When Windows Mobile first hit the scene almost a full decade ago (in the year 2000), it was revolutionary. No one had seen anything like it before. Sure, there had been the Palm OS, and maybe the hint of what is now Symbian, but the idea of having a full fledged computer (not just a PIM) in the palm of your hand was pretty much the stuff of science fiction. Well, here it is, a decade later, Windows Mobile is now in its sixth generation (the aptly named Windows Mobile 6) and while it is still the most powerful mobile operating system, it is hardly alone. Today, it shares the playing field with Blackberry, the remnants of the Palm OS, Symbian, the iPhone, and soon phones running Google’s new mobile platform, otherwise known as Android. What does this all mean for Windows Mobile? Well, the first thing it means is that other operating systems will be breathing down Microsoft’s neck pushing it to move faster and smarter…or just pushing it out of the way. We have already seen this with the iPhone and its far superior web browser and user interface. Windows Mobile is starting to show its age. It is like an athlete who needs to spend more time in the gym than ever just to keep up with the younger, faster, smarter players. But all is not lost. This article will look at nine things Windows Mobile can do to regain its top spot in the mobile operating system arena…all of which can (and should) be done before the next implementation of Windows Mobile is even released, and certainly before a new iPhone, Nokia-Symbian phone, or Android pushes it further down the pecking order..
A Better Internet Experience. When Windows Mobile first hit the scene in 2000, we were all shocked and amazed by Pocket Internet Explorer. This was the Internet in the Palm of your hand. Unfortunately, once the initial amazement and euphoria wore off, we were left with an underpowered web browser. For many of us, it did not matter a lot at the time because the Pocket PC was not designed to connect to the Internet back then.
As time moved on, however, and Pocket PC’s began incorporating Wi-fi and ultimately became converged with phones bearing broadband-like connection speeds, the Internet began to take on a much more central role in how we used our mobile devices. And, of course, one would assume, that Pocket Internet Explorer evolved to meet this need. One would be wrong. In fact, this is among the biggest failings of Windows Mobile today. It still relies on virtually the exact same underpowered web browser that was found in the original, unconnected Pocket PC’s nearly a decade ago.
While this has been a source of growing consternation among Windows Mobile users, it was mostly just assumed that mobile devices were simply too limited for the Internet. That all changed this past summer, however, when the iPhone was unveiled with its full Safari browser. If the iPhone did anything, it showed Windows Mobile users what had been missing all along from their mobile Internet experience. As an example, take a look at this screenshot of the iPhone’s safari browser:
This first shot is simply the Yahoo homepage as it is seen on an iPhone…
…and here it is as it is seen on Windows Mobile Pocket Internet Explorer. It is just a cluttered mess, which can barely be seen.
Even if we scroll down a little bit, it is just impossible to read the page.
Microsoft has always been known for their innovation, and it is just shocking to me that in nearly 10 years, they have not come up with a better web browsing solution than Pocket Internet Explorer, especially in light of Apple’s first crack at the iPhone, which plainly revealed Pocket Internet Explorer as the aging relic which it has become. If Microsoft truly expects Windows Mobile to remain at the top of the market, it MUST offer a full web browser, or full version of Internet Explorer 7 with the Windows Mobile operating system.
More Usable Today Screen/Desktop: For as long as the desktop version of Windows has served as our primary operating system (particularly since Windows 95), the desktop has been the place where we display shortcuts to our important applications, folders, and documents. This is how the Today Screen on a Windows Mobile device should operate. Instead, however, in almost direct contradiction to its desktop counterparts, the Today Screen has been largely ignored by Microsoft as a valuable resource for interacting with your device. Here is a shot of the Sprint Mogul today screen as it appeared when I initially activated my phone.
As you can see, far from serving as a useful means of navigating the applications on my device, the Today Screen appears cluttered and provides access to little useful information. In fact, much of the information on the Today Screen is little more than an ad for Microsoft and Sprint, even adopting Sprint’s glaring yellow color scheme.
Not to keep harping on this point, but now look at the iPhone today screen. It is neatly organized, and allows you to access every critical function of the device with a single fingertap.
More recently, some device manufacturers have clued in to the power the today screen really offers. HTC, for example, now offers its own Today Screen with the HTC Touch and TyTN II devices, which allows some access to various applications and utilities.
There are also many third party applications which will take over your today screen and turn it into the powerful tool it was intended to be. Among these are SBSH iLauncher, Spb Mobile Shell, Spb Pocket Plus, and LakeRidge Software Wisbar Desktop and Wisbar Advanced (to name only a few). As I am about to discuss, however, it should not take third party applications to make Windows Mobile perform as it was intended to perform.
Better built in applications – Since I have already touched briefly upon this subject, let’s discuss the built in applications and third party software in more detail. As I see it, third party software can be divided into two general categories: those which improve upon existing applications, and those which add new features or applications. If Windows Mobile is to remain successful, the first category should be completely eliminated. This means (and I apologize to the developers) no more need for programs like Pocket Informant, Agenda Fusion/Agenda One, SoftMaker Office, Resco File Explorer (shown at left), CorePlayer, or Pocket Player (to name a few). Presumably, Windows Mobile should be able to handle all of these functions for you.
Of course, I am not saying that there is anything wrong with these programs. Many of them are superb. Windows Mobile, however, claims to include Pocket Outlook with access to your calendar, tasks, contacts, and more. It claims to include a file explorer, and a media player. Heck, it even includes a scaled down version of Microsoft Office. All of these applications, however, range from barely functional to just plain junk (and this does not even mention the useless third party "bloatware" which festers on many devices). Heck, many developers use the tag line, "Make your Windows Mobile device operate the way it was intended," or something similar.
It should never take a third party application to make your device operate the way it was intended. Most users are not aware that many of these applications are even available. They purchase a Windows Mobile device to perform particular functions: check email, sync their calendar, organize their contacts, listen to music. If the device cannot adequately perform these functions out of the box, then it is likely going to end up in a dusty bin of useless gadgets that many of us keep in the basement, no matter how many third party applications are available to fix it.
If Microsoft is unable or unwilling to develop functional versions of these applications, then they should contract with third party developers to include them as part of the operating system. I would be thrilled if I bought a device and found Resco File Explorer preloaded instead of the bare bones Microsoft File Explorer. Or how about finding Pocket Informant or Agenda Fusion in place of Pocket Outlook.
FINGERS! FINGERS! FINGERS! When I was discussing this article with the team here at JAMM, it was inevitable that the included stylus would come up. Since the early days of Palm devices, the stylus has been a thin, small piece of metal or plastic used to interact with the touch screen on your device. These are typically so skinny they cause hand cramps, and so small they are easily lost. In fact, the only advantage they serve is that they can usually be easily tucked into a slot on the side or back of the device. As Lauren stated during one of our team meetings, "styli are a necessary evil, but why do they need to be?"
I started thinking about this comment, and Lauren is absolutely correct. For years, the stylus has been viewed as a necessary evil. Nobody really likes to use one, but it is the price you have to pay for using the technology. What Microsoft still does not seem to have figured out, however, is that pretty much every user has ten styli built right into their hands. Yup, I am talking about fingers.
Developers are now starting to get around to making software which is designed to be used without a stylus, or finger friendly software. The best example of this is the fantastic iwindowsmobile line of programs released by Vito Technology. For the most part, however, both the operating system, and most of the programs designed for it still require a stylus. This was understandable in the early days when the touch screen was still new and not well developed. This is no longer the case. The touch screen has evolved to a point where the stylus is no longer necessary, which makes it simply evil. Both Microsoft and third party developers should make the elimination of the stylus Windows Mobile a significant priority in 2008.
Bluetooth — This section was almost titled, "Dude, Who Stole My Bluetooth?" Time was that Windows Mobile devices utilized the excellent WidComm stack of Bluetooth drivers. My Dell Axim with Windows Mobile 2003SE never had any Bluetooth problems. Then, along came Windows Mobile 5, and Microsoft’s decision to do it themselves. For the first time we saw the underwhelming Microsoft Bluetooth stack, and boy what a difference. Dropped connections, poor Bluetooth radio reception, and more marred the new stack of drivers. In fact, one team of developers even attempted to replace the Windows Mobile 5 Microsoft Bluetooth stack with the WidComm stack from Windows Mobile 2003SE.
Ever since Microsoft replaced the Widcomm Bluetooth stack with their own, the Bluetooth capabilities of Windows Mobile have continued to underwhelm most users. Many devices lack A2DP (stereo music) and AVRCP (audio remote control) support, and limit Bluetooth functionality to a small circle of accessories, most of which are Bluetooth headsets and keyboards. And don’t even get me started on the difficulties connecting a Bluetooth GPS. There is simply no excuse for a Bluetooth stack which cannot make a connection and keep it without interference. Likewise, now that stereo audio has become so integral to many users, A2DP and AVRCP simply must be included natively. Again, if Microsoft cannot (or will not) develop a Bluetooth stack that can function adequately, then it should return to the WidComm Bluetooth stack.
Making A Phone Call Should Not Be This Hard: There is an old joke about a man who gets a new watch. He goes on and on bragging about all of the things it can do until someone finally asks what time it is. "I don’t know. This thing doesn’t tell time," is the famous reply. That is how I feel about the phones on Windows Mobile devices.
As the Pocket PC and phones have become more and more inseparable (the actual term is converged), the dialer on these devices has gone from a sideshow to the main event. It is imperative that you can quickly and easily dial, reach someone from your contacts, and answer the phone. None of these are particularly easy with a lot of Windows Mobile devices (it is hard to make generalizations here since they are all different). Of course, many people rely on voice commands which seems like a cop-out for Windows Mobile, and can be a bit (to say the least) inconsistant. This does not change the fact that the dialer screen on many devices, such as the Sprint Mogul are simply unusable. Go ahead, try to dial on the dialpad above without using a stylus. It simply cannot be done.
Let’s be honest, when you need to make a call, you do not want to whip out your stylus and scroll through the tiny text in your contacts or tap out the numbers on a too small dialer pad. You want to reach the contact and you want to reach them now.
In fairness, this is an area which has seen vast improvement in some of the newer devices. The HTC Touch (shown above), for example, offer a fantastic dialer pad, which is a vast improvement from the Sprint Mogul (shown at the top of this section).
The other problem with dialing by contact is the complete lack of intuitive controls. Ideally, you should be able to tap a contact and automatically dial them. Quick and easy. Too often, however, tapping the contact opens the information screen or, worse, an editing page. For me, the best option is photo contacts. Regardless of how you accomplish this, however, there absolutely cannot be more than two taps between your Today Screen and a phone call; and you should not need a third party application to get there.
Close Button: Second only to Pocket Internet Explorer, the lack of a true close button is probably the largest source of consternation among Windows Mobile users. It is one of the most counter-intuitive features of the operating system.
Let’s face it. Most Windows Mobile users are also Windows users. In Windows, the "X" in the corner has meant close the application for over twenty years, ever since Windows 3.0 was introduced (and maybe longer). This is among the most ingrained controls on my desktop. So, of course, when we see an "X" in the upper right corner of the screen in Windows Mobile, we expect it to behave the same way. Close the application. Right? Wrong.
I must have heard this story a million times, and I still do not understand it. It all relates to memory management, and here is the "official explanation from the Windows Mobile Team Blog:
One thing we did has been pretty contentious. Along the way, we got feedback that users didn’t mind letting us manage the memory for them, but they really wanted a way to say, “I’m done with this. Make it go away.” So we put a “go away” button in the upper right corner of PocketPCs. This button just sends the application to the background. It doesn’t close it. If the system needs more memory while the app is in the background, it’ll close the app. But, if the system doesn’t need more memory, the app will stay in RAM and be ready to come back quickly the next time the user needs it.
Now, in a move that some people consider brilliant and others consider unforgivably stupid, we made the “go away” look like an “X”. Brilliant because anyone who has ever used Desktop Windows will know that an “X” button in the upper right corner of the window will make the window go away. Unforgivably stupid because every one of those same people will assume an “X” button in the upper right corner of the window will make the app close. Whether you think the move is brilliant or stupid is pretty heavily tied to how much you believe that users shouldn’t have to manage their own memory.
I have to admit that I fall into the camp which considers this to be an unforgivably stupid move. This has never made an iota of sense to me or anyone else who uses Windows Mobile. So, "X" means close, but only partly, just in case I need you again later.
I have written about the fantastic InClose Mobile program, which brings a whole new level of functionality to the "X" button. Pocket Plus also features a true close button feature, and there are dozens of other programs and freeware that offer this feature. The abundance of programs addressing this seemingly small point should send a clear signal to Microsoft that, regardless of the logic behind the decision, the "X" Button does not do the job we asked it to do, and there is no good reason for this failure.
ActiveSync: Have you ever wondered why most users refer to ActiveSync and Active Stink? Anyone who has tried to really sync their device with a Windows computer knows that this feature simply does not work well. Often, it takes numerous attempts to get Activesync (or Windows Mobile Device Center) to recognize an initial pairing with your device. Even once it has been paired, it may sporadically not connect, drop the connection, or just lose the connection for no apparent reason. And this does not even address the fact that it is slow and unreliable.
Windows Mobile Device Center (shown above), which is the Vista version of ActiveSync was supposed to fix all of this. It did not. Unless you are a Windows Mobile 6 user, it is worse than ever at recognizing your device. And I cannot tell you how many people have had problems keeping their calendars and tasks connected to Outlook 2007.
The simple fact is that, regardless of whether you call it Windows Mobile Device Center, ActiveSync, or ActiveStink, the connection between your Windows Mobile device and desktop computer has been broken for years.
This is one area in which Microsoft needs to scrap everything and start over from scratch with a new program. The integration between your Windows Mobile device and desktop computer must be fast and seamless, and 100 percent reliable. Otherwise, you might as well go back to Post-It Notes and index cards in your wallet.
Editing The Registry, There Must Be A Better Way: For years, editing the registry has been something left only to the professionals. It has been shrouded in the mystery of phrases like, "Abandon all hope, ye who dare enter this forbidden realm!"
The truth is, however, that there is a lot of fantastic information and customization in the registry. Things as simple as changing a color, or turning off that annoying flashing light can only be controlled from the registry.
There are two problems here. First, Windows Mobile does not include the tools to edit the registry. In order to obtain a registry editor, you must purchase a third party application, such as the one which comes with SK Tools, or Resco File Explorer.
Even if you obtain a registry editor, take a look at the registry. Really, unless you are a professional, and I am not, this is completely meaningless gibberish. I mean, what is an Hkey anyway (don’t answer that)? But why does this have to be the case? Many programs make it easy to change certain components of the registry. SKTools, MemMaid, Tweaks2k2, all of these programs (and others) offer utilities and an easy to use, graphical interface which allows you (without even knowing it) to change the registry.
So, why can’t Windows Mobile give you this kind of control natively? Sure, there are some registry entries which are so volatile that the novice could destroy a device by changing them incorrectly. But for the most part, a lot of the registry can be used to create a vast level of customization and functionality in a Windows Mobile device. Why hide these controls? Most users crave more customization. Why not make the registry accessible to all users in an easy to use, intuitive environment.
[Image courtesy of Gizmodo]
Most of the things I have mentioned here are already possible with technology which exists and is in use today. Heck, eight of them are already available for Windows Mobile via third party applications, or are available on alternative platforms (such as the iPhone), so there is really no excuse for Microsoft not to incorporate these suggestions. In fact, the rumors we are hearing would indicate that at least some of them could be incorporated as early as Windows Mobile 7 or Windows Mobile 8, so help could be coming soon. The question is, will soon enough end up as too late as he iPhone, Android, and Symbian sun roughshod over the new and improved Windows Mobile before it ever gets released?
The most important thing, in my mind, for Microsoft to take away from this article is that the operating system and attendant software should be designed with the user in mind. In a lot of ways this never happened with Windows Mobile. Instead, it has the feel of an operating system in which the developers and designers decided which activities would be important for the user, rather than the user telling them which activities should be included. The result is an operating system which tends to fall well short of most users expectations. The good news, however, is that Windows Mobile has not strayed so far as to be completely unfixable. A few tweaks here and there, and a good shine should could have it ready to in no time. Until then, does anyone know how I can load Safari on my Sprint Mogul?