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Windows Mobile: What Went Wrong?

Years ago, I received an invitation to participate in a Microsoft project that was codenamed Pegasus. Back then, these invites were sent by paper mail, not email, and NDAs had to be signed and physically returned before they were considered valid. It was 1996, and Microsoft was entering the market for personal digital assistants (PDAs) with a product that would go on to be called Windows CE. And yes, "CE" really did originally stand for "consumer electronics," though the software giant has been denying that for years for some reason.

Windows CE and its derivatives evolved rapidly, if fitfully, over the years. CE begat such products as the Palm-Sized PC (sued into non-existence by Palm Inc.), Pocket PC, and then Windows Mobile. That latter product has changed over time to address the needs of the market, first with cellular phone capabilities and then later with over-the-air (OTA) access to Exchange and other services, and with voice capabilities. In its fiscal 2008 year, which ended June 30, Microsoft sold something north of 18 million Windows Mobile licenses, good enough for 13 percent of the worldwide smart phone market. The company also brags about more than 18,000 applications being available for Windows Mobile devices.

Sounds pretty good, eh? There's just one problem. Windows Mobile is doomed.

Now, don't get me wrong here. I do believe that Microsoft could turn things around. But if the company continues on its current strategy for this increasingly irrelevant mobile platform, Windows Mobile will simply cease to matter and will, for all effects and purposes, cease to exist as well. The reasons are two-fold. First, Microsoft has moved too slowly to improve Windows Mobile, relying instead on an out-of-date strategy of keeping it familiar to users of its other more dominant Windows systems. Second, Microsoft's competitors suffer from no such illusions: They are creating the innovative, exciting products that consumers and business users really want today.

Microsoft's bungling of Windows Mobile dates back to that first Pegasus project, which resulted in an NEC laptop-like device running Windows CE 1.0, which at the time looked like a stripped-down, grayscale version of Windows 95. The company's decision to ape its desktop products was understandable but wrongheaded: Microsoft figured that customers would have an easier time moving to Windows CE if it featured the familiar Start button, menus, and windows of the PC version. But as the PDA world moved quickly to smaller, pocket-sized devices, that desktop-like UI simply got in the way. That we're still struggling with it today in Windows Mobile 6.x says a lot about this company's inability to let go of provably bad interfaces. In fact, the single best feature of Windows Mobile 6.1 is a new home screen replacement that tries to hide all that legacy interface garbage.

The original version of Windows CE appeared on so-called Handheld Computers, or HPCs.

Microsoft's reliance on its slow-moving device maker and wireless carrier partners has also hamstrung Windows Mobile in the marketplace, and the software giant says it has no plans to change that strategy anytime soon. So the companies that sell Windows Mobile devices to customers are also making and selling competing products, a situation that wouldn't be so dire if that competition was still stuck in a 1990's mindset like Microsoft.

Windows Mobile 5.0

Sadly, they're not. Many of us look back to the release of the original iPhone as the catalyst for the sudden change we're seeing in the smart phone market. But let's be honest: RIM has been eating Microsoft's lunch for years with its Blackberry product line, and it's notable that when business customers think of Exchange interoperability, they think first of a competitor's products. That's the result of Microsoft's competing product fiefdoms not being on the same page. After all, an Exchange license is an Exchange license. Even if it does come at the expense of Windows Mobile.

But the iPhone can at least be credited with bringing a bit of glamour and excitement to the smart phone market. Sure, it's still got all kinds of issues, but the iPhone raised the bar for mobile devices and its Internet functionality and application extensibility makes everything else look sickly by comparison. That it's now fully compatible with Exchange--here we go again--only makes things worse for Windows Mobile.

But the iPhone isn't the only highly desirable smart phone platform out there. RIM has struck back with a touch-screen-based device of its own, the Blackberry Storm, which does the iPhone one better by providing tactile feedback to screen presses, alleviating the key complaint of such interfaces. And the first smart phone based on Google's Android platform will soon ship from T-Mobile. This one phone isn't going to change the game very much, but the Android platform should be keeping everyone in the mobile industry awake at night. First, it's a completely free and open platform, so it can be extended in almost infinite ways, something that's not possible with the iPhone or other closed mobile platforms. Secondly, it will soon be shipping on a variety of phones and via every wireless carrier on earth. It's hard to imagine Android not being one of the top mobile platforms within a few years.

So where does all this leave Windows Mobile? Yes, there are decent-looking devices out there, and more are on the way. But the interface itself hasn't changed much over the years and won't for at least another year and a half. That's a long time to wait when your competitors are moving more rapidly than ever and with more interesting products than ever. Microsoft's management solution expertise will keep things from collapsing for a short time, but the company needs to take dramatic steps to make Windows Mobile more viable going forward. And I just don't see that happening.

Windows Mobile 6.1: An optional new home screen helps to hide the legacy Windows Mobile UI.

If you're interested in Windows Mobile, I'll be reviewing the latest release, version 6.1, soon.

This article originally appeared in the October 14, 2008 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul

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