Reexamining Windows Mobile - 12 Dec 2006

I've had an on-again, off-again relationship with Windows Mobile for years. Microsoft's initial entry into the PDA space didn't seem to fare too well against the Palm OS-based devices that dominated the marketplace in the late 1990s, but the emergence of smart phones and an increasing understanding that Windows Mobile-based devices could offer some real advantages to information workers and executives really turned things around.

Regardless, I resisted getting a smart phone for a long time. A gadget lover and inveterate tester of new technologies, I should have moved to a Windows Mobile-based device a few generations ago. But a few coincidental developments prevented that from happening. First, after testing a wide range of PDAs, I finally decided that keeping up with the devices was more painful than useful, and I've actually switched to the world's cheapest PDA--a paper printout--for each of my trips over the past few years. Second, I'm getting old. The tiny Blackberry-like keyboards that have sprung up on PDAs and smart phones recently just never seemed viable to me. I'm never going to be a heavy user of text messaging--indeed, for years, the only text message I had sent consisted of the single letter "K," sent in response to a text message question I had received.

But it's become increasingly clear that the usefulness of smart phones has crossed an important milestone from a usefulness perspective. Like most of you, I already use a cell phone and carry it with me regularly, especially on business trips. I also bring along an MP3 player on all trips and a digital camera on some. And of course, I use Microsoft Outlook to access my work email and maintain my schedule and to-do items.

I'm sure you can see this one coming. Obviously, today's Windows Mobile-based smart phones provide cellular phone calling, basic MP3 playback features via a mobile version of Windows Media Player (WMP) 10, basic digital camera functionality (albeit with a low-quality camera), and mighty fine versions of Outlook's Email, Calendar, Contacts, and Tasks modules. But it's more than all that, though I suspect Outlook capabilities alone will sell these devices for many.

No, two new technologies have convinced me that a smart phone is the way to go. The first is Microsoft Exchange Server 2007, which offers Outlook Voice Access (OVA), a truly useful way to access your Exchange data using a phone. OVA doesn't require a smart phone; it will work fine with any cell phone. But OVA is just one of many exciting new Exchange 2007 features, most of which work a lot better if you can triage your email on the go using a keyboard-based smart phone.

The second technology isn't exactly new, but thanks to lower prices, it's now new to me. Wireless companies such as Verizon are offering high-speed Internet access to smart phone users that you can use either with the device or with your PC. The Verizon service is called Evolution-Data Optimized (EV-DO), and although I've only started testing it, my initial impressions are positive. EV-DO can't replace a cable modem, T1 line, or even Wi-Fi access per se, but for people like me who need to be online as much as possible, it's much better than nothing and is highly useable.

What touched off this flurry of activity on the smart phone front, interestingly, was Microsoft, which sent me a Motorola Q to test along with the final version of Exchange 2007. After just a few minutes of setting up and configuring the Q to work with my Exchange server, I could see how well it was going to work. So I ran out to Verizon and bought my own, since I was going to have to return Microsoft's test unit in a few months, and Verizon's current deals essentially allow me to get the device for free after a rebate.

Windows Mobile isn't perfect, and certainly the Q isn't either. But the dream of an all-in-one device that actually works is a heck of a lot closer now than it's ever been, and maybe it's time to jump in with both feet. I'll report back in a few weeks on my experiences using the device.

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