April 20, 2012

Windows Phone (2.5 of 3: Abandoning the Base)

This doesn’t exactly fit into the second or third part of this series, but I think it bears inclusion. This isn’t so much a personal complaint about the OS as it is an observation on why it isn’t more popular. Once upon a time, there was a thriving community of enthusiasts who were quite fond of the Windows CE, Pocket PC and (old) Windows Phone OS. And rightly so. They were capable devices. They worked with lots of accessories (including keyboards), and they were highly customizable (you could even hack the registry like the desktop version of Windows if you were so inclined). Most had removable/expandable storage (via CF or SD cards) and a familiar file structure, and most worked AS expandable storage…you could plug them into your computer and drag and drop files onto them as you would a USB drive. There was also a wide array of software available, both from “professional” and “non-professional” sources. The devices and software still had stiff competition from the well-established Palm brand, but the devices were getting better with each iteration.

We won’t talk much right now about how Microsoft let this slip away, though I will say this: the jump from handheld device to phone went badly (the same can be said for Palm). A phone that needs a stylus doesn’t make sense. And the non-touchscreen version of the OS was limited (albeit easier to deal with).

Those issues are gone in Windows Phone 7. It is now a capable phone and no styli are necessary. But that fun stuff from paragraph one is also gone. As best I can tell, the OS doesn’t support as many accessories, including Bluetooth keyboards. There is minimal customization and most of it is less than skin deep. Some devices have expandable storage, but most don’t. There’s no file manager or USB drive functionality either.

This late in the game, Microsoft isn’t going to out-Apple Apple, so why bother trying? Why build such a closed-off phone when that space is already so thoroughly occupied? It would’ve made much more sense to go after Android. With the exception of jail-broken iPhone users, much of the mod/hacker community seems to favor Android. Android has the reputation of being more open and customizable. With a new offering that featured even a little bit of the old-school Pocket PC experience (but with more support, better developer tools, and higher equipment standards than Android), Microsoft could have wooed back at least a chunk of their old user base. Instead they took a middle-of-the-road approach and abandoned that base. It’s a closed-off system (like the iPhone), but without the unified design that works with a wide variety of accessories; and at the same time it’s a platform that can be used by multiple manufacturers with different hardware (like Android), but without the aforementioned functionality that would attract the modder/hacker crowd.

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