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Windows Mobile Discussion During iPhone Developer Summit

A Shrunken, Crippled Version of Windows

During the Q&A period after one of my sessions at the iPhone Developer Summit last Thursday, there was someone there from Microsoft Competetive Intelligence. She asked myself and some other folks who were lingering nearby to describe, in our unbiased opinions, what we thought was wrong with Windows Mobile.

Talk about a can of worms. My unbiased opinion is actually pretty close to my biased opinion. I've written Compact Framework applications for Windows Mobile and Pocket PC 2003 and have written Embedded VB and Embedded C++ apps for Windows CE, and I've even written applications for Palm OS ($%#@!#@! endian conversions can bite me!). The Compact Framework makes developing for Windows-based mobile devices brainless, easy, and extremely productive. That said, Windows Mobile is fugly.

My response to her was that Windows Mobile is a crippled, shrunken version of Windows. By this I mean that when you are using Windows Mobile, you do not ever, at any point, feel as though you are in the middle of a user experience designed for mobile users and mobile devices. In fact, what you really feel like is that you are mired knee-deep in a bastardized Windows desktop experience that has been hacked, slashed, cut, and mangled until it is nothing more than a limbless victim bleeding out on the mobile device battlefield. Granted, even cut and slashed as it is, its an extremely powerful OS rich with capability. But that's the problem: it has capability, but it has a terrible experience.

Why does a mobile device need a Start menu and/or button? Basically what you are left with is the feeling that someone thought (quite erroneously) that since all mobile device users are at some point Windows desktop users and said users are stupid and incapable of adaptation that Windows Mobile must look and feel as much like what those users are familiar with on the desktop as possible. This is stupid and this is why no one actually wants to use Windows Mobile! Think about it, when was the last time you, as a windows mobile device owner, actually felt pleasure while using your WM device? When was the last time you said "Awesome, I'll just whip out my WM device and we'll check that (insert query) online!" Probably never. In fact, the conversation usually goes something like this:

Buddy: Hey, when is (movie) playing?
You: Hellifiknow.
Buddy: So get off your ass and check it online.
You: Dammit. No laptop nearby.
Buddy: Don't you have net access on your phone?
You: Yeah, but its Windows Mobile.
Buddy: f**k. Well, I'm gonna go get a coffee while you check.
You: Dammit. You check.
Buddy: You check.
... and so on
20 minutes later someone has suffered through IE on the mobile device or, if they're lucky, they have a movie time application that they use that they also suffered through (only less so than with IE)

What's the moral of the story? Windows Mobile devices are a means of last resort. A last ditch effort. A necessary evil. People use them because they have access to corporate e-mail, some of them play music, and they have access to a plethora of ugly-ass applications with a few gems hidden in the endless sea of available shareware/freeware apps. When a WM owner needs to check something online using a browser, it involves cringing, sighing, or just giving up.

Developers writing WM applications need to exert tremendous influence and effort on the lowest level functionality to avoid and escape the terrible experience and provide something that users actually enjoy using. Windows Mobile was not designed from the ground up to be a mobile experience. Using WM feels kludgy, slow, unproductive, and alien. If you are going to build a mobiel device that people enjoy and people want to use, then the first step is to actually design an experience that fits the mobile form factor and the mobile digital lifestyle. Anything less is a hack. The only reason why WM has so much proliferation is because it is the defacto standard for corporate mobile devices. It is like the phone company of the days of old. Service sucked, support sucked, prices sucked, but people used it because they had to. Once people had other options (VoIP, voice-over-cable, cheap cellular, low-cost competitors) they took them and they took them in droves.

What will happen to Windows Mobile once people have an alternative that is both pleasant to use and works with both their corporate and personal lives? Adapt or die. At some point Microsoft must rearchitect Windows Mobile from the ground up to be a compelling mobile user experience.

- Anyway, this has been a verbose description of my own two cents. Your mileage may vary :)

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More Stories By Kevin Hoffman

Kevin Hoffman, editor-in-chief of SYS-CON's iPhone Developer's Journal, has been programming since he was 10 and has written everything from DOS shareware to n-tier, enterprise web applications in VB, C++, Delphi, and C. Hoffman is coauthor of Professional .NET Framework (Wrox Press) and co-author with Robert Foster of Microsoft SharePoint 2007 Development Unleashed. He authors The .NET Addict's Blog at .NET Developer's Journal.

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Most Recent Comments
Adam Lein 03/26/08 10:00:36 AM EDT

First of all, it sounds like you're talking about Windows Mobile Professional, not Standard.
The Start menu is just like having a Home button that brings you to a list of applications. How do you expect to access other applications without an easily understandable method of doing so?
Having the feel resemble the desktop version of Windows is actually very smart. This lets users bring what they already know about interacting with computers to the mobile device thus decreasing the learning curve and increasing the sense of intuitiveness.

In reality many users do want to use Windows Mobile. 20 Million this year was it? If you've ever used the Live Search program for Windows Mobile, you'll see how ridiculously easy it is to find and purchase movie tickets. It even has voice recognition for search queries!! Myself and other Windows-Mobile-using friends do this all the time. Heck, it's easier than opening a web browser on a desktop computer and searching for movies that way! I often use the Windows Mobile Live Search program to do those kinds of things even if I'm sitting in front of a desktop. It's just so much easier.

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