Windows Mobile OS -- not quite there yet

Mobile managers face a tough choice when weighing which mobile platform or operating system to deploy. We've assembled a team of experts and asked them to weigh the good and bad of each mobile platform to help you choose the one that's right for your company. In Part 2 we examine Windows Mobile, Microsoft's mobile operating system. Experts say when it comes to functionality, Windows Mobile may have a little house-cleaning to do before it goes truly mainstream.

Mobile managers face a tough choice when weighing which mobile platform or operating system to deploy to mobilize the workforce. There's BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Palm OS, Symbian, Linux and J2ME. How do they choose? Which platforms perform which functions well, and where do they fall short?

We at SearchMobileComputing.com want to make that choice a little easier. We've assembled a team of experts and asked them to weigh the good and bad of each mobile platform. On the fourth Wednesday of each month, we'll present the pluses and minuses of a different platform. With this series of stories, we hope to help you choose the platform that's right for your company and help you cast aside those that may not fit your needs.

Part 2: Windows Mobile. It's Microsoft, so it will gain its share of the market on name alone. But when it comes to functionality, Windows Mobile may have a little house-cleaning to do before it goes truly mainstream.

Walk into any San Francisco-area BART station and you can't miss it: huge, glossy advertisements for Windows Mobile, Microsoft's mobile operating system. The signs are affixed to walls, dangling from poles, even stuck to the floors at the foot of escalators.

Obviously, someone in Redmond has a point to make.

Series at a glance
BlackBerry

Windows Mobile

Palm OS

Symbian

Linux

J2ME  

 Windows Mobile is unique in that there are two distinct versions of the platform -- one for smartphones and one for PDAs. As unique as that is, though, it can also be a source of frustration for mobile operators and managers who deploy Windows Mobile, according to experts, because some features that are flawless on one incarnation are not to be found on the other.

According to Avi Greengart, principal analyst with Current Analysis, Windows Mobile 5.0 is the Pocket PC version, which includes Mobile Office, touch-screen support, synchronization with Outlook Notes, and other capabilities that are not on the smartphone edition.

According to Greengart, however, the smartphone version is more user-friendly because it does not have a touch-screen design and assumes that users don't have a QWERTY keyboard. The smartphone edition has icons on top that quickly launch frequently used applications without having to grab a stylus, and it auto-completes numbers or names that a user is dialing from the numeric keypad.

"Still, version 5 of Windows Mobile Pocket PC is the first Pocket PC version that is really appropriate for a smartphone," Greengart said. "Prior versions were PDAs with phone functionality partially -- and only partially -- grafted on."

From a market perspective, Windows Mobile is holding its own. According to Todd Kort of Gartner Inc., Windows Mobile led the PDA operating system market in the first quarter of 2006 with 52.6% of the worldwide market, edging out BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM), which held a 25.4% stake. On smartphones, Windows had a 4% stake of the operating systems in the same quarter, ranking third behind Symbian and Linux, with 64.8% and 26%, respectively. Overall, Microsoft had a 12% share in the combined PDA and smartphone markets in the first quarter of 2006, again beaten out by Symbian at 54.4% and Linux at 21.8%.

"Windows Mobile is taking a slow but steady share in the PDA space," Kort said.

In a recent informal poll on SearchMobileComputing.com, 26% of respondents said Windows Mobile is the most prevalent mobile platform in their organization. Windows Mobile tied BlackBerry for the top spot; Palm OS was next in line with 20%.

"Microsoft is kind of getting the benefit of people who don't like the BlackBerry," Kort said.

The Good

The main draw of the Windows Mobile operating system, according to experts, is its maker -- Microsoft. Countless businesses and organizations consider themselves "Windows shops," meaning they almost exclusively run Windows applications. According to Jack Gold, principal and founder of J. Gold Associates, a Northborough, Mass.-based research and advisory firm, the name alone singles out Windows Mobile.

"The single strong point is it's Windows Mobile -- it's Microsoft," Gold said. "For a Windows or Microsoft shop, it's a wise decision, since it's fairly easy to add into the mix if a company has an affinity to other Windows applications, like Word and Excel."

Windows Mobile also actively syncs to the Exchange and SQL servers, and though that system may be somewhat lacking, Greengart said, it is still the best active sync on the market.

"Microsoft's synchronization is a lot like democracy: It's a terrible system, but the best one we have," Greengart said. "PIM sync and media sync are still separate, and where the settings are stored [and] accessed appears somewhat arbitrary. Still, it is more modern that Palm's now antiquated HotSync and more uniform than what Symbian licensees choose.

"Windows Mobile PIM functionality is good, finally, though still not as optimized for data entry as Palm," Greengart continued. "Consumers assume that Outlook sync is included with Windows Mobile devices, and many consumers assume that it is not included on Palm and Symbian. This perception gap is a shame, because for the longest time, Palm did Outlook sync much better than Microsoft themselves. The perception gap comes up again for Office docs; Palm and Symbian licensees often include third-party products that are superior to Microsoft's own offerings, but many users assume otherwise. On Windows Mobile Smartphone Edition, Office Mobile isn't even included."

Along with the ability to use several Windows applications, Windows Mobile also excels with incorporating third-party applications, Greengart said.

"Microsoft's library of third-party software is stronger than Symbian's, much stronger than RIM, but still not as broad or deep as the Palm OS," he said. "Microsoft has a big leg-up with corporate developers; Microsoft keeps its APIs similar for both Windows on the desktop and Windows Mobile. What's more, Microsoft also produces industry-leading software tools, which all work with its mobile platform as well."

Windows Mobile is also not NOC based, meaning there is no server, which can be a plus or minus, depending on preference.

The Bad

There's nothing in Windows Mobile that's head and shoulders above other mobile operating systems, but for an organization that's invested with Windows, this is a good choice.
Jack Gold
Principal & FounderJ.Gold Associates

 One problem with Microsoft, experts said, is that for non-Windows shops it wouldn't make much sense, especially since it is not easy to use for those who aren't knowledgeable in Windows.

"If you're not a Windows shop, the attractiveness is much less," Gold said. "It's not a slam dunk unless you're a Windows shop."

Windows Mobile is complex for folks not attuned to some of the Windows applications, according to Gold, creating a steeper learning curve.

"You can't just pick up a device and figure it out," he said. "Microsoft has not done the best job making it easy. It's not a 98-pound weakling, it's a 180-pound gorilla. It's big and it takes a lot of resources."

And although there is a lot of third-party software available for Windows Mobile, Microsoft's own software is sometimes a cross to bear, Greengart said.

"Microsoft's software sometimes seems at odds with the hardware it is running on, particularly in terms of control layout," he said. For example, some devices from HTC that run Windows Mobile don't have OK or menu buttons. And in some cases, OK can actually mean cancel in Windows Mobile lingo, he added.

Also, with Windows Mobile, a battery-life indicator is an aftermarket add-on, Greengart said.

"Multitasking is strong, but there is no way to easily close programs instead of hiding them," he said. "The competition is much better in this regard. Nokia dominates Symbian devices on the market, and the hardware/software integration tends to be good. Palm dominates the Palm OS devices on the market, and the hardware/software integration on the Treo is top-notch.

Another hindrance, according to Kort, is the difference between Windows Mobile's PDA and smartphone versions. The smartphone version doesn't support a touch-screen, and the application strength doesn't translate well to the small keyboards. Plus, some applications on the PDA format don't run well (or at all) on the smartphone profile, and there is a much smaller library of applications for the smartphone variations.

Some of these hurdles are keeping phone manufacturers from coming around to Windows Mobile, Kort said. Right now, it's available on some Palm Treos, the Motorola Q and some Samsung devices. But Nokia, the worldwide handset leader, has shied away from Windows Mobile.

The Indifferent

Currently, Windows Mobile's email functionality is considered "fair" by most experts, though some are quick to point out that it appears to be getting better. Instead of a push email model like BlackBerry, Windows Mobile uses a sort of fast-pull system, which retrieves data quickly instead of having it pushed out to the device.

"Mobile email is essentially free if you are already using Microsoft Exchange SP2 as your corporate email server," Greengart said. "Even with MSFP there is no true push -- it's more like a rapid pull. This crosses the 'good enough' threshold for most people, but is noticeably inferior [for] anyone accustomed to a BlackBerry."

Email security is also questionable for Windows Mobile devices, Greengart said.

"Unlike the BlackBerry, there is no end-to-end security on the native email client," he said.

Kort agreed, noting that in Windows Mobile "there's not a lot of great security" for email. Companies are better off adding in third-party software for email and mobile email security and management, he said – Good Mobile Messaging (formerly GoodLink), for example, which he believes is better than Microsoft's native email.

"I'm expecting Microsoft to get there eventually; right now, though, they're not at the first tier with RIM and Good," Kort said of Windows Mobile's email.

Supported and non-supported screen resolutions can also have an impact on the email experience, Greengart said. Many Windows Mobile phones meant for email have less than ideal screen resolution when compared with a Nokia E61 or BlackBerry 8700.

Along with email concerns, Windows Mobile's user interface, which tries to mimic the Windows desktop, can create extra steps for users.

"There's no question that putting a hierarchal menu system on a small device ensures that you'll always need extra steps to get anything done," Greengart said. "From a usability perspective, it simply is not appropriate to graft Windows onto a device with a small screen and no mouse. However, average consumers often find the Windows Mobile easier to use than other mobile operating system choices because the learning curve is relatively short -- the Start menu paradigm is something they are already familiar with."

The opposite extreme would be Research In Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry OS, which offers no visible menu structure but all kinds of short cuts, according to Greengart.

"Give nearly anyone a Windows Mobile device and ask them to open the calendar and enter an appointment, and they'll be able to do it," he said. "Palm prides itself on its ease of use, and indeed, the Palm OS Treo has a separate button just for calendar and another to launch an applications screen. But there's a good reason Microsoft sticks with the Windows motif. Newcomers find this environment very familiar, and it eases corporate training costs."

The Conclusion

Experts admit that the Microsoft brand is quick to draw in potential users, but the Windows Mobile platform is at a crossroads. It's getting there, Kort said, but it's not quite ready yet.

More on Windows Mobile

Learn how to do everything with Windows Mobile

Get ready for more Windows Mobile devices

Check out the results of our mobile platform poll

 Windows Mobile's overall choices of third-party software should, however, make it a contender in the mobile operating system space, Kort said. And the ability to add in software and applications to replace those where Windows Mobile falls short is beneficial.

"If you're using a lot of third-party applications, there's a lot of software available," he said. "Microsoft has third-party applications pretty well nailed."

Experts agree that Windows Mobile email is also close, but still lacks the security and rich feature set of some of the competition.

Windows Mobile is not necessarily a home run, according to Gold, but for companies used to a Windows environment, it could easily rise to the top among mobile operating system choices.

"There's nothing in Windows Mobile that's head and shoulders above other mobile operating systems," Gold said, "but for an organization that's invested with Windows, this is a good choice."

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