Windows Mobile is one way Microsoft can’t innovate

I’m not sure how many articles I’ve read over the years that not only say that Windows Mobile sucks, but detail the same reasons why: putting a tiny version of Windows on small screens is an idiotic idea, no matter how comfortable it’s supposed to make those zillions of Windows users; burying important commands behind layers of menus is similarly egregious on tiny devices.

Every click matters immensely (something I once dubbed the “Law of Convenience“).

My favorite of these articles is a November 2007 David Pogue piece in the NY Times reviewing the T-Mobile Shadow smartphone. Pogue spends half the article waxing about the beautiful hardware, then writes the priceless paragraph: “But then you turn the thing on.” Then he reams Windows Mobile 6 (um, isn’t Microsoft supposed to get things right after version 3?).

Pogue’s was far from the first article to pillory Windows Mobile or its predecessor, good old WinCE, which was born back in 1996.

This week BusinessWeek’s Olga Kharif writes another piece that says roughly the same thing, and ends with an overly optimistic kicker: “Users of Windows Mobile will share some of that delight before long, if Microsoft has anything to say about it.”

Some of her optimism probably comes from Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Danger, the makers of the Sidekick. Alas, that’s not the right move for Windows Mobile at all.
I was a loyal Sidekick II user for several years. When I first got this thing that looked like a Transformered bar of Lever 2000 soap, it was fabulous. The keyboard was better than anything on the market. The Web browser was beautifully implemented, flowing page contents pretty elegantly into a small screen and letting you roll from link to link with the (also elegantly implemented) roll and click interface buttons. The UI thought through your work flow wonderfully. It seemed the next thing you wanted to do was always under your thumb on the scroll wheel.

Then a couple of years of progress rolled by, and Danger stood still. At GPRS speeds, I never used the browser. Only in emergencies. Apps? I got a couple nice apps early in the process, then never really got more. There was no organic market for them, no open platform, no innovation. And Danger didn’t innovate a whit on their initial UI. I never upgraded to the III, because it was just as hefty as before and didn’t have any great new features.

A piece of Danger split off a few years ago to found Android, developing an open-source phone platform. Brilliant. That’s what Google bought and is now in the process of rolling out with hundreds of developers and multiple manufacturers. They’ve got buzz and energy.

I don’t see how what was left of Danger changes Microsoft’s Windows Mobile. Can’t see it. Two radically different phone UIs and user experiences, tuned to completely different markets (biz vs. bling), both closed to modification or improvement. Programmer culture clash. A UI camel. And I don’t see Microsoft abandoning such a long investment in a small-system OS.

Windows Mobile has staked out some market share, but that’s falling now as the iPhone zooms on by, and I don’t see a recovery path. The WIMP interface has been tired for a long time already on desktops, and was never suited to handhelds. Who sold Microsoft on that congenitally flawed dogma I don’t know, but they should be regretting that decision.

Meanwhile, I’ll happily use my iPhone, await the new iPhone apps under way, and wonder how I’m going to choose between an Android platform and what I have today.

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About Jerry Michalski

Lateral thinker, itinerant troublemaker, convener, idea mill.
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3 Responses to Windows Mobile is one way Microsoft can’t innovate

  1. Quinnovate says:

    Jerry, I’ve not yet switched to the iPhone, as it’s still not ready for primetime (no ToDos or Notes/Memos synched to the computer, no cut/copy/paste ?!?). I’m still using the creaky PalmOS, where there’s at least a vibrant suite of 3rd party apps and accessories.

    You’re spot on about the UI problems with Windows, cf. The Zen of Palm, which IDs the mobile experience pretty well. I’m well past my ‘commitment’, so as soon as either they get a 3G iPhone (with above problems solved), 3G Centro, or Android presents a plausible alternative, I’m switching. Til then, I’m still at the Treo 650, which, other than speed and size, has a pretty good experience.

  2. scrandall says:

    A elegant friend noted the passing of her last Windows Mobile device by noting “It was simply too frustrating to use, so I tested it against the wall. Both lost.”

    My 11 month old iPhone is an interesting companion. It certainly has some warts, although not as many as when it was new. On the other hand it mostly works and has become mostly transparent for me. I haven’t even bothered to take my laptop along on the past half dozen business trips.

    My laptop, allowing me to work in my treehouse, taught me I didn’t need my desktop. My iPhone is teaching me I don’t need my laptop as much as I once thought I did.

  3. amrev says:

    Microsoft bought Danger for the services back end platform, not for the device, not for the experience, not for the device OS, not for the applications. If you recall, a few years ago Danger recast itself as a platform for services, and the sidekick was seen as just one incarnation of the platform. That strategy sits well with MS.

    Ray Ozzie has been going on and on and on… about SaaS and this supports that strategy for Windows Mobile.

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