Joe Levi:
a cross-discipline, multi-dimensional problem solver who thinks outside the box – but within reality™

The Rise and Fall of Windows Mobile

I’ve been using Windows Mobile devices since I gave up my Newton, back when “Windows Mobile” was “Windows CE” or a “Palm Sized PC” and stuck with them through the evolution from PDA to phone to internet. Back then the only competition was from Palm (and Handspring, aka “cheap Palm”), and let’s face it, Palm really wasn’t much competition.

An Historic Parallel

Reminiscent of what happened with web browsers in the late ’90s, Microsoft swooped in and soundly defeated their only real competitor (Netscape). You see, stagnation killed Netscape. They were the only real browser on the market at the time, but they weren’t doing much with it – they didn’t have to. Then Microsoft came in. They had a superior product (at the time) and more innovation. They listened to the developers and the users, and they improved their product. Netscape started trying to compete to keep from losing market-share – unfortunately this caused problems for developers and ultimately end-users due to rendering problems across the many versions of Netscape. Netscape’s death gurgle sealed its fate – but in it’s last breath Netscape threw its source code into the Public Domain in the hopes that someday it could be reborn.

Then something happened all over again: Microsoft did nothing. Once their competition was gone, Microsoft had no reason to innovate, and Internet Explorer stagnated. Just like Netscape had done years before.

Opera became more relevant, Firefox (using bits picked up from Netscape’s codebase) and Safari were born and Microsoft saw their market-share begin to slide substantially. Pulling a page from Netscape’s playbook, Microsoft hurried and pushed out MSIE7, a tragic failure in an attempt to pull back some of their lost momentum in the newly kindled browser wars. Share kept sliding downward.

New versions of Safari and Firefox came out, ever faster and better at rendering web pages. Then Google’s Chrome was born: a small fish in a very big pond, filled with aggressive fish determined to starve it out. But Chrome’s market-share grew, further eroding Microsoft’s.

Microsoft rushed out MSIE8, promising not to “break the web” by allowing web developers (like me) to tell it to render pages in MSIE7 mode. But still, the message was clear: Internet Explorer was doomed, the others had won. The only reason MSIE was still relevant was because it was the browser that came pre-installed on “everybody’s” computer.

The Rise of Windows Mobile

Palm was a good OS and platform. It was a solid PDA, but it, like Netscape before it, was stagnant. Apple had a device trying to compete, but the Newton never was priced competitively and never garnered wide acceptance (although it was the superior product and still has innovations of even modern PDAs).

Microsoft released their “Palm Top” or “Palm Sized PC”. At first it was a clam-shelled device with a small keyboard and small screen, and like Palm PDAs, it had a grayscale display. The second iteration gave up the keyboard and clamshell for a stylus. It was a brick, not as elegant as Palm’s devices, but clearly a competitor. Palm was scared.

Innovation in the Microsoft camp came quickly and the devices were renamed “Pocket PCs”. Palm tried to keep up, even going as far splitting the company in two (hardware and software) and licensing their OS to the likes of Handspring (who’s Visor and Springboard modules were innovative, but further segmented Palm’s already small market-share).

Then Steve Jobs came back to Apple and axed the Newton line, eliminating one of the competitors, further shoring up Microsoft’s position.

Palm eventually threw in the towel, admitted defeat, and ultimately licensed the newly renamed “Windows Mobile” from Microsoft to use on their PDAs.

Blackberry came into the fray, offering push-email and an “always connected” experience. Microsoft quickly added those features to Windows Mobile.

But then Windows Mobile grew stagnant.

The Rise of the iPhone

Apple released their iPod, but Microsoft was unafraid, they had “Plays for Sure” and Windows Media Audio technologies that they could license to other manufacturers who could make portable music players.

Then Apple released an upgraded version of their iPod and their market-share began to climb, quickly. Microsoft’s “Plays for Sure” partners weren’t keeping up, not only that, by the very structure of this system, the “Microsoft” players were fragmented and not able to mount a viable competition to Apple’s iPod.

Microsoft attempted to innovate, ticking off all its “Plays for Sure” partners in the process, by abandoning “Plays for Sure” and releasing their own hardware and “media marketplace”. The Zune was born.

But while Microsoft was busy trying to compete with the iPod, Apple was busy turning the iPod into a phone and PDA. The iPhone shook the industry.

The iPhone was new, fast, sexy, and did most of what Windows Mobile did, but also included Apple’s killer music player and their killer web browser (optimized for a small, touchable screen).

It was almost as if Apple was flipping Microsoft off: “look, we can do phone and PDA, but we’re also going to throw in our music player which kicks yours in the fanny, and our web browser, which, well, is Pocket Internet Explorer really even relevant?”.

The Rise of the Competition

Apple kept innovating, improving their already superior iPhone platform. What’s more, Apple allowed first generation phones to get the second-generation OS, and subsequent upgrades. Windows Mobile devices typically forced you to get new hardware to get the new OS upgrade, which made users ask, “if I’m buying new hardware anyway, why not switch?”

Blackberry added touch to their interface, keeping them relevant that much longer.

Google released Android, a mobile OS they acquired from another company, and “Google-ified” it. The first generation device and OS was pretty good, reminiscent to Apple’s first iPhone. The second generation OS quickly followed, now good had a front-runner.

Palm, who had previously licensed Windows Mobile, apparently had done that only as a stop-gap, while their developers worked feverishly reinventing the Palm: the Palm Pre was born, and it was a viable contender. Palm no longer needed to license Windows Mobile, they were back in the game.

The Fall of Windows Mobile

Microsoft released Windows Mobile 6.0, but you had to buy a new device to get it. It still didn’t complete with Apple’s browser, music player, or user interface on the iPhone.

Microsoft released Windows Mobile 6.1, but you had to buy a new device to get it. It still didn’t complete with Apple’s browser, music player, or user interface on the iPhone.

Microsoft released Windows Mobile 6.5, but it’s so new that no device manufacturer has it available for sale (which may have changed by the time you read this).

There are some “unofficial” ways that someone can get Windows Mobile 6.5 and run it on their mobile phone today, which is what I’ve done (that review is the topic of an article I’ll publish after this one).

In short,

  • Windows Mobile 6.5 is too little, too late.
  • Requiring users to replace their hardware to get the latest version of Windows Mobile is a recipe for disaster: it encourages users to switch to another platform.
  • Windows Mobile’s interface is still lacking, not finger-friendly, and unintuitive. It’s too tightly coupled to how the previous versions worked and looked.

You may also like...

1 Response

  1. Mobile Developer says:

    Come on… windows mobile hasn't fallen anywhere… nor has RIM, apple, or android. These are all viable choices and their respective marketshare will continue to change over time. Right now RIM is king again and apple is not even close. Give it enough time and all this will chance again and again.

Leave a Reply