Can I be honest here for a moment?

Someone suggested in a comment to a previous posting that I write about the current state of the industry, and as I’m leaving the company, I might as well be completely honest. That would be a great idea, but remember that I only have the viewpoint of a foot soldier rather than a general, and so I’m not sure that I know the current state of the industry in any way that would be meaningful.

Also, I don’t think I’ve ever been dishonest when writing this blog (haha) so there might not be much new here. And finally, I would like to keep the option of working for Microsoft in the future open. I do like this place, and the people and I still have stock!

With that out of the way, I am happy to start with a rant and say I dislike the latest version of Word and its default typeface Calibri a great deal. Drives me crazy. The kerning seems whacky, and it doesn’t come with my favourite Helvetica. There, that’s set the scene nicely. You can tell I’m going to be at least a little mean here, but in a nerdy way. J

So, to be honest, I have a feeling that we lost our way a little.

My favourite mobile devices were the early ones: the Palm-size PCs, the Pocket PCs. There was no attempt to be a phone, they were PDAs – and back then, this was a really novel idea. The competitor was Palm, and Microsoft really shook them up. Sure, the user interface was clunky (after eight years here, I am still not convinced that a Start button on a pocket device is a good idea, and I don’t think I ever will be) but there was some real innovation. Remember “Channels”, that funny icon that looked like a satellite dish? Those were a cross between desktop widgets and RSS feeds – and that was ten years ago. Ahead of its time. Even the mighty iPhone doesn’t quite have the same model in place for pulling down content. If those had survived until WIFI/GPRS, they would have flourished. Sadly, all we have at the moment is the Mobile Internet Explorer web browser, which, let’s be honest here, is not amazing.

Back then, Pocket PCs had the ability to write plug-ins for the home screen that was powerful and easy to do.  I wrote and sold a program called “Sticky Buttons” that let you use anything from South Park characters to Star Trek-style graphics as your user interface, and the templates people emailed me were stunning. They broke every copyright law in the book, but they were stunning. Everyone loves customizing the look of their personal gadgets, and it's a shame that it’s increasingly difficult to change the look of Windows Mobile devices.

The move away from innovative new ways of using mobile devices seemed to happen when we started to mate these pocket devices with mobile phones. Of course it was inevitable that this union happen, but bolting a phone onto a PDA was kind of back to front, and highlighted the “Start button” model. In my view, it should be a phone first, and a computer second.  We always seemed to get that the other way around, even with the Smartphone devices.

Now, when I say lost our way, that simply mean deviates from the kind of device that I, personally, would like. I’m not speaking for the entire market. The market that Windows Mobile devices seems to be two groups of people: the business person who needs access to email on the road, and the company that needs to tweak a device into a bespoke platform for remote access to data. Given Microsoft’s success with Exchange Email Server and database tools, this isn’t that surprising when you think about it. Plus, Microsoft has Visual Studio in its catalog – and I’m biased of course, but this has got to be the finest, most powerful development suite in existence.  

Windows Mobile devices have been very, very successful in these markets, which is a Good Thing. But then I walk into a local phone store and see Windows Mobile devices on display, and I worry. I think that if we have these for sale in a High Street store, we’re reaching beyond business users, and in that case someone is going to buy one of these, and then they are going to discover that the device isn’t really ideal for, you know, fun stuff. The web browser, the media player – these are features that have not kept pace, and ironically this is exactly where mobile technology is blossoming. Social networks, portable video, Web 2.0 – we’re lagging behind there. Thank goodness there are some cool apps happening and many changes afoot that I can’t talk about, but there is still progress to be made here.

I’ve seen people put a Windows Mobile device and an iPhone on a PowerPoint slide, and check off the features: email, media, web browser. Sure, the Windows Mobile device gets a check mark but that’s missing rather an important point. I would like to see us make a device that combined the amazing, industrial-strength business stuff we have pretty much perfected, with the type of experience that would make me personally want to buy one of these for my brother, who doesn’t need to stay in touch with his office.

There. I’ve said it. For fun stuff, we’ve a ways to go. And that is what I like doing with devices, fun stuff. It’s what I liked doing on Pocket PCs and Palm-size PCs, and it was easy to write some applications to make fun-stuff happen. These devices aren’t fun for me anymore. My personal phone is not a Windows Mobile phone.

Of course, there are just my personal opinions. I’m far away from any team that implements these features, and defines which market segment Windows Mobile is aimed at. This company exists to make money for the shareholders, not create a device specifically for me. My job here has been to try and help developers write applications, by wrestling with the enormous number of programming APIs on one side, and the enormous overhead of the documentation creation process on the other. When I do get to pop my head up and try and see what’s coming next, another wave of new APIs and documentation tools crashes down on me, and I get caught up in the enjoyable process (and I’m not being sarcastic there, really) of getting information onto MSDN in a way that someone might actually be able to find it, and think it useful. Hey, it was a wonderful job – but it wasn’t a job that could influence the next generation of device user interface.

So I do think we strayed a little too much into the business user side, and could have spent more time creating user interfaces, customization tools,  web features and media players. 

Obviously I can’t talk about any products or versions or platforms or tools that have yet to be announced, and to be completely honest with you, my job has kept be busy enough that I’ve not had a chance to dig too deep into what’s coming next. I’ve heard codenames, I’ve seen demos. I do hope it’s cool. Maybe if it’s really cool I’ll buy one.


Comments (5)
  1. Kevin Daly says:

    My first handheld device was an HP Jornada 545…despite its limitations I loved it…I even enjoyed struggling with the embedded Visual Tools to write software…I bought a Psion IR modem just so I could try out internet connectivity, even though it was a completely impractical way of doing it (line up the IR port with a modem plugged into the phone socket, yeah that’s portable). Sigh.

    I noticed several years ago that Microsoft basically stopped talking about Windows Mobile except in the context of smartphones, which was frustrating and troubling.

    Ignoring the consumer market however is definitely the biggest problem, and in this one I think the mistakes have been shared between Microsoft and the hardware vendors , who really need to receive counselling and try to discipline themselves to get through a whole sentence without using the word "Enterprise".

    Windows mobile has all the bits: good programmability (with provisos I’ll expand upon), media capabilities, Officey stuff, connectiviy and so on. But it doesn’t bring them together in an attractive experience (how’s that for an unhelpfully vague statement?).

    Much more could be made of the multimedia capabilities of these devices (adding some serious storage would help…do that and who actually needs a DAP?). I’d be interested to know if it would be technically feasible for a WM device to be a Media Center Extender (for all I know there may be something in the works already)

    As for the programming side of things – I’m a C# developer these days (I’m 46, so life is just too short for C++), and it’s great, but the limitations really hit when it comes to UI – I find myself getting the "Oh crap this looks like VB4" feeling quite often – not to mention the lack of managed support for RichInk (and whatever happened to the VS 2005 patch for .NETCF 2 SP2?)…anyway, my one great hope is that Silverlight for devices appears before too long, and that it’s *not* just limited to an in-browser online experience. A variant of Silverlight 1.1 as a standard UI option for .NETCF applications would enable us to really give the iPhone a run for its money (it won’t give us multitouch but you can’t have everything), and more importantly it would at least make it possible to produce UX that I won’t be embarrassed about (or if I am, at least it’ll be all my fault).

    So it’s still possible for Windows Mobile to be something wonderful, it just takes imagination (and repeating every day: "Don’t listen to the Suited Ones").

    PS. All the best back in Ireland (I seem to recall you’re heading back there) – the best job I ever had was the 4 years I spent in Dublin – shame there’s no job market there now for middle-aged Kiwis 🙂 )

  2. MSDN Archive says:

    Thanks for the comments, Kevin!

    I can’t believe with your Irish name there was no work for you there 🙂

    Wouldn’t making Silverlight a proper platform on the device just kick ass? I’ve no information on that, but here’s hoping. Some phones on the market already use Flash as their main UI, so Silverlight would be a great alternative: and here’s hoping if it happens, they leave the door open for customization!

  3. Excellent post, I’m glad you accepted my topic.  Good luck in your adventures outside of MS.

  4. MSDN Archive says:

    Thanks, Brandon 🙂

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