Thursday, September 04, 2008

The problem with Windows Mobile

WM fanboys, be still! This post is part of a bigger article which I will go up when finished. To get straight to the point, start at the line which reads "Too many cooks".

Windows Mobile, love it or hate it, is still one of the most popular mobile operating systems to date. Looking at the specs on paper, this OS has every reason to be great; Not only does it have an integrated familiar set of Microsoft productivity tools (Outlook, Word, Excel, etc), it is also a versatile and open platform that is capable of running virtually infinitely complex and advanced third party applications.
It also has to its advantage a legacy of mobile operating systems dating back to the 90's, which means that countless seasoned developers and applications already exist for it, as well as a bit of a cult following. Combine this with the size and scope of the OS, and Microsoft should have a clear winner here.

However a large percentage of first time Windows Mobile users return their handset after trying it out, and market analysts say WinMo is far from "winner" material. Some even predict its impending doom. Why?

A few moments with the stock OS is all takes to understand. For all the words people can use to describe Windows Mobile, the adjectives you won't hear are "easy" or "user friendly". In fact, for every WM user that loves the platform, you're bound to find ten others who found it confusing, unstable or downright maddening.
The hardcore WM fanboys will tell you that Windows Mobile is far too powerful and therefore too complicated for some to comprehend. It would seem that the users who prefer standard feature phones or Blackberry OS fit that theory, since RIM spoon-feeds the user basic features such as messaging without much support for a real mobile computing platform.
The same could be said about Palm OS, since palm does not support as much development or even basic multi-tasking. Less features theoretically equal an easier to understand phone.

I don't think that's the case. Personally, I think Symbian and the upcoming Android OS at least match if not outshine Windows Mobile in power and function, as well as support for advanced development and UI tweaking... yet average folks who've tried it don't find it as maddening as Windows Mobile for daily use.
While we're at it, even the iPhone OS (which officially reached the status of Smartphone with its app store) has some fairly advanced features, especially when "jailbroken", and people absolutely LOVE that UI- in fact, they love it even more than simpler phones with less features. The iPhone, while not as versatile and developer friendly as other smartphone operating systems, showed the world that clearly you can have a phone with advanced features that is still easy for the masses to use.

So what is is that keeps Windows Mobile from being great?

Too many cooks.
I beleive that WM suffers from "too many cooks spoil the broth" syndrome. In other words, there are too many different people with different goals involved from the moment the software is designed until it reaches the user's hands. This leads to a complicated web of counter-intuitive interface design.
Take this example of a typical WM handset:
-Microsoft designs a general use OS based on a vague set of hardware.
-Hardware OEMs target a specific audience and create a device with hardware capable of running windows mobile.
-Software development team writes drivers for hardware, and tweaks parts of the OS to properly utilize their hardware configuration, often in ways Microsoft didn't anticipate.
-Carrier gets a hold of device, pre-installs certain software applications and tweaks certain features and UI to support their services.
-User buys devices, and gets thoroughly confused with what he/she is presented with.

A practical example of this is the microsoft X button. They decided, for one reason or another, that the X-button closing applicaitons would make the device harder to use. So they made it minimize instead. The result is that people who think they've closed the media player by clicking the X still hear music playing in the background. They frantically try to figure out why and eventually pull their battery. Now, let's say a third party designs their own media playing application, and decides to do users a favor by hard-coding it to close when someone presses on the X are instead of minimizing like the system would by default.
Meanwhile, phone manufacturer HTC steps in to solve that problem on its own, and introduces their HTC X-button software, which changes the behavior of the X button system-wide to what you determine (close, minimize, press-and-hold, etc), and gives you a list of what is running on the main screen so you can close something that didn't close like you thought it would.
What is going to happen to that media player when they press the X if someone is running on an HTC device with their X-button software pre-installed, such as the HTC Touch?
The user may be presented with some unexpected behavior other than what they think will happen.

Then there was the Palm hardware running Windows Mobile- they added their own threaded text messaging system, which was signature Palm until Microsoft decided to add their own and have it built-in to the OS in version 6.1. However, the Palm version was a little bit different, and when they embraced 6.1 for the new devices, they were faced with a user interface decision: Keep their threaded app on the phones so that people who enjoy how it works or are used to it can continue to, OR switch to the new standard threaded app for compatibility. Some people like the new native one because it seems more integrated into the system. Other people preferred the functionality of the old one. Either choice you make, Palm is going to annoy and/or confuse one set of users.

In contrast, take a competing device like a RIM Blackberry- designed completely by RIM, core OS, hardware and software, and RIM hosts its own servers for messaging. Then, they offer the device to be sold through a carrier for service. The end result is a smooth and consistent interface because this single company was responsible for quality control the entire time. The same can be said for Apple.

Now, that doesn't mean Windows Mobile is doomed to be always be difficult, however it just means that you won't get that polished experience out of the box- you'll have to work for it. Thankfully, since WM is an open platform, there's no shortage of third party applications and customized UI tweaks that the end user could install to make their device work better for them. Once you've learned your way around the OS, you'll actually find it very efficient, powerful, and even surprisingly stable. The problem is that you shouldn't be expected to learn all this in the first place. Ultimately, the perfect OS would be one that is as open and powerful as Windows Mobile, but with the finesse and user-experience quality control of Apple's.

My hope for the future is that Windows Mobile 7 will introduce a platform that is more user friendly out of the box, leaving less that needs to be modified by third parties. It'll be difficult, but if MS plays its cards properly, it's possible. In this world of open-source startup mobile OSs and Apple's UI dominating the market, MS needs to find a way to do this.