iPhone from a Windows Mobile perspective - Smartphone Round Robin

What could we possibly have to say about Apple and the iPhone that hasn't been said countless times already? Plenty. Given that Apple has spent the past year largely consolidating its power in the mobile space, and Microsoft has spent the past year making many wonder if they're going to continue in the mobile space, it's fitting that we take a look at the two here in the second week of the third annual Smartphone Round Robin.

There will be no talk of iPhone killers.

There will be no talk of the death of Windows Mobile.

OK, there may be a little. Keep reading for more.

Update: Addendum

A look at the year that was

Another year, another major software update for the iPhone. Apple has settled in to a pretty predictable (if yet unofficial) schedule: Announce the next major software upgrade in the spring, unveil it in the summer along with some sort of hardware change. The iPhone 3G got a speed boost in 2009, bringing us the iPhone 3GS, along with the 3.0 (and later 3.1) software.

While a hardware boost is always welcome, it was the addition (or creation, some would say) of cut and paste that many iPhone users had so dearly done without. (That Windows Mobile users have had cut and paste for years was largely ignored by the mainstream media.) Push notifications were welcomed by some, and panned by others because of their "modal" nature, meaning they make you stop what you're doing to deal with them.

Microsoft, on the other hand, announced Windows Mobile 6.5 at Mobile World Congress in February 2009. Months and months went by, during which we saw a number of leaked builds making the rounds, unofficially bringing us Windows Mobile 6.5 long before we even had an official release date. Finally, Microsoft launched WM6.5 -- along with a slew of new phones -- in October. Too little, too late, many say. But it was Microsoft's first attempt at an actual launch "event" for Windows Mobile. And while it didn't knock off any socks, it was better than the usual "OK, carriers, here it is, have fun. Update your phones if you want."

Suffice to say that nobody from "Best Week Ever" is going to come calling on Microsoft for a quote. But it was a big year not just in software, but in hardware. HTC updated its Touch Pro and Touch Diamond lines, and introduced the Snap. Samsung refreshed its Omnia line. And on a sad note, Palm killed off its Windows Mobile Treo line. A slow year, it was not.

The power of consolidating power

Some of the best conversations surrounding smartphones these days have to do with Apple's singular vision. It designs the phones. It keeps a tight fist on the manufacturing process. It largely controls the marketing of the devices. Even the act of selling an iPhone is controlled by Apple. Want to use the iPhone? You have to connect to iTunes at least once. Apps? Only (official) way to get them is through Apple's App Store. Everything, at least at some point, must pass through Apple. Do not pass Go, head directly to Cupertino.

Windows Mobile, on the other hand, has always gone the opposite direction. Microsoft provides the platform, but manufacturers and carriers always have been responsible for the end product. In some ways, that's fine. Look at what HTC has done over the past two and three years, and what Palm did with its now defunct Treo line. Other times, well, let's just say we're not fans of all of the UIs tacked onto Windows Mobile.

There are a number of reasons to argue for Apple's model. Certainly quality control -- for everything: design, manufacturing, marketing, support -- among the top. But for us, it's Apple's update strategy that really stands out. There are millions of iPhones out there. And there are millions of Windows Mobile phones. And when an update is released, which do you think gets the latest firmware more quickly? The iPhone, of course. Updates are pushed out through iTunes, and most normal iPhone users connect to iTunes on a fairly regularly basis. It's the hub for the whole iPhone experience. When an update is available, you're told so. And it's just a few clicks to install. The toughest part is waiting for the new software to download.

On the Windows Mobile side? First is the trouble up updating. Anyone who had a Samsung Blackjack knows just how unfun (and downright scary) Sammy's firmware upgrade process is. HTC's is pretty straightforward: Plug in your phone and run a file. But it's still full of screens that intimidate the casual user. That's Hurdle No. 1.

Hurdle No. 2: There's no one place Windows phones go to congregate (for lack of a better term). The closest thing we have to iTunes connectivity is Microsoft Exchange, which for the most part drives e-mail for large businesses. And while a large number of Windows phones are used by "business people," Exchange doesn't cover the entire spectrum. So, that's not necessarily the way we'd like to see updates pushed out.

Hurdle No. 3: Updates are large. Currently the iPhone and Windows Mobile do things the same way: You basically download the entire OS and reload the thing. It's much, much cleaner on the iPhone side. You update your phone, and it reloads your contacts, apps and settings -- all of your important data -- back to its previous state. When you update the ROM on a Windows phone, you start from zero. That's not a huge deal for ROM flashers, but remember that most normal people might upgrade a ROM once in their phone's lifetime.

The design obsession

When you talk about the iPhone -- and Apple in general -- the word "experience" eventually comes up. And that's what Apple really is selling. By now, every self-respecting Apple fanboy has watched the "Objectified" documentary. And even those of us who don't drink the Kool-Aid can appreciate exactly what's being done in Cupertino, Calif. You're not just buying an iPhone. You're buying into the entire Apple ecosystem and Apple's carefully constructed user experience.

The iPhone is a beautiful piece of hardware. (That's senior VP of design Jonathan Ive at right.) There's no denying that. It's sleek, it's simple, and it proved that you can have a phone without a physical keyboard. The iPhone will turn three years old in 2010, and for the most part its design hasn't changed. It's still that obelisk with a single button on its face. You could say it's getting boring. Or you could say it stands up over time. You say tomato ...

Microsoft doesn't do hardware, at least in the mobile space ... yet. We've seen what has been done with the Xbox 360 and more recently with the Zune HD. So can Microsoft do hardware? Absolutely. Certainly we don't know the intricacies of designing and building your own cell phone. But if Microsoft can do it in the entertainment space, why not the mobile space?

And speaking of unchanging design, there's the iPhone's user interface. I don't even like calling it that, though. It's a launcher. Its internal name is "Springboard." The iPhone launches apps, plays music and videos and makes phone calls. Plain and simple.

Windows phones, on the other hand, are more about bringing information to your eyeballs. Whether you're using Windows Mobile 6.5's stock today screen (called Titanium) or HTC's TouchFLO 3D or Sense UIs, or Samsung's TouchWIZ, you're presented with information. What time is it? What's the weather like? What appointments do I have coming up? Do I have any e-mails? Any text messages? Any missed calls? Ultimately more useful, and much more pleasing on the eye than a grid of icons. For a phone that's all about design and experience, the iPhone's UI is sparse, cold and boring.

And Apple's user experience also has as much to do with a lack of hardware buttons as it does software continuity. One of Windows Mobile's greatest strengths is its availability on multiple platforms. But that breaks the experience. And even within single devices, the experience can be broken. Take the HTC Touch Pro 2, for example. It has a "back" hardware button. On some applications, pushing the button takes you back a level within the app. In other apps, it exits the application. (Well, there was a "back" soft key. But still. WTF?) That's just not good user experience. And it really is just the tip of the iceberg.

Apps, apps and more apps

Oh, but what is a phone without applications? And the iPhone invented applications, right? Not so much. Sure, Apple loves to boast about how many apps are in the App Store. But we've debunked that as marketing B.S. already. Windows Mobile has had tens of thousands of applications available for years. Nothing new there. Problems is they've been spread out to hell and back. While repositories have existed in the likes of Handango and Mobihand (which runs our own WMExperts Software Store), there weren't any on-device homes for purchasing and loading applications. That's changed with Windows Mobile 6.5 and the Windows Marketplace for Mobile. While it's functional, it's not nearly as sexy as Apple's App Store. (Hell, even the Windows Marketplace for Mobile name is clunky.)

No, what the App Store did was to bring the idea of applications to the consumer space, and made them easy to find (though not necessarily to sort through), purchase and download. Apps are a necessity. Not that they weren't before. Windows Mobile had 'em. Palm OS had 'em. Symbian's had 'em. BlackBerry's had 'em. Sure, your phone's nice, but what apps does it have? Is the iPhone so successful because of the App Store? Or is the App Store so successful because of the iPhone? It's a fun discussion, but moot at this point.

What isn't moot is the overall quality of apps. Sure, there are crap apps on the iPhone, just as there are for Windows Mobile and any other platform. But where the iPhone has really shined is with its continuity of the design of apps, especially the basic ones. While developers are free to make their apps look however they please, it's the basic apps that often stand out. Using Apple's Cocoa Touch framework, selection menus are presented in a consistent manner. They're easy on the eyes (and the fingers). You know what buttons are going to do, because they do the same things throughout applications.

The one longstanding Achilles' heel? That sheer number of apps. The market's flooded, and the process of getting into the App Store is fraught with secrecy and frustration. Some apps are rejected for what appears to be no reason whatsoever. Others are accepted without question, then later pulled when cooler heads decided that maybe a baby-shaking app was in poor taste.

What's in store for 2010

We don't believe in iPhone killers. That's a phrase that was coined by writers who couldn't think of any other arguments to make. No, we're not looking for Windows Mobile 7, if and when it's announced and later released, to "kill" anything, save for maybe the bad taste that Windows Mobile 6.5 left in a lot of mouths. But even that isn't entirely fair. Microsoft announced Windows Mobile 6.5 and for the most part delivered exactly what it promised. No more, no less. A stopgap to hold things over until WM7.

Will that be the long-desired Zune phone? Will it be a more compelling version of Windows Mobile as we know it? That's hard to say at this point. We just don't know.

And Apple's even harder to figure out. The general consensus is that a major iPhone hardware revision is coming in the summer of 2010. High-definition? Some sort of super processor? A keyboard? (Gasp!) Who knows ... And throw the mythical iTablet/iSlate/iWhatEverIt'sCalled into the mix, and the rumor mill will continue to run rampant for some time now. We wouldn't bet the farm against a fairly major UI overhaul, either.

But, no. Nobody will be "killing" the iPhone anytime soon. And, contrary to popular belief, another platform won't be "killing" Windows Mobile anytime soon. Only thing that could "kill" Windows Mobile is Microsoft, by pulling the plug. Our guess is that Windows Mobile 7 will look to make the leap from the enterprise space (businesses) to more of a consumer space. And if it leverages the quality of the Zune HD with the popularity of the Xbox 360, it could well find itself with a hit on its hands.

Addendum: Jailbreaking and cooked ROMs

We haven't mentioned jailbreaking on the iPhone or ROM cooking on some Windows Mobile devices. That's partially to save your eyeballs (thanks for reading as much as you did), and partially because those are unofficial, unsupported and legally ambiguous methods of using your phone. That said, they are also very important parts of both communities. But chances are if you're reading this in the first place, you're fully aware that you can jailbreak your iPhone, and that many Windows phones (though mostly HTC devices) can have custom ROMs loaded onto them. Have at it. Have fun. And don't say we didn't warn you.

Phil is the father of two beautiful girls and is the Dad behind Modern Dad. Before that he spent seven years at the helm of Android Central. Before that he spent a decade in a newsroom of a two-time Pulitzer Prize-finalist newspaper. Before that — well, we don't talk much about those days. Subscribe to the Modern Dad newsletter!

28 Comments
  • Nicely done and balanced review of the state of things in Mobile-land as of Dec 2009.. Good job keeping prejudices at bay on this dicey subject guys..
  • Great job Phil! I completely agree that the only thing that will kill off Windows Mobile is Microsoft and from the sound of it I think they are thankfully in for the long haul. There is room for lots of players in the mobile industry and Windows Mobile is as valid and competitive a product as any other at this point. I like the iPhone for its speed and responsiveness, but prefer Windows Mobile for its flexibility and customizability.
  • Thanks Phil. I need it that. What a refreshing article.
    - I'm a WinMo guy exactly for the points you mention and as well I am not an iPhone guy for the reason mention. My opinion hasn't change because your article but put logic to my preferences.
    -
    Thanks.
    .
  • "kill" is a hard word, but i think if WM7 does not radically change thing, WM will start slipping into irrelevance.
  • ...and 'irrelevance' is also a strong word. WM long ago lost out on all chance of becoming any sort of standard. Even so, there's plenty of market share left over for fringe-OS devices; they'll stay afloat, however their mindshare perception will always be repellent to the consumer market in general.
  • I think we should avoid talking about Windows Mobile 7. We have not seen it, heard about its UI. Much of what we talk about is just wishful thinking.
  • I agree with Mxx and Matthew. If anybody is using their brain at Microsoft, that can be the reason why wm7 is delayed so much. Otherwise, "it's been fun. Let me try Android for a change." I'm already reviewing android hardware that can replace my Touch Pro2. So far, the Droid looks like it, but on the wrong carrier. But it's sad that Ms is so good at reacting rather than breaking new ground. They always need someone else to show them the way. First it was Palm, now it's the old nemesis Apple. Let's cross our fingers, but I, for one, am not very optimistic for WM.
  • Check out the stickies on the TP2 forum on PPCGeeks.com. My guess is there will be a flashable Android 2.0.1 rom for the TP2 before summer. They are right on the verge of enabling wifi.
  • well according to a guy at the Ft Smith corporate store in my city says that AT is looking to get the GSM equivalent of the droid early next year.
  • This was quite simply a superb article. I used to be a rabid WinMo fanboy who trashed anyone spouting the awesomeness of an iphone but now after researching and testing different phones came to a calming conclusion..different strokes for different folks. The iphone being described as a "launcher" is spot on. I have since deemed the iphone as the "smartphone for dummies". It is simple, hard to mess up and intended for people who don't care to be different they just want something that works the way it is supposed to. WinMo has customization on its side. I love that I can turn my phone on to see the weather, time, agenda for the day and any text, voicemails, emails and missed calls without every leaving the home screen. Sure my wife's iphone has these things at only a touch away but they aren't all combined she has to launch them seperately, one at a time to get the info I get without pushing any buttons. Still Apple has found a market and formula that appeals to a certain segment and more power to them. I love the fact that there are countless different phones for countless different phone users looking for different experiences. Let the good times continue to roll for both Apple and WinMo.
  • Since you were discussing discriminators between the two camps, you really should've pointed out that Apple only permits the iPhone on ONE CARRIER in the US whereas Windows Mobile is available on MULTIPLE phones on ALL carriers in the US (and worldwide). This is a HUGE discriminator that favors Windows Mobile because in the US you only have one Apple phone on only one carrier and that's not a choice, that's an edict!
  • Good article, I am enjoying this round robin more than last year.
  • where the video presentation. u expect us 2 read. :}
  • @ murani The iPhone addresses not only to "dummies" ....
    I have 11 years of WinMo experience-started with WinCE, then Pocket PC 2003, WinMo 5, 6, 6.1....
    This year I had enaough of waiting for Microsoft to fix the sluginess and bugs in WinMo
    So I jumped ship first to Android and then to iPhone.
    And I haven't looked back ....
    Please take into account I'm not your usual "dumm user"
    I have 2 degrees in Economics and IT and I came to appreciate Apple business model and aim: to offer the "user experience"
    Why waste time doing Microsoft job, when Apple did it for you?
    Again this comes from a guy who saw both sides of the coin and has chosen one...
  • great article. on point and balanced. a few other areas where the iphone does well compared to winmo.: - touch interface - this was 50% of the wow factor and apple executed flawlessly - branding - apple has established its brand from the ipod and the iphone to their laptops and pcs. iphone sales are converting people to apple pcs. windows' brand is actually being defined also, but by its competition. anyone under age 40 probably thinks of windows as your dad's os - like a buick, not a bmw. - education - i mean education of the consumer about what can be done with an iphone. before buying an iphone, users have a good idea of what the experience will be like. winmo phones are a mystery - no one know what they can do before trying one - that's already fighting an uphill battle.
  • this article is much more intelligent than the usual blogosphere fluff. there is a consulting report by a company which studies mobile comm., which was noted in cnet, and which is available for free. if you obtain and read the report, you will find that the economics of the app store, and the iphone, are not what they are cracked up to be. very insightful report, using independently researched numbers. http://news.cnet.com/8301-17852_3-10414356-71.html?tag=mncol i am not trying to promote cnet, by the way. peter
  • IF I WANTED STUFF ABOUT THE IPHONE I'D OF SUBSCRIBED TO A IPHONE RSS FEED. Gosh. Today is the day i delete WMExperts from my feeds because you come out with such unrelated articles - obviously its gunna be from a WM perspective because this IS WM EXPERTS >.
  • great analysis...especially the part about the apps on the windows mobile experience. I am a long time windows mobile enthusiast (since i work for a technology company). Having used both blackberries as well as WM devices since early releases (remember the rim 950 or the original iPaq with the wireless expansion pack?), the one thing i always spent a lot of time on was hunting for ways to add programs (that is what they were called before they were called apps) to my BB & WM devices to make the device more useful for my life. From programs for stock quotes, weather, maps (yes, you used to have to add these programs onto your phone - and you usually had to purchase the good ones from Handango for $20 and up.) To play videos you would have to "rip" your video into a format that wm player could read, then transfer the file over. finding music was not even worth it. searching the web for these programs was time-consuming.....deciding if the software programmer was reputable, if the software would do what you wanted, make sure it worked on your model (smartphone vs pocket pc versions), etc. then 6 months ago they gave me an iPhone 3G at work. geez...how easy. anytime i need a program (or an app) i click on ONE button, and search the app store. way too easy. then when you install it, it works. with full color graphics, touch screen controls, simple UI, etc. and many of the free apps are great quality apps. then i took the kids on vacation at the end of the summer. i noticed i could find disney and pbs videos in the ITUNES store on my iPhone. so, as we drove to the beach, i found a walmart and walked in and bought a standard ipod to rca cable for $30. then hooked it into the rca jacks in the van - and downloaded an episode of dinosaur train for 99 cents or 1.99. WOW! they had dinosaur train as we were driving down the highway! then mickey mouse clubhouse (downloaded over wifi)! Then i found out i could find podcasts and download them immediately! i was streaming a "Mad Money" podcast while driving down the highway between atlanta and savannah on 2G - i did not even have to download it - it streamed automatically without any hiccups! i was able to search for other podcasts, listen to them immediately and even subscribe to them. how fun! Then I bought my wife 2 cd's she had been wanting to buy - right through iTunes - it starting downloading immediately to my iPhone while we drove and we played it in the van minutes later. and i haven't even figured out all of itunes university yet....i'm looking forward to taking classes on my iPhone. my life is forever changed just because of this ease of use - no more searching for hours for programs to do the same thing. i just hit the app store or itunes any time i need something and SHAZAM it is there! I just gave up my backup samsung jack (my favorite wm device of all time) since i have not used it for four months now. I even gave up my blackberry curve. I no longer have any backup devices in my laptop bag when i travel - it's just my iPhone and my laptop. (no - my laptop is not an apple, it's a dell with windows xp using AT&T for mobile broadband) i am now an iPhone enthusiast - still looking forward to WM7 and any new updates for WM and BB OS's, but now it is not so critical as it once was.
  • Its part of a smartphone multiplatform experience so leave if you want but for many os it good to keep up with all the various platforms You never know whwn their might be some spark from another platform that could help another platform experience be changed for the beter.
  • @Alex - if you actually read the RSS feed you'd know about the round robin...
  • it would be amazing if Keith's story would be read aloud to the msft winmo exec. mgmt. team.
  • Yes, Windows Mobile had copy and paste before the iPhone, but can Windows Mobile copy and paste images as well as text? Simultaneously? Can it retain HTML formatting from the web while doing so? The iPhone was late to the copy and paste game, but it can do all of those. I did like this review, though. It was very objective and an interesting look into the future of both platforms.
  • @Andrew WinMo supports arbitrary clipboard data.
  • on my winmo standard phone how do i cut and paste anything into the text entry space like the form i'm filling in now from my phone to make this posting? oh right - i can't.
  • Phil said: "Windows Mobile has had tens of thousands of applications available for years." I've had enormous trouble using the legacy business apps on the HTC HD2. This is the real problem here. Those apps are designed for stylus use. Many are unusable on the capacitive screen. If you just want to flounge around in the Sense interface, well the HD2 is just fine. But using the HD2 for legacy business apps, you can just forget it. Save your money and buy a legacy phone with resistive screen.
  • "Our guess is that Windows Mobile 7 will look to make the leap from the enterprise space (businesses) to more of a consumer space." This is what I have been waiting for since I retired my Apple 2 to replace it with a PC (thanks to the expensive Macintosh). Asking, 'Why can't they make a computer as easy to operate as a TV?' So today, why is there a business OS and a "consumer" OS? After all, we don't need to see the naked code to know that we are pushing data around! It took iPhone to show the competition that we don't want to have to get IT degrees to use our PDAs/smartphones. Thanks HTC, Samsung and others for covering the nakedness of WM. Now Microsoft, how about making a WM OS that we can install programs without seeing Explorer, without having to go to 'Start', 'Settings', for every .... (excuse me, I am still in WM 2003). Yes, in my WM cave, I need the apps that I have, but I want to see before I die, my Pocket PC turn on and give me access to my information in a logical 'consumer' simple interface. Thanks Apple for explaining that!
  • Great balance but for us who tweak our phones, WinMo is KING!!
  • "...i'm looking forward to taking classes on my iPhone." Good luck with that. It's one of the many reasons why the iPhone is nothing but a Gameboy. I prefer typing notes with a folding Bluetooth keyboard that fits in a coat pocket. I can type all day at 80 wpm with this and don't need to carry and worry about my full size laptop. The Bluetooth stack is crippled on the iPhone to prevent you from using a wireless keyboard. Apple wants you to buy their expensive laptops and carry them around all day with their power supplies, etc. Life is too short for that.