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Can Windows Mobile Fight Back?

The mobile industry has been abuzz with Palm's Pre smartphone and its webOS platform, Apple continues to sell millions of iPhones, and Research In Motion's BlackBerrys are getting more popular. So, what is Microsoft going to do to make Windows Mobile a success? In an interview with
January 09, 2009
The mobile industry has been abuzz with Palm's Pre smartphone and its webOS platform, Apple continues to sell millions of iPhones, and Research In Motion's BlackBerrys are getting more popular. So, what is Microsoft going to do to make Windows Mobile a success? In an interview with The New York Times, executives talked about their strategy for the mobile market, and I think it's a good one for the most part.According to the interview:


… one way in which Microsoft plans to become more competitive is by limiting the number of devices built with the Windows Mobile operating system. At present, there are around 140 such devices, from a range of cell phone makers, from Samsung to Palm and many in between.

The reason that Microsoft is limiting the number of phones with the operating system is because, [the executive] said, the company does not want to have its efforts diluted over too many devices.

This may sound odd for an OS company to say it wants to be on fewer devices, but Microsoft needs to focus on quality over quantity at the moment. The smartphone market has changed dramatically since Microsoft entered it, and it's not just catering to early adopters and mobile professions. The mass market wants a smartphone that's powerful and elegant and looks good, and few would describe the majority of Windows Mobile devices as that.

But the good news is that Windows Mobile is not that far off from being a top-notch OS, despite what the haters say. It's perfectly integrated with Microsoft's desktop suite of software, which makes it a good device for a mobile professional. There's also an openness to it that should make other users jealous, as you can throw on different user interfaces, music players, and all types of goodies. There's also a dedicated fan base providing useful tips, hacks, and cracks for all types of Windows Mobile devices.

Many handsets with Microsoft's OS in the past were rather boring, but that's slowly changing. The HTC Touch Pro and the Sony Ericsson Xperia X1 match up well against nearly any QWERTY smartphone from the competitors, and even touch-only handsets like the Touch Diamond and Samsung Omnia are good, solid devices. Microsoft working closer with a select few manufacturers could result in better-looking handsets that are packed with features.

Of course, the elephant in the room is the user interface, which is built on a dated idea that users want to interact with their phones the same way they do with a desktop PC. For nontouch devices, you have to slog through far too many menus, submenus, and sub-submenus to get things done. It's tedious, and lacks the ease of use of a Symbian or BlackBerry operating system. Windows Mobile is just dreadful for touch-screen smartphones because it just wasn't built with touch in mind. Basically, instead of going through tedious menus with a control pad, you get to drudge through them with a stylus or your finger.

It truly lacks the elegant and smooth nature of an iPhone or Android, which benefitted from being able to build touch input from the ground up. HTC has done a great job of layering its UI on top of Windows Mobile to make the "Touch" line more finger-friendly, but it's almost done too good a job: When you get out of TouchFlo 3D and have to deal with Windows Mobile, the difference is jarring.

Microsoft has shown it can do an eye-pleasing UI, as the latest Zune software looks great and is a delight to use. Hopefully, we'll see a good-looking UI with strong touch features in the Windows Mobile 7, which is still expected to crop up later this year. We'll know more next month as CEO Steve Ballmer gives an update on the company's mobile strategy at the Mobile World Congress.