Smartphone Round Robin: Triumphant Return to Windows Mobile!

And so The Smartphone Round Robin ends: I’m back on a Windows Mobile device (a Motorola Q9h, if you’re interested) and I’m happy to be here. Ecstatic, even. There are lots of reasons I love Windows Mobile and why it’s a great fit for me. One of those reasons is pictured above. You can choose pretty much any form-factor to fit your lifestyle and have a powerful Smartphone OS in it. This is no small accomplishment - in fact I think it's probably more amazing that Windows Mobile supports such a wide array of phones than the fact that Windows itself will run on a wide array of PCs.

Comments on this article through Midnight Pacific Time on Sunday, December 9th qualify for the Round Robin Contest. Find out why I'm happy to be back and why Windows Mobile is my drug of choice after the break!

Power and Choice

We often forget this stuff, but think about the following, because it needs to be said:

Windows Mobile will work on a wide... a crazy-wide selection of different form factors, from the ruggedized to the razor-thin. It runs on cheap phones and feature-packed phones alike; touchscreen and non-touchscreen; QWERTY keyboard, 10-key, 20-key, no-key; screen resolutions of 240x320, 240x240, 320x320, 320x480, heck, 800x600; it communicates on Edge, UMTS, HSDPA, EVDO, EVDO Rev A, GPS, WiFi, and Bluetooth (including A2DP).

It's available on every major wireless carrier, basically worldwide. It is available in many languages in a dizzying number of countries. It has a fairly consistent UI across the entire variety of devices just listed, had it for several years, and maintained a healthy level of backwards compatibility. It's able to do pretty much anything any other smartphone can do, and more, on nearly all of the form-factors and networks listed above. It does push email out-of-the-box with Exchange and can do the same with any other email setup with some 3rd party software.

Its selection of 3rd party applications is second only to PalmOS (and possibly Symbian), but many of these apps are shockingly powerful and just as many are mission-critical to major corporations and soccer moms alike. The number and variety of these apps is on the rise.

It has a vibrant community of 3rd party application developers. Coding can even be done with .net (familiar to many Windows developers), which provides an amazing set of APIs to build complex applications with rich UIs -- with relative ease.

Enterprise security and support is second only to BlackBerry (and many would say second to none), yet remains approachable to many average joe consumers.

It plays pictures, music, podcasts, FM Radio (on some devices), and video ...and records pictures, audio, and video too.

Please let the preceding paragraphs sink in for a minute. Read them again, maybe. It's shocking, if you think about it, how ambitious Windows Mobile is and how successfully it's managed to achieve its goals. Windows Mobile shoots the moon and very nearly hits it. It is the All-Singing, All-Dancing Smartphone OS. It pwns.

So I like Windows Mobile because I'm clearly a gadget hound and Windows Mobile has the largest number of different gadgets and the highest churn-rate of new gadgets coming out. I can ogle (or buy) any number of them and compare features, experiences, usability, etc ...all without having to learn an entirely new platform or buy new software.

I recognize, though, that I love me the clicky toys more than is healthy and way more than is normal. So the other side of this coin is that although the average consumer won't be surveying the entire Windows Mobile field all the time, when it comes time for them to choose a phone they do have a wide variety of form factors and carriers to choose from.

Addendum on the AT&T Tilt

The smartphone we chose for the Round Robin was the AT&T Tilt and I'll admit it didn't fare especially well. It's amongst the most powerful of Windows Mobile Smartphones, but it has a relatively lackluster out-of-box experience. It requires more tweaking than your average WM phone to get it to a spot where I'd be comfortable saying it's easy to use. Since the Round Robin only lasted about one week per device, that “out of box” experience was damn-near the entire experience.

I'll discuss the Tilt and how and why I chose it in the final article; but I want to give a shout out to Jennifer, Mike, and Kevin for looking past some of that complication to give Windows Mobile a fair shake. Thanks, guys!

Next year when we do the Smartphone Round Robin again, I'll be leveraging that vast array of form factors to pick a WM smartphone that's more friendly to a single hand (or at least remind everybody of Hobbes' article on how to do that!)

Hackery and Tweakery

Gerardo Dada recently made the argument that the term “open” might be applied to Windows Mobile. I don't know that I can go that far, but I will say that Windows Mobile is probably about as close to being “open” as you can get without being literally “open source.”

If you want to hack something on Windows Mobile, there's a very high chance that there is a way to do it, and there's also a very high chance you'll find somebody has already done it before you and can show you how.

Windows Mobile uses a registry, much like Windows on the Desktop. And just like Windows on the desktop, it's a potential liability in terms of software developers misusing it as a way to squirrel away nefarious settings. That hasn't quite happened yet on Windows Mobile (or at least it hasn't happened nearly as extensively as it has on the desktop), but it's a liability. I write this preface because I want to make clear that I'm generally dubious about the Registry. Give me discrete .plist text files any day of the week. (Image Credit)

Despite all that, the Windows Mobile registry has won me over. It allows for a level of customization you wouldn't believe and I often still don't. From simple edits like getting rid of the “message sent” notification on SMS to complex memory management tweaks - Windows Mobile has an editable registry you can access to make those changes.

Of course, the registry is intimidating (it is to me!), so there are also 3rd party apps that allow you to customize Windows Mobile to make it more user-friendly. There are replacement on-screen soft keyboards. Tips for making buttons do more. Ways to manage memory.

All of which makes me a pretty happy camper. But all of which is too much for the average user. So Microsoft is still working to harness all that power into a manageable system that's accessible to the new user. They're getting there, and they're getting there damn quickly. The T-Mobile Shadow's UI, the rumored 6.1 update.. heck, if you just look at the improvements between WM5 and WM6 you'll be impressed. But for now, especially on Pro devices like the AT&T Tilt, Windows Mobile is a little too complex.

In short, I love the tweakability of Windows Mobile, but I wish that some devices didn't require it.

...Not all of them do: the T-Mobile Shadow (again) is great to use out of the box. The Motorola Q9h is pre-tweaked with Opera Mobile, Docs-To-Go, and more. The Treo 750 is unsurpassed in one-handed power-usability (surprisingly, partially because it's a bit thicker and so easier to type on one-handed).

Work to be Done

Windows Mobile is clearly the Jack of All Trades, but I won't go so far as to say that it's the master of none. Still, there are clearly places where I'd like to see improvement.


I like Windows Mobile's email solution better than I do anybody else's; but I do wish it did a better job at rendering HTML email like the iPhone and had some of the simple setup services of the BlackBerry.

If I were Microsoft, I would snap up Seven and offer it as a universal service for a nominal fee across all carriers (or, as they do with AT&T, offer it via the carrier as a branded service. AT&T's is Xpress mail). It almost pains me to say it, because Seven is really cool and it would almost be a shame to seem them bought out. But it's also stupendously good - especially in the most recent Betas.

Exchange for Corporate, Seven for Consumers. Boom: Push Email for Everybody combined with the most powerful out-of-the-box email client on any smartphone. (Image Credit)

The Cloud

Microsoft has been making great strides with their Windows Live services and especially at integrating them into Windows Mobile. I'm happy to see all that.

I'm also happy to see auto-set-up for email on competing platforms like Gmail and Yahoo. I'm happy to see Yahoo Go (even though I think it stinks compared to the original beta). I'd love to see more. I want to plug into my computer for power and music and that's about it. The rest should sync to the cloud, wirelessly and automatically, and be instantly available either on a client on my desktop (yes, my Mac desktop) or via the web.

The crazy part is I'm basically already there with Exchange. But I'm lucky - not everybody uses Exchange. Get there with Windows Live (You're practically there) and help competitors like Yahoo and Google do the same.


Do I really need to tell you that the iPhone's browser has set a new bar and it's way, way above what anybody else has done to date? Whatever else Microsoft is doing, they need to get the browser right and fast.

Remember, though, that it's not as simple for Microsoft (or a 3rd party) to make a great browser. The number of different devices and screens and processors and RAM amounts--not to mention Touchscreen vs. non-Touchscreen--all present a big challenge to a company trying to make a rich, powerful, and fun browser for Windows Mobile.

As much as I poo-poohed the accuracy of therecent report that the iPhone's web browser is popping up on the web more often than Windows Mobile, it's still a powerful sign that Apple nailed it and nobody else has. Fix the browser ASAP.


Windows Media Player is bad. It does a bad job browsing files. It does a bad job playing them and remembering where you left off. It plays a wide enough variety of codecs, but you could always wish for more. In short, WMP does the job (and WM supports A2DP!), but it does not do it well.

HTC has done a great job with its Audio Manager. Obviously the iPhone is stupendous at it. Microsoft has done a pretty good job with the Zune2 interface. Please put it on Windows Mobile. (Image Credit)


Yep, the interface isn't all that great. There are inconsistencies. There are things you want to do often squirreled away in submenus. There is the “X” button on Professional.

I'm not asking for a complete overhaul, but I am asking for evolutionary improvements and a little more standardization from device to device. There has been more experimentation lately as a result of cooperation between Microsoft, manufacturers, and carriers (ref. Treo 500v, TouchFlo, and the Shadow), and this is to be applauded. However, it is also a sign that there's something rotten in the state of the UI on Windows Mobile.

Microsoft has a reputation from their Desktop and Browser wars in the 90s of being a bully who pushes people around. In the smartphone space, though, Carrier is King. Microsoft: make these carriers put their money where their mouth is when it comes to openness, Let the people who know smartphones dictate how they're designed.

Microsoft needs a plan to unify and simplify the 'standard' UI and then continue to enforce it across all devices and carriers as a “default” option. Don't stop carriers from experimenting a bit, but make the “default” better and keep it mandatory. Flex your muscle here, be a bully, we'll look the other way.

The iPhone opened the door to cowing carriers and their bloatware and their absurd need to constantly create arbitrary revenue streams. Android pushed the door open just a little bit more. All you need to do is walk through it.

Summing Up Work to be Done

Obviously I don't think Windows Mobile is perfect and I'm honest about that where it falls short. There is work to be done and I hope that Microsoft is doing it.

Still, don't take the above gripes as a sign that I believe that Windows Mobile fails overall. Windows Mobile is far and away the best Smartphone OS for me. I love the choice of different devices. I love the power. I love the 3rd party app options. Windows Mobile: sniffle ...I love you, man!

Getting Better All the Time

The magic of smartphones is that they manage to become more than the sum of their parts. For an increasing number of people, they're the “computer” that we interact with the most. The combination of good hardware and good software gives us great devices. Really - it's where the exciting innovataion is at these days.

Windows Mobile has a much tougher row to hoe than anybody else in the Round Robin. It needs to support a much wider array of form factors, radio chipsets, and processor/RAM specs than RIM, Palm, or Apple does. Microsoft doesn't make these devices themselves, so they need to work closely with both manufacturers and carriers to get them off the ground. Symbian is probably the closes analogue, yet even there it's split between s60, which is primarily Nokia, and UIQ, which is primarily Sony Ericsson (and now Motorola).

Yet despite these challenges, Windows Mobile is a powerful, stable (though of course not 100% perfect), dynamic, and rich Smartphone OS. Given these challenges, it's an accomplishment that doesn't usually get as much credit as it deserves.

The situation is also often frustrating to users. Except for a very few gadget-hounds like me, the vast majority of users don't see Windows Mobile as a massive, widespread platform. No - they see their own individual device. Occasionally these individual devices aren't quite up to snuff - which will then reflect poorly on the platform as a whole, fair or not. Where to place blame for WM devices that fail is tough - it's partly the manufacturer, partly the carrier, and partly Microsoft.

On the other hand, there are devices that hit a home run. None matches the “singularity” of the iPhone or the “just email now” of the BlackBerry or even “keep it simple, stupid” of the PalmOS. But sometimes a Windows Mobile phone comes awfully close to all three and does a bit more, too. These devices are becoming more and more common: The BlackJack II, the Motorola Q9h, the HTC Touch, the Treo 750, the Sprint Mogul. The OS also: Windows Mobile 5, the AKU updates to it, Windows Mobile 6, Windows Mobile 6.1 (soon).

So while improvements are sometimes agonizingly slow in coming and agonizingly evolutionary instead of revolutionary, they are almost relentless in their regularity. The slowness of it I have to chalk up to an overabundance of caution, a need to be backwards-compatible (especially for the enterprise), and of course the wide array of hardware that needs to be supported. And truly, it's not all that slow, it's just tough to wait for evolution when the iPhone seems at first blush to be revolution. Yet the improvements keep coming and they will continue. I try to think of it as a tortoise and hare kind of thing.

I'm happy now with Windows Mobile and I'm optimistic for the future.

Why Windows Mobile

So there you go, I spent a month with the others and now I'm back and happy to be here. That's probably not a surprise given the site you're reading. Still, I think it's important to point out.

Is Windows Mobile able to be everything to everbody? Of course not. If you're looking for simple email, go BlackBerry. If you're looking for great media and a great browser, go iPhone. If you're looking for simplicity with a bit of power, go PalmOS. If you're looking for pure power and tweakability, go Windows Mobile.

But as I've said before, I don't want to pigeonhole Windows Mobile as the “Tweaker's Power OS.” I do think that WM can be an an easy-to-use, all-round platform that works well (or great, even) in all the preceding paragraph's categories. Sometimes a given device makes it so; maddeningly, many do not.

In decision theory there are lots of ways at looking at a given problem - I'm fond of Maximin (choose the option with the best worst case scenario) and Maximax (choose the option with the best best case scenario). If you're a Maximax kind of person, you take the smartphone with the best features in the categories you care about and choose that smartphone, regardless of whether or not the downsides are painful. So if you love your email quick and simple and don't care about, say, multimedia, the BlackBerry is no-brainer.

If you're a Maximin kind of person, you care about a lot of categories but are willing to forego the “best of the best” in one or all of them. That's me - I want it all. I'm unwilling to accept bad email, or horrible multimedia, or an OS that's not powerful enough. Windows Mobile may not be the best in the categories I care about (even though it's close and could be), but it does a better job of covering all the bases than anything else out there.

That sounds like a decision based on fear, but I don't see it that way. It's a decision based on the fact that I never want to be “stuck” not being able to do some task. You may have noticed that Phone different's Mike and I have been bandying about the definition of smartphone back and forth. This is as close to a good definition as I have been able to com up with so far: “Smartphone: a phone that won't leave me stuck not being able to do something I need to do.”

Windows Mobile has never left me stuck.

Even better, though, is that Windows Mobile hits some of my Maximax/best-of-the-best desires, too. Form factor, IM, email the way I like it, and yes: power and tweakability are all best-of-breed on Windows Mobile.


Next week we'll all be posting up more general, layman-friendly articles about our respective platforms as a way of summing up the massive amount of analysis that went into the Round Robin. Our Round Robin Update page is nearly complete and each of the links in that chart will take you to a great article examining a smartphone from a expert who's used to another platform.

For now, though, chime in in the comments! Are you a Minimax or a Maximax? Did I miss anything in my early, sledge-hammer-style list of features and capabilities? Is there an opportunity for improvement I didn't touch upon? Comment before midnight on Sunday, December 9th (Pacific time) to qualify to win in our Round Robin Contest!

WC Staff