Tuesday, October 31, 2006

New Windows Mobile CROSSBOW!

Ok Windows Mobile fans, word has it that there's going to be another release of our favorite CE-based Operating System by Microsoft.

Its currently codenamed "Crossbow", and will be released for both PPC and Smartphone (just like the other versions of WM). MS would like you to think that this is the next best thing since sliced bread.
Its not. Sliced bread is totally under-rated.

There has been speculation that Crossbow would be Windows Mobile 6, since CE 6.0 is scheduled to release Nov. 1 2006 (a day after this writing).
Its not.

Crossbow is merely WM5, but with a fresh interface that resembles the Windows Vista experience. In actuality, Crossbow's final name will most likely be Windows Mobile 5 Second Edition.

Most Pocket PC users out there won't care that much about this edition, since it doesn't seem to change all that much under the hood. Then again, you might be a Vista junkie, and want all your icons to look Vista-fied. That's cool, if you're into it. Otherwise, its pretty much the same.

Where it DOES make a difference is with the Smartphone Edition. Smartphone Edition of Crossbow has some nifty additions aside from the new look.

For example, take a look at this screenshot someone was able to take from a beta version (thanks to the good folks at GPSpassion).

See anything interesting here?

Yes, it seems that Windows Live is included in at least this particular build as well as MS voice command, but here's the clincher...
Note the icons in position 1, 3, and 9.
That's right, Excel, Powerpoint, and Word are finally back in Windows Mobile where they belong!!!

No more 3rd party applications needed to do what a Pocket PC does out of the box!!

This should be very exciting to anyone who currently uses a smartphone, and like me, has been very annoyed that Microsoft decided to leave these vital applications out!

Now, this is not to be confused with Windows Mobile 6, codenamed Photon, which is planned to be released within a year of Crossbow.
Microsoft has announced that WM6 will finally combine the Smartphone and PPC platforms. This should be interesting...

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

T-mobile, T-zones, T-mobile Web and the Internet Myth...

Ok, this one's for all you T-mobile USA fans out there.

If you're a hardcore T-mobile user since the free wap days, then you already know about this. However, for those who seem to be so confused about the internet plans that T-mobile offers, allow me to explain.

There's a handful of different levels of access that T-mobile offers for internet on your mobile phone. The two major ones that are currently offered to existing customers are:
1) T-Mobile Web ($5.99/m)
2) T-Mobile Total Internet ($29.99/m)

The obvious difference is that #2, Total Internet, also gives you access to T-mobile's network of WiFi hotspots scattered across the country (starbucks, airports, etc...). However, most users could really care less about that, especially those who don't even have WiFi enabled phones!
The problem, however, is that T-mobile now requires this option for internet on their latest Windows Mobile phones. The reason for this is rumored to be because T-mobile is trying to make back some of the money they spent on this hotspot infrastructure, which seems to be much less profitable than originally expected.
But is that all there is to it? If you buy a WM phone from T-mobile, is your only internet choice to spend 5x as much as you would otherwise because they are pushing their hotpot use? Or could a MDA/SDA user just use the cheaper T-zones or T-mobile web and forget the hotspots?

What's the real difference?
Well, let's start by looking at what market each is geared towards:
T-Mobile Web: The casual consumer with an average handset.
-Originally, internet access on a phone was considered a novelty item that would get very little real-world use. How much bandwidth could you possibly use up checking your hotmail account on a limited-graphics mobile-formatted page every so often? For this, T-mobile offered a phone plan add-on that they called T-zones, which had an unlimited plan for $4.99. Times changed however, and people can do alot more online with their phones now than they used to. So, T-mobile raised their price $1, and changed the name to T-mobile Web (possibly to justify the price hike).

Total Internet: Power users who wish to have the full internet anywhere there is reception, for example a laptop with a cellular PC-card added in.
-These customers will clearly use more bandwidth, therefore a higher price is justifiable.

However, both plans advertise that they offer unlimited (ie. unmetered) data. So, what incentive is there to go with the more expensive plan? Why wouldn't a "power user" just pay a fraction of the price for unlimited data?
T-mobile has taken some precautions to prevent that sort of thing from happening. For starters, the cheaper plan is supposed to only allow web access and email access. To do this, they closed all the ports except for a handful and restricted the web port by forcing all traffic to go through a proxy server that acts as a filter. The result is that email and web work just fine, but chats, streaming media, VoIP and any other fancy tricks won't.

So, will the cheaper data plans work on my SDA/MDA?
The simple answer: Yes!
They don't want it to, but the truth is there's nothing different about it as long as you put the correct settings into your phone (since it uses the proxy server as a filter, you have to set it up in connections to get out to the internet).
You'll still be restricted to straight-up email and web (no streaming, etc...), but for most people that's all they really want anyway.

Will it be slower?
Not really. Some people seem to think you only get EDGE (the 2.5G upgrade T-mobile made in order to speed their cellular data 4x) if you pay for full internet, otherwise you're stuck with the slower (2G) GPRS speeds. That's just not true. That has everything to do with your phone's connection to the tower, and almost nothing to do with your tier of service. If your phone supports EDGE, and the tower you're connecting to supports EDGE, then you have EDGE speed. T-mobile is not set up to give different users different speeds.

What if I need more than just web/email, but don't want to pay for hotspots?
If you're someone who needs full, unrestricted access to the internet on your phone (personally I'd like to be able to stream media and use chat services), there are various workarounds, including hosting your own proxy server on an open port that doesn't have the same limitations. The easiest thing, however, would be to just claim you have a blackberry device and say you'd like a blackberry internet add-on. That plan is only $19.99, and will work the same as the full internet- all ports open and everything.
This is perfectly legitimate, because T-mobile allows you to switch your sim card into as many phones as you want whenever you want. If they say "I see you're using an MDA/SDA", you could just respond with "I also have a blackberry and I'd like to be able to use it sometimes". They can't argue with that!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

What is "Smartphone Edition" anyway?

...or "Why would I want a watered-down hack of an Operating System?"

I hear alot of people complain that Windows Mobile "Smartphone Edition" is not the real Windows Mobile that you'd find on a Pocket PC. This has created a lot of angry consumers who feel that they are tricked when they buy new devices such as the Motorola Q, HTC Tornado (T-mobile SDA, Cingular 2125), and the T-mobile DASH, which are all advertised as being Windows Mobile, yet are missing the telltale signs of a PDA such as a touchscreen and common office applications.
Some of these critics claim that this can not be considered Windows Mobile at all, and that it is an inferior product that bears name recognition.

These people are very misinformed.

The first thing I'd like to point out is that the "Smartphone Edition" of Windows Mobile is not just closely related to the Pocket PC edition, but they are in actuality one and the same thing: A PDA-tailored port of the Windows CE 5 OS .

What many people don't understand is that Windows CE is designed to be a completely adaptable modular operating system, not just for PDAs, so that all sorts of devices can run the same software. The plan was that everything from Digital Cameras to Car Stereos to Video Game systems would all run Windows CE, and common applications could be easily developed for them all.
In fact, one of the motives for the original Windows CE was for television set-top boxes (similiar to the web-tv concept that never caught on), and if anyone recalls the Sega Dreamcast game console system, it shipped with a version of Windows CE built-in so that you could manage saved game files, use it to browse the web, play Windows Media, ...even write your own software and games for it.
I've even seen the popular Windows Mobile divx player TCMP actually being used in a Dreamcast to display a divx movie on a TV screen!

So, if they're all Windows CE, what does the name Windows Mobile mean?
This is a difficult question to answer since some people make the mistake of using the two names interchangeably.
Since Win CE can adapt and appear in so many different forms, Microsoft started giving the custom tailored incarnations of it their own names. The most popular incarnation was the one that they gave a PDA-oriented interface to, including modules such as full duplex sound, connectivity, synchronization, icon-driven GUI, and touch-screen support. They called this version "Pocket PC", since it was designed for portable computing needs. Then, around 2003, it became apparent that the PDA comes in various forms, from tablets to handhelds to cellular phones, and the term Pocket PC could be deemed too device specific for a PDA-oriented OS. So, it was renamed to "Windows Mobile 2003", which has a few spin-off versions that support various forms of input interface including touch screen, t9 keypad, joystick, and keyboard.

However, the major difference between the Windows Mobile versions stops after the display and input differences. Under the hood, its all the same thing. This means that software written for Pocket PC Edition will actually run if copied over to the Smartphone Edition!
The problems arise when the developer assumes that someone is using a Pocket PC with a touchscreen, for example an application that requires you to tap portions of the screen. This is very frustrating if you can not actually tap anything!
There are work-arounds, but that's not the point of this entry. I'll get to that another time.
The point here is to illustrate that the Smartphone Edition of Windows Mobile is not "inferior" in any way to the PPC version. It only seems that way because it is marketed differently, for example Microsoft left out included versions of Word and Excel. The reason for this has been said to be because of the numeric keypad entry, claiming that "these devices are better for reading data than entering it". Therefore, many smartphones come with simple document reading software that will easily open Word, Excel and even powerpoint and Adobe PDF documents, but not edit them.
If you want to enter data on your T9 keypad (like I do), there are 3rd party applications available for spreadsheets and word processing. But I understand why MS left them out... most people wouldn't use them.
Some say that it may also be some sort of marketing reason... if the smartphone had office support, and clearly did all the same things, they wouldn't be able to charge so much more for a Pocket PC phone.
Whatever the case may be, this smartphone user has not been fooled by the first impression, and I am now very happy with my non-Pocket PC device!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Why I like the Smartphone Platform, Part II

...or why I like the SDA better than the MDA. Part two.

Ok, in part one I described the difference between two leading HTC phones that have been released under T-Mobile's name here in the states: The MDA (a pocket PC phone) and the SDA (Windows Mobile Smartphone).
There are many variations of these phones from different companies and providers (Cingular has them as the Cingular 8125 and 2125, respectively), but since I'm T-Mobile fan myself, I'm going to refer to them as such.

Now, on to the reason I'm writing this...
It may be hard to understand at first, but I realize now that I prefer the Smartphone to the Pocket PC.
Why, after coming from years of touch-screen pocket PCs would I give it up?

Well, it started off as just an experiment... I had heard that these two devices, despite their looks, where almost indentical internally. So, I wondered, could a device that ditches the PocketPC's defining characteristic- namely, the touchscreen- still do the exact same task?
So, I bought one with the intention of reviewing it, playing with it and then selling it.
After carrying it around for a few weeks, I learned something that amazed me.
I hate touchscreens.

That's right, I don't like 'em.

As far as I'm concerned, a phone or a PDA is supposed to be a casual-use device. This means that I want to be able to pull it out on a whim and do something on it while also doing something else.
It never even occured to me that a touchscreen actually makes it HARDER to use as a casual-use device! You often need two hands to operate it properly, not to mention it requires you to look at the screen to make sure you're tapping the right point. This kind of involving user interface, while it looks cool and gimmicky to passerbys, actual adds very little function to the device. What it does do is make it difficult to use in situations such as conversing with someone else, while driving (without being really unsafe), or even while going out for a jog.

I've personally had many situations where it will suddenly occur to me that I need to remember to do something. Since this is the purpose of a PDA, I'll stop what I'm doing, take out my pocket pc, remove the stylus and start tapping away.
If I'm sitting down in a chair in front of my desk, this is just fine. However, if I'm standing in the middle of the supermarket aisle, this looks kind of akward.

Windows Mobile Smartphone is designed really well, contrary to what the smartphone haters out there would believe. The layout takes a bit of getting used to especially coming from a Pocket PC, but its similar enough that you recognize familiar features and menus, and once you get the hang of it, it really makes so much sense.

Everything is menu driven, with the help of the joystick/directional pad for navigation.
For example, instead of clicking on the icon you want from the start menu, you move from icon to icon with the joystick until the one you want is highlighted. Now, before you dismiss this as archaic and rediculous in comparison to a simple tap on the screen, allow me to explain the benefits of this method.
The icons are arranged in a 3x3 grid, giving you the ability to view 9 icons at a time. This is very similar to the layout of a phone's numeric keypad. So, instead of pushing the joystick until you get the right one, you can also hit the corresponding number on your phone and it will "click" that icon. The result is that if you already know where the icons exist, you can jump to things fairly quickly. For example, to change my homescreen, I know that "settings" is in the 9 position, and inside there, homescreen is option number 4. So, all I have to do is hit start-9-4 and I'm presented with my homescreen settings. This is actually faster and easier than click, look, click, look, click!

In general, I find that I can easily do things that I wasn't able to do "on the fly" with my Pocket PCs. This is especially useful in the car since I use my Windows Mobile devices as my GPS navigator along with a Bluetooth GPS receiver. You also don't have to be as careful as you do with a Pocket PC- I can put my Smartphone in my pocket without being concerned that I'm going to accidentally have unwanted screen-taps from the fabric of my pants, or that my baby will drop it and crack the delicate touch-panel (something that's happened before).

I feel that Windows Mobile is much more functional now than I ever felt before, because now it truly can be used casually!
Now, that doesn't answer my original question: Can you really do all the same things that a Pocket PC can?

The answer is YES! I don't feel like I've given up anything at all. Now, its true that Microsoft decided to make Smartphone edition less functional by leaving out some of the useful apps that Pocket PC edition has, such as Word and Excel. Why they did this? I'm assuming because of some sort of marketing gimmick- the Pocket PC phone is marketed as a PDA first with some phone functionality whereas the Smartphone is marketed as a Phone first with some PDA functionality.
However, the core OS is the same, which means that you can run the same software. Its really just an issue of installing applications to take the place of the missing MS ones!
I've already installed WordPad, a freeware word processor, as well as Ptab which is a spreadsheet application compatible with Excel. There's also Clearvue which came bundled with my device that displays all the common file types such as Powerpoint and Adobe PDF (it also lets you view Word and Excel files, but not edit them. That's why I installed those other apps as well).

"Aha, but what about applications that are written for the Pocket PC that NEED a touchscreen to operate?"
I was concerned about this as well. Programs like Skype for Pocket PC can be installed on a Smartphone, but you can't even sign in because it expects you to be able to tap to navigate the program. Well, thankfully there aren't too many programs like this that don't already have a Smartphone version using menus (its very easy for a developer to add Smartphone support to an existing Pocket PC app), but for the few that do, I found a solution:
SPHelper is a little application that simulates a touch screen. What it does is actually place a mouse-pointer on the screen that you can navigate using the joystick! All you have to do is run this little app before the program that needs touch-input, and then use your joystick as a make-shift trackball (if you've ever used an old IBM Thinkpad, this will feel very familiar)!

Bottom line:
I love my Smartphone, and I've sold all my Pocket PCs.
I don't even miss the touchscreen, and I don't plan on ever going back!

Monday, September 11, 2006

Why I love the SmartPhone...

...or, why I think the SDA is better than the MDA.
(Part 1)

I've been accused of being a mobile computing junkie. My collection of handheld devices that I've owned at some point dates all the way back to the Psion II from the mid-80's. Yet, they all shared the same problem: a portable computing device is only as good as it is convenient to carry.
The latest-and-greatest full-featured devices are generally larger than their cheaper and older versions (compare any Palm Treo with the Palm V), and were actually rather uncomfortable to carry around. I found myself taking it out and putting it down whenever possible, which led to it never being there when I needed it on a whim. How functional can such a device be?

Enter the convergence devices: The PDA/Cell Phone combo.
We're all familiar with the Palm Treos, and the handful of Pocket PC phones that have been released lately. This should have been a perfect option for me... I always have my phone with me, so why not have one device which I can keep track of?
The problem is that once you add the phone components to a PDA, you end up with an abnormally large unit that just makes my problem even worse. I tried a few, and I was generally unhappy with the results- they seemed to be part phone, part PDA, but not entirely good enough at either.
So I just accepted my fate and tried to just find the smallest PDA and smallest phone I could and carry them in separate pockets.
(To those that are interested, my research led me to the Ipaq 4150 as a PDA, and the Nokia 6230 as a phone).

That is, until my searching brought me upon the latest smartphone offerings from a Japanese company called HTC.
HTC doesn't actually sell any of their devices directly, but rather designs devices and then sells them to other companies for manufacturing.
Last year, T-mobile released 2 current HTC devices under their own brand name, as the MDA and the SDA.

The MDA, based on the HTC "Wizard" is a sidekick-style device, or in other words, it has a large screen that conceals a fold-away QWERTY keybard.
When closed, this device resembles the classic pocket-PC portrait orientation device. Since it is a true Pocket PC, it has a touch screen and runs the Pocket PC Phone Edition of Windows Mobile 5.
This phone really does everything:
  • 200Mhz omap CPU, overclockable
  • Mini-SD expansion slot
  • QVGA (240x320 pixels) resolution
  • WiFi
  • Bluetooth
  • Quad Band GSM (world phone, can be used pretty much all over the world)
  • Class 10 EDGE (while not quite 3G speeds, this is the fastest EDGE access possible, and it does perform quite well, in excess of 200kpbs even outside of major cities).
Now, the MDA is still quite a bit bigger than my Ipaq was, so while it was very tempting to try it out, I just couldn't justify using one on a regular basis. As a phone, its grossly over-sized. I mean, its better than holding up a blackberry to your head, but it still doesn't have the ease of use and form function of a regular phone. Not to mention the SIZE. Sometimes two seperate devices are better than one huge one bulging off your belt or pocket.

The SDA, based on the HTC Tornado, is a totally different beast.
Running the latest Smartphone platform, this device is designed to be "a Phone first, and a PDA second".
That means that while it shares almost all of the specs of the MDA, the focus on the design is to be used as a phone. This means no QWERTY keyboard, and a lack of touchscreen.
But here's the kicker... its much smaller than the MDA, but its still running Windows Mobile 5. So, what's the difference between the two devices? Let's look at the specs:
  • 200Mhz omap CPU, overclockable
  • Mini-SD expansion slot
  • QVGA (240x320 pixels) resolution
  • WiFi
  • Bluetooth
  • Quad Band GSM
  • Class 10 EDGE
Look familiar? Yup! Its the EXACT SAME SPECS as the MDA in half the size!

So, obviously I was intrigued, but the question was could you really do all the same things on the smartphone as you could on the Pocket PC phone?
I know the core OS is the same, but the device seems to be radically different, and the lack of touch screen made me doubt the functionality of any input. How annoying would it be to have to navigate a menu with the joystick instead of clicking on the touch screen?
Still, the idea was a good one, and I decided to try it out.

What were the results? Well, the name of this entry betrays my answer... but you'll have to wait for part 2 to read my explanation.

For now, lets just say I learned a lot of things from this experience that I never realized before...

Thursday, July 06, 2006

First post. Ever.

Ok, I'll admit it.
I never thought I'd be one to write a blog.

I never kept a diary, kept a penpal, or even enjoyed writing when I went through school. I liked to talk, and I liked to explain, but no one could ever accuse me of liking to write.
Times change I suppose.

I'm constantly being asked for my opinion on this or that technology, and inevitably find myself repeating something over and over to different people. I've written articles about some of this stuff, but I doubt anyone I know has ever read them. It is my hope to cover enough topics on this blog that eventually when someone approaches me, I'll be able to say "oh, I already spoke about that on my blog". That'd be nice.

Let's see where this goes...