What's Wrong With Windows Mobile and How WM7 and WM8 Are Going to Fix It

Click to viewWe just got the scoop from Microsoft on Windows Mobile 7 and Windows Mobile 8, the two upcoming platforms that will fix what is undeniably broken about the Windows Mobile platform to date.

This was originally going to be a piece about how Microsoft had no idea what the consumer wanted, where I would explain what I thought Microsoft needed to do to fix it. Oh, I still discuss the flaws, but while talking to the Windows Mobile team, I learned about the next two versions of the mobile OS. Turns out, Microsoft knows exactly what's wrong with the WM platform, and it knows what to do to fix it. Trust me: there's hope on the horizon.

What's Wrong With Windows Mobile and How WM7 and WM8 Are Going to Fix It

What's Wrong With Windows Mobile and How WM7 and WM8 Are Going to Fix It

Before I get to the big Windows Mobile fix, it's important to see where it is now. Take a look above at the Windows Mobile Professional (the touchscreen version) and Windows Mobile Standard (the non-touchscreen, usually slimmer version). Got a good look?

The number one biggest problem with Windows Mobile is its UI.

I have no problems with Windows itself, and I work on a Vista PC (along with a Leopard Mac) every single day. WM's problem is that it isn't Windows. Here are a few of the unnecessarily complicated attributes that Windows Mobile doesn't share with desktop Windows:

It's very hard to multitask. Multitasking is there, and you can run multiple programs at the same time, but everything is "full screen" and there's no easy way to switch between apps. There's no task bar to see what apps are open, and there's no indicator to the user that anything else is open. You actually have to dig into the Start menu, then Settings, then the System tab, then Memory, then the Running Programs tab just to see what's going on! Microsoft fixed this by inserting a dropdown task manager in more recent builds of Windows Mobile 6, but you still can't jump from app to app with ease. Which leads us to...

Closing a program doesn't really close it. You'd think that pressing the "X" button on an app closes it, but all it does is minimize it. You have to dive into the menus to terminate a program or, on a newer build, go back to the Home/Today screen and close via the top-right icon. Not exactly what we call convenient.

Different builds work differently. We can see why there are two major versions of Windows Mobile for phones—Professional and Smartphone—since different form factors require different UI philosophies for input. But when you compare the Tablet PC version of Windows with the standard desktop version, there isn't that huge of a difference. If you know how to use one, you should know how to use the other. Not quite so when you switch from the stylus input of Windows Mobile Pro to the D-Pad of Windows Mobile Smartphone. This isn't noticed by the masses, since most people only use one Windows Mobile device, but it is a telling concern. Plus, getting around with that D-Pad sucks.

Beyond OS structural design, the day-to-day usage of Windows Mobile isn't what you'd call "friendly," either. In fact, it'd probably punch you in the face if you even made eye contact. Take dialing, for instance. How can the main purpose of a phone—calling someone—be so hard to do?

What's Wrong With Windows Mobile and How WM7 and WM8 Are Going to Fix It

If you're using a Windows Mobile Professional device, you have a few options, none of which are good:

• You can pull out the stylus to tap in the digits. This requires two hands.

• You can try and use your fingertip to call, which doesn't normally work, so you'll use your fingernail, which does work but, as it results in many misdialed numbers, takes forever.

• You can slide out the keyboard and find the dialpad buried among the QWERTY keys and dial, which requires two hands and intense concentration.

• You can try and bring up the contact list, which takes a long-ass time to scroll through, or you can slide out the keyboard again and search by name. Again, two hands.

• Voice Command has been an option for years, but then again, it kinda works, but it doesn't work well.

• Probably the best way to go is to program your most important numbers into speed dial, as you'll be able to actually talk to the correct person within, say, three button presses.

Compare that to the iPhone, which has just a touchscreen, but gets you to the keypad, your favorites, recent calls or your contact list, all within two key presses of the home screen. Dialing shouldn't be this hard, and the fact that it is just illustrates how bad the rest of the UI is.

What's Wrong With Windows Mobile and How WM7 and WM8 Are Going to Fix It

What's Wrong With Windows Mobile and How WM7 and WM8 Are Going to Fix It

What's Wrong With Windows Mobile and How WM7 and WM8 Are Going to Fix It

What's Wrong With Windows Mobile and How WM7 and WM8 Are Going to Fix It

These additional visuals should illustrate the fact that Windows Mobile isn't a platform designed for the general public. Even for technically knowledgeable users, there's a gigantic learning curve when picking one up for the first time. Imagine giving one to your parents. Then imagine all the calls you'll get—from their home phone, no less, because they couldn't figure out how to use their new Windows Mobile.

WM's core suite of apps include IE, the SMS client, the email client and Windows Media player; all are sub-par compared other smartphones. There's a reason why the iPhone's browser marketshare is already 0.09% when the entire Windows CE family (which includes Windows Mobile, among other things) is only at 0.06%. Why? It's because nobody wants to go online with that version of IE. They'd rather wait until they get a real computer rather than trudge through WAP decks, insufficiently optimized versions of web pages and hard to use interfaces.

If you're an advanced user, you'll eventually be able to learn how to bypass or augment certain parts of the phone with third-party applications. Going back to the dialer example, the default dialpad has buttons that are way too small to be usable. This isn't unfixable: You simply have to download a new dialer skin, transfer it onto the internal storage or memory card, shove it in the right directory, overwrite some files and restart the phone! What the crap? If you want a nice, full-sized picture of your contact to show up when that person calls you, you'll have to pay $19.99 for another add-on app. If you want to enable certain features, you actually have to go into the registry and manually make changes. Provided, that is, you go out and find a registry editor.

But enough about the software, what about the hardware? Isn't Windows Mobile really slow because it's insufficiently powered? Yes and no. Yes, because there are certain phones like the T-Mobile HTC Wing and the AT&T Tilt that feel like watching old people practicing Tai Chi. Then there's the Sprint HTC Mogul that's fast as lightning and feels more like watching Jet Li destroy a school full of martial arts students. I blame many manufacturers for not juicing up the hardware enough, and I blame carriers for overburdening these phones with too much junk that people aren't asking for, like the AT&T music store or Sprint video shop. (It's a lot like all of that promotional junk that comes pre-loaded on a new computer.) When one phone pisses the pot with lackluster performance, the entire platform gets a bad name.

The matter of fact is, Windows Mobile can do just about anything you'd want it to do. It can edit Office documents, send and receive Exchange email, browse the web, chat on IM, give you turn-by-turn GPS directions, play music, watch videos and so much more. The features are there, but the experience isn't. Turns out, the Windows Mobile team knows it.

Microsoft is working to fix the whole WM platform. Here's how:

Even when using a super sluggish WinMo phone, it's less an example of a manufacturer not meeting the minimum requirements for RAM, ROM and CPU power, and more a problem of software which has not been optimized to run on it. This is often the service provider's fault. For example, two phones with the same 400MHz processor can be totally different depending on how much optimization the provider decides to do. When you're using a slow phone, blame the provider.

On the same token, the Windows Mobile OS team actually does set a minimum hardware requirement for the "core" features of the OS to make sure the user experience is a good one, but the minimum-requirement bar may be set too low. When companies add apps on top of the core, things start to wobble. Product manager Derek Snyder told me that Microsoft will raise the bar for minimum requirements to a level where phones can be loaded with more software without slowing down the most basic of tasks (e.g. sliding open the AT&T Tilt from portrait to landscape mode).

That's not to say Microsoft isn't dodging the problematic UI and the other software shortcomings. Derek admits that, up until now, the team has focused too much on the enterprise side, attracting IT customers with vertically useful features like Exchange support, not on ease of use. Starting from here on out, they're going to be more consumer oriented. "The business stuff has been taken care of," he says.

What's Wrong With Windows Mobile and How WM7 and WM8 Are Going to Fix It

This focus can be clearly seen when you look above at the leaked Windows Mobile 6.1 details we showed you last week. There's an much more streamlined home screen that puts only a few things in your face at once. There's a caller-ID box that lets you easily see who's calling. There's threaded SMS. There's a recent programs list in the Start menu. They are great updates, but they are tweaks, not huge fixes, baby steps toward a goal that may not ultimately be reached until one or two major revisions down the line (read: Windows Mobile 7 or 8).

It is the next version of Windows Mobile that looks promising. First, Microsoft will retool the main suite of applications such as IE, email and SMS. According to them, they will try to bring IE up to par with the iPhone's Safari browser, and deliver "desktop grade" browsing with zooming and scaling and all that good stuff. Then there's the improved music and photo experience, taking what they can from other smartphone designs like Palm, iPhone or Symbian, and integrating it into their own apps. There's talk about doing some sort of collaboration with the Zune team, but that's still up in the air.

I'm holding out for the next, next version of Windows Mobile (WM8). That's the one that will be started completely from scratch, with "new plumbing." This is the version you've been waiting for, implementing a completely redesigned user interface, "revolutionary" features like global search, and new concepts such as automation and connections within the phone, ideas borrowed from other smartphone operating systems. This means that you'll be able to go from viewing a person's address info in his contact card to seeing where he lives in map view in one click. There will be much more of this intuitive flow, and far less digging through menus.

Derek sums it up like this: right now the Windows Mobile user experience is lacking. The features are there, but actually using these features is another story. Normal people can't figure it out. He says it's like using a Creative Zen vs. using an iPod or a Zune. You actually want to use a device that does the work for you, instead of making you do all the work. It took guts for Microsoft to admit what its mobile OS was lacking; we're going to do our part and accept their word that a more robust platform followed eventually by a more headache-free interface is where Windows Mobile really is headed.

Windows Mobile 6.1 pictures courtesy Boy Genius Report; Dialer screen courtesy ZDNet; WM Standard courtesy Into Mobile