uhm, rear ends. 

zoomboard

And I can use my fingers.  In fact, I like ZoomBoard so much, I don’t use the included keyboard on my Advantage.

htc-advantage-thumb

Many other Finger Friendly Apps are being developed as well.  Isn’t it satisfying to know that if there is a gap in your software lineup, someone is out there filling it?  What?  Did you just say that?  Let me get this straight, you just asked, “Why didn’t MS think of that?  Why don’t I just buy an iPhone and I’ll have all those Finger Friendly Apps natively?”

You can.  Isn’t that nice?  But then you are stuck with one form factor.  Granted, the iPhone is a nice form factor, but WinMob devices come in many, many varieties and flavors.  So add to customization, variety.  It really is the spice of life.

5. Bluetooth

Bluetooth is a nice feature, but the technology has limits.  Namely, it only works within 30 feet.  It has to accommodate the myriad headsets that use that protocol, yet you don’t want it to suck up too much power.  Maybe a future version will improve upon the current system, but either way, if you want to get fancy and use your device with stereo headsets over Bluetooth, you’ll be disappointed.  That’s because Bluetooth stereo headsets are far from approaching the fidelity afforded by similarly priced wired headsets. 

On the other hand, MS has done a fine job of including the many protocols necessary to use the multitude of available Bluetooth products, such as keyboards, GPS receivers, and mice, to name a few.  They are easy to pair and work fine – even for the hundreds of available products in the marketplace.  Hopefully high fidelity stereo will arrive soon.

6. Swiss Army Knife Factor

We are demanding users.  We expect our devices to do everything great.  And why should we not?  When it comes to simple things, like making phone calls on your WinMob device, shouldn’t it be easy?  Thankfully, it is.  But not everyone has a giant screened Advantage with giant phone buttons to dial.  And you know what?  I often use Pocket Informant to find contacts whose numbers I want.  The contacts are a bit on the small side, so I sometimes have to whip out the stylus.  Yuch.

contacts

Ok, actually, I never whip out the stylus, because I use ZoomBoard to find contacts.  And there are 3rd party PIMs that are more finger friendly than PI, but either way, dialing a contact is not a straightforward proposition on WinMob.  But sometimes you make sacrifices to get more.  My Nextel phone, for example, allows me to easily find contacts and dial them, but it’s a bloated phone that carries limited information, no 3rd party software, and overall is a crappy phone.  I think you get the point.

7. Utilities

Wouldn’t it be cool if everything you ever bought was custom designed the way YOU want it to be?  Get real, it ain’t.  When I upgraded from TomTom 5 to TomTom 6 I found a real oddity, for example.  TomTom 5 would maximize the system volume automatically, so even if I left the volume at a low level, the full volume would be available in the application.  But TT6 uses the the set system volume.  So if I leave the volume at a very low setting, the max volume in TomTom is also very low.  That’s quite annoying, considering I always leave my volume at the second to lowest setting.  To fix this, I had to find a utility.  Luckily, Nivanov, an Aximsiter, wrote the TomTom 6 Volume Override Loader to remedy this.  So even if my system volume is muted, I can hear it loud and clear when TomTom is working. 

I don’t expect any company to be perfect, because perfect is simply what I deem it to be.  Your perfect may differ.  So if a company that only produces one software program, like TomTom, writes a great program but with an odd quirk, how can I expect a company like MS to write an OS that encompasses every program I use, to make it exactly the way I want it? 

I can’t.  I will find some quirks in the OS.  Like the X at the top of every program.  I expect it to close the program, but it doesn’t.  It just minimizes it.  That’s weird.  But then there are tons and tons of cool utilities to overcome the quirks that I see in the OS.  Which ones do you see?

8. Active Sync

I sync lots of stuff.  So do you.  One thing I don’t sync is Outlook.  I use Act! Software instead.  I’m glad MS includes Pocket Outlook for those of you who use it, but I prefer a different application.  And to sync it to my Pocket PC I use Companion Link software.  It works great.  I can view my contacts, calendar, to dos and more on my Pocket PC with Pocket Informant.  Isn’t that cool?  Who woulda thunk?

calendar-thumb

Syncing is seamless.  I sync other stuff too, like my ListPro files and PhatPad notes.  MS also provides a way to sync other files as well, such as Excel Spreadsheets and Word Docs.  But if you want to sync these files without using your desktop WinMob folder, you’ll need third party software such as Easy Sync, which I am reviewing now.  Again, MS provides the minimum, and gives YOU the option to improve on this category if you so choose. 

9. Advanced Usage

Some of us are risk takers and like to do some crazy things with our WinMob devices, while others never add any software or mods.  I fall somewhere in the middle.  I’ve written some apps, and have done many mods, but one thing I don’t like messing with is the registry.  But I appreciate the fact that I can hack it if I want.  I’ll never own a gun, but I can.  I’ll go to XDA Developers if I’m in the mood to make some serious changes, but I don’t have the time or the desire to make system level changes.  Having the access to great developers is wonderful.

I Conclude

WinMob devices are Swiss Army Knives.  The same device plays music, movies, calculates, keeps PIM info, connects to the internet, runs GPS apps, plays games, and tons more.  I am thrilled that I can customize my device to run the way that I want it to run.  I am not stuck with apps from one company (read: monopoly) and, in fact, can download many free apps, professional apps, or I can just enjoy the included software.  I view the OS as a springboard for my desires.  I don’t view it as a cure-all for everything I want to do.  That’s ridiculous.  You’d have to be a Socialist to want that.  MS has provided us with a platform that we can decorate to our taste.  Contrast this with the iPhone.  Apple dictates what software you can have.  They don’t allow 3rd party software.  They decide what you will get.  And you pay a premium for their included apps.  When they do allow 3rd party apps, you will likely pay a royalty to Apple for the privilege. 

MS provides just the basic software.  Pocket Excel and Pocket Word may not be great, but they do the job.  YOU have options if you want to upgrade.  You can even find many programs that are free.  You can even write your own.  Freedom.  Customizability.  Variety.  You can’t beat it.  There are things that I want in my WinMob OS that I still don’t have.  And if MS doesn’t provide them, someone else will.  Competition kicks you in the ass.  Look for the next version of WinMob to be even more finger friendly.  But don’t expect premium versions of all software.  You can’t afford it.

Self34

This is me using WinMob oS

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March 2, 2008 - Posted by | Opinions, Windows Mobile

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