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Microsoft My Phone

In March, I announced my intention to stop using Apple's tremendous iPhone (Saying Goodbye to the iPhone) so that I could focus instead on Microsoft's far less capable and less interesting Windows Mobile product. The rationale was simple: While I feel that the iPhone is vastly superior to anything that Microsoft's hardware partners offer in the smart phone space, I'm primarily a Windows guy, and I need to spend more time on the Windows phone side of the fence, if only so that I could accurately communicate the pros and cons of Microsoft's mobile platform.

Well, several long months later, I'm still using the iPhone. It's not for a lack of trying, however. I went through a number of Windows Mobile 6-based phones, only one of which--the now sadly discontinued Palm Treo Pro--was any good. Well, it was pretty good. Compared to the iPhone, of course, any Windows Mobile phone looks and works like a World War II-era field phone. It's not pretty.

That said, I've been holding out hope for the new generation of Windows Mobile 6.5-based devices, which are now being marketed under the moniker Windows Phones. (See my Windows Phones 2009 overview for a look at Microsoft's new strategy in this market.) As I write this, only a tiny number of Windows Mobile 6.5 devices are available from the major US-based wireless carriers, and while none of them seem truly exceptional, I'll be getting one soon regardless.

In the meantime, I can focus on the other parts of the Windows Phones platform, which consists not just of Windows Mobile-based smart phones, but also of various online services, including a new Windows Marketplace for Mobile and, covered in this article, Microsoft My Phone.

Why My Phone?

My Phone is clearly a response to Apple's MobileMe service. (See my review of MobileMe.) Apple is on to something here, though the execution--especially on the Windows side--and pricing makes the service almost a complete non-starter.

To recap, MobileMe is a way to sync your email, contacts, calendar, and some other data via over the air (OTA) "push" technologies to your iPhone. You can use it in tandem with Mac-based applications like Mail, Address Book, and iCal, which works very well. Or you can use it with a PC, which barely works at all. In either case, you can also access your data via the MobileMe web site, which again works very well on Macs but not so well with PCs, unless you use a non-Microsoft web browser. MobileMe is very much a typical Apple product. It hits the high notes, works better on the Mac, and is fairly antagonistic to PC users, despite the fact that these users represent Apple's largest customer base by far. In short, MobileMe is just another example of Apple's lock-in strategy. It just doesn't play well outside the Apple ecosystem.

(MobileMe also provides photo syncing, 20 GB of online storage, and a few other services. All of these things, again, work much better if you're a Mac user. Apple's inability to write good PC software continues.)

The biggest problem with MobileMe, of course, is the price. Apple sells the service at a whopping $99 a year, or $149 a year for a Family Pack where you get four additional accounts, all with much less storage than the main account. When you consider that push/OTA access to email is common and free from a variety of providers, and that push/OTA contacts and calendar information are also free from Google especially, it's hard to justify the price of MobileMe, even if you're a Kool-Aid-swilling Apple fanatic who can't wait to toss your credit card in the direction of Cupertino.

That's all well and good for iPhone users. But on the Windows Mobile side, Microsoft has offered push/OTA access to email, calendar, and contacts information via Exchange for some time. On the consumer end, you're able to access the same Google-based email, calendar, and contacts info via push/OTA as you can on the iPhone. Unfortunately, if you're of a Windows Live persuasion, the picture is a bit murkier.

Here's the deal. Microsoft does offer push/OTA access to Windows Live Hotmail-based email and Windows Live People-based contacts to Windows Mobile, and these types of data work natively within the mobile email and contacts applications that come on such devices. As of this writing, however, there is no way to access Windows Live Calendar through the native Windows Mobile calendar application for some reason. I'm sure they're working on it, but it's a surprisingly major gap right now.

Push-based email, contacts, and calendaring are, in my mind, the very basics at this point. But what you don't get in Windows Mobile natively are some of the less obvious advantages of MobileMe, like a simple web interface, a way to find a lost phone, and a central management console for all of the data on the phone. Microsoft has addressed these missing pieces and added some fairly obvious but useful other bits of functionality in its own service.

Oh, and the best part? It's free.

Introducing My Phone

Microsoft My Phone is a free service that synchronizes contacts, calendar appointments, tasks, photos, videos, text messages, songs, web browser favorites and documents between your Windows Mobile-based smart phone and your My Phone account on the web. This sounds wonderful at first, but it's important to understand the limitations and lack of integration with Microsoft's other, Windows Live-branded, online services.

Microsoft My Phone
The My Phone web site.

First, it requires a data plan. This should be obvious, but unlike on the iPhone, unlimited data isn't necessarily a requirement for a Windows Mobile device, so be aware that once you sign up for this service and begin using it via the phone, you're going to incur data traffic. If you're on an all-you-eat plan, you're good to go, and My Phone will auto-sync your data on a set schedule by default, twice a day, assuming you have data connectivity .If you have to pay for data as you go, you may want to turn off automatic sync.

My Phone provides just 200 MB of free storage on the My Phone web site, and there's no way to purchase more. That there's no integration at all with the free Windows Live SkyDrive online storage service, which provides 20 GB of storage space is somewhat confusing, but then the weirdest thing about My Phone is that it exists almost completely outside of the Windows Live system. (You do need a Windows Live ID to create an account on My Phone; I believe that's the only native interaction between My Phone and Windows Live, aside from some photo sharing functionality.)

While many Windows Mobile devices are no doubt used with corporate Exchange servers, you should know that My Phone will not duplicate or sync Exchange data. The reason is security: Your workplace may not want its sensitive corporate data synced to Microsoft's servers. Only personal data can be synced to My Phone.

Oddly, contact stored on memory cards are not synced by default. In order to sync pictures, music, or other data you may have saved to your smart phone's memory card, you'll need to turn that on manually. Of course, when you consider My Phone's paltry 200 MB of storage space, doing so may not work anyway.

My Phone requires Windows Mobile 6 or higher. This isn't a huge deal, but if you were hoping to stretch your Windows Mobile 5-based phone another year or so, you'll have to do so without My Phone.

Finally, the My Phone web site is advertising-supported, which is ugly and awful. I get that Microsoft isn't running a charity, but I do pay annually for Hotmail Plus, and one of the benefits of that service is that there are usually no ads on any of the Windows Live services sites. This benefit does not extend to My Phone, another problem with the lack of integration between the services. (And seriously, why isn't My Phone a Windows Live service? That makes no sense.)

Microsoft My Phone
Seriously, Microsoft. Try to be a bit less second rate, would you?

My Phone services

Now that I've sufficiently dampened your expectations, let's take a look at what My Phone actually does. First and foremost, you get a simple web interface for managing your My Phone account. This includes all of the data you're syncing between your phone and the web site, any Windows Mobile-based phones you've associated (and yes, you can have more than one), and the social networks you've configured to work with the account. (I'll look at that latter item a bit later.)

Microsoft My Phone
The main My Phone web interface.

Continue to Part 2...

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