Editorial: Windows Mobile – Raise the Bar

iPhone has finally given Windows Mobile the challenger it has so badly needed. Read more to see why iPhone is a good thing for Microsoft.

Did you know that Windows Mobile hardware has remained largely unchanged over the past five years? Really, it has. You can take most Pocket PC 2002 devices, and hack Windows Mobile 5.0 onto them. Now, most don’t, simply because of missing portions of necessary code, but it is certainly possible for most PDAs sold five years ago.

This doesn’t need to be a long editorial. It’s clear Windows Mobile hasn’t gone very far in the past five years. Since 2002, all we’ve seen is incremental updates, the addition of the .NET Framework, and… nothing else.

In fact, older PDAs are actually sometimes more coveted that the current ones. In many ways, Windows Mobile has gone backwards, not forwards.

Many users are clutching, hacking, and holding onto their older PDAs because features are being downsized… in ways users reject. Since the PPC-6600 was discontinued, the United States has had no PDA with a display larger than 2.8 inches. Apple has seen that users actually liked the larger 3.5 inch displays of ‘yore and brought it back. This may be the best move in iPhone… a display people actually like. People don’t like 2.8 inches… it’s a compromise.

Stuck in the mud…

Next up is raising the bar on standards. With iPhone, Apple wasn’t bound to ODMs, and they weren’t bound to carrier subsidies. Microsoft needs to dump their five-year-old conventional wisdom. They need to undertake a massive re-write of Windows Mobile. Crossbow is yet another incremental release that will slow things down… again.

I am not advocating Windows Mobile be transformed to run under the NT core (similar to how iPhone is powered by Mac OS X). That’s Microsoft’s call. I am saying that while Windows CE is certainly portable, and certainly has shown that older devices can get new life from it… that is not what is called for now.

Apple has seen a critical flaw in Smart Device makers. They replace current devices with newer devices that don’t really change things. Aside from network changes such as EV-DO or UMTS, there is not one feature that a Windows Mobile 2003 user gained from 5.0. Not one functional reason worth putting up hundreds of dollars for. None.

Palm isn’t much better. The Treo 650 added Bluetooth, better display, and? Nada. The Treo 700p added EV-DO, a network change, but nothing significant other than new software.

Apple is going to shake, rattle, and roll this industry. iPhone firmware will keep getting updated. Current iPhone users will see updates beamed down long after the current unit is discontinued. Just ask any iPod or Mac owner… it’s the Apple way. Microsoft, their ODMs, and the carriers need to radically re-think their business model… now.

How to Re-Think Groupthink: Firmware

Windows Mobile has suffered from years of groupthink. That has to end. Microsoft needs to take centralized command of the operating system, and they will gain a shot at keeping pace with Apple. Time is not on either side right now. Apple won’t have an iPhone on any carrier other than AT&T until 2009. Meaning, Microsoft has until 2009 to fix Windows Mobile and start putting out those devices.

First, Microsoft’s centralized command should start with firmware. Like Windows Update on a PC, Microsoft should be able to remote-update all firmware on the device. The ODM should submit firmware updates to Microsoft, and Windows Mobile will flash it. Microsoft should cut out the carriers for everything except for radio stack firmware approval… which is a minor slice of the amount of testing the carriers do now.

Now, you might say the carriers would revolt at this. After all, they want their stamp of approval on any software on their network. Microsoft needs to assure the carriers that they will dive on grenades when there are problems, that their FOTA system will update devices instantly. Most importantly, they need to assure carriers that their testing protocols will do anything and everything the carriers want.

Microsoft wins here, if they do this. Why? Because when the next version of Windows Mobile comes out, every device on the new platform will be able to upgrade at once. If MS wants every user to pony up for Windows Mobile 9.0 from their current install of 8.0, they can just have users type in their credit card info… the license will be sent automatically, and the upgrade flash will download and install itself. Microsoft should demand assistance from the ODMs with this, and stop just asking nicely.

This isn’t new for Microsoft, Vista Anytime Upgrade allows for this, and will vend people the next version of Windows upon its release following Vista. All via digital download. Microsoft wins here, because they will be able to take profits directly from Windows Mobile users who upgrade from one major release to the next… and upgrade rates will go from 10% to 80-90% instantly.

Firmware is crucial here. Windows Mobile needs to take care of itself. iPhone already does. If FOTA cannot do this, Microsoft needs to implement firmware update checking in Windows Mobile Device Center (formerly ActiveSync) on the PC side.

Groupthink: Performance

Vista sets a new baseline for PCs. Windows Mobile needs to do this too, or it will die. 2D hardware graphics acceleration must be required. 3D must be standardized across the platform, so that 3D gaming can be a reality on the platform. 3D Windows Mobile gaming will allow for the platform to have comparative advantage against all other platforms.

Choosing processor support is a much more difficult question. There’s no reason that this needs to change, but obviously some features won’t work on some devices. That’s okay. So long as Microsoft continues to actually innovate new features, if some devices can’t take advantage of the full feature set… they should be able to continue with existing features. This is nothing new, it actually is what is part of Windows Vista’s multiple SKUs. If a PC can’t run Media Center, Microsoft isn’t going to block the user from upgrading just because of that.

Groupthink: Multimedia

How can Microsoft beat the iPhone here? It’s pretty simple. Every Vista Home Premium system is a PC waiting for TV to be plugged into it. Any Vista-compatible USB2 TV Tuner allows for people to watch, play, pause, and record live TV… all inside Windows Media Center.

Now, all Microsoft has to do is create a wireless Media Center Extender for Windows Mobile that enables both 3G and Wi-Fi access. Being able to stream Live TV for free, from your Home PC, and make it so simple all you need is a Vista PC and a Windows Mobile device… would put iPhone to shame. Complex software like Orb and Slingbox is nice, but complicated. Windows Mobile can’t be complicated to do amazing things… iPhone does amazing things and is easy to use.

Carriers again will revolt at the bandwidth usage, subversion of carrier TV offerings, yadda, yadda. Forget the carriers for now. Microsoft needs Windows Mobile to survive. Do or die time for the platform is now, not after iPhone gains the iPod-sized 62% of the smart device market-share.

It’s a Zune, It’s a Phone, It’s an Internet Communicator

Step on toes internally. Everyone knows Microsoft Zune is a Windows CE device. Get the source code for Zune out of Zune and into Windows Mobile. Now. Not after iPhone puts Windows Media Player to shame for a second time. Microsoft’s long-term dreams for a Zune-with-a-phone aren’t going to cut it here.

Zune gaming should be the same as Windows Mobile gaming. Zune games should work on future Windows Mobile devices. Add Zune to Windows Mobile, and the iPhone offering loses some wow-factor. People that buy Windows Mobile devices aren’t nearly as likely to own a Zune anyways, and Windows Mobile buyers would be a huge boost to the Zune ecosystem (in both music buying and sharing).

Internet Explorer needs help. We’re still stuck at version 4.5 compatibility. Pocket IE needs to be bumped up to 7.0 before we all vomit… and buy iPhones. Mac Safari and iPhone Safari will keep in parity, Microsoft apparently hasn’t gotten that message.

The Bottom Line

There are only two reasons why I’m not using the Pocket PC 2002 device I bought five years ago. The first is that it won’t sync in Vista (a Microsoft-imposed hinderance). The other is that they stopped issuing firmware updates. No hardware has changed that makes me want to upgrade, not a single new feature. Microsoft needs to realign the Windows Mobile ecosystem so that they can push (and sell, and profit from) OS upgrades directly to customers. This will encourage them to actually be loyal to their customers. Customers that have to keep paying for software via hardware will defect to iPhone. That means Microsoft’s most informed and loyal customers are the most likely to defect.

They need to actually break the device requirements that have stagnated for five year. And, finally, they need to integrate consumer services like Media Center Extender and Zune into the Windows Mobile platform. If they don’t… Microsoft will likely abandon the PDA market to iPhone and target Smartphone users… until Apple comes out with a flip-iPhone.

Some would say this isn’t possible. Some will tell you that Microsoft can’t do this unless they make their own PDA. However, with iPhone, Microsoft now has the will to find the way to save their platform. By making the operating system and hardware independent, similar to desktop Windows, Microsoft can bring Windows Mobile back and maintain their grip on the Smart Device sector.

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