Does Windows Mobile 6 Smell (part II)?

In my previous post I talked about Microsoft and the enterprise and how it had help shape Windows Mobile 6.x. Now I want to look at some of the implications of this strategy, specifically looking at how the attitude towards touch input has changed over time.

Touch v’s Non-Touch v’s Multi-Touch

One of the things that really differentiated Windows Mobile was it’s ability to work on multiple different form factors, from your non-touch txt friendly devices with keyboards through to your candy bar devices through to your pda-style devices with on-screen keyboards. Track back a few years and you would have seen the names Pocket PC and Smartphone being used to describe devices with and without a touch interface. With a move to align the two operating systems these came to be known as Windows Mobile Professional and Windows Mobile Standard – personally I think this did more than confuse the market who were already confused by the double use of the word Smartphone.

But this post wasn’t supposed to be a Windows Mobile history lesson, instead it was to look at our opinions on touch have evolved. If you recall back to the Pocket PC days there were very few people who actually used “touch” to interact with their device. Most uses whipped out their stylus and used that to push and poke at the screen. They would tap at the on-screen keyboard or even learn how to use the quirky text recognition capabilities of the device. This process was quite painful, particularly if you were responding to a text message or email. This is in part why both hardware keyboards and the Smartphone increased in popularity – both these addressed the problem of how to quickly navigate and type on the device.

The challenge with a physical keyboard is that no matter how to position it you end up with a tiny keyboard that simply adds weight and size to the device. Text entry, whilst quickest using a full qwerty keyboard was still a far shy from entering it on the desktop and often the extra hassle of sliding out a keyboard, waiting for the screen to reorientate and then entering text was enough to put off a lot of users.

The challenge with Smartphone is that it just sux – ok, you have me, I’m not a Smartphone advocate. Whilst I find that the interface is quick to navigate nearly all the applications are somewhat lacking or clumsy to use.  Take internet explorer for example – you either have a little arrow cursor that you drag around the screen using a dpad or you jump from link to link, often making the text of the website very difficult to read. Personally I’ve never liked this style of device and it was scary a couple of years ago because it seemed that 90% of all new devices being released by OEMs were a Smartphone, rather than having a touch screen.

From a development perspective we saw the convergence of Smartphone and Pocket PC into Windows Mobile as a good thing. It meant we could build a single application that would work on both styles of devices. Unfortunately, this is a bit like building a desktop application and running it on the device – great idea, but results in an aweful user experience as either the desktop application is limited to display what’s available on the device (ie small screen real estate) or the application has to scale down to fit to the device (resulting in small controls that are hard to use). Guidance from Microsoft even suggested that developers should build to target Smartphone so it will work on both devices.

This whole topic became even more interesting when Apple released the iPhone and multi-touch came into the mainstream. Unfortunately the Windows Mobile team failed to get it and released 6, 6.1 and 6.5 without any support for multi-touch.  In fact it’s only been with the release of the HTC HD2 that we’ve even seen capacitive screens for Windows Mobile which would effectively allow multi-touch. I believe this was because there was a misunderstanding on how users wanted to use their device. Too much research focussed on looking at ways to improve what users were currently doing (eg using a stylus), rather than exploring more innovative ways for the users to do things (eg making all controls larger so that the user can use touch instead of a stylus).

Now, finally Microsoft has awoken and we are seeing a new era of devices and operating systems heavily geared towards making touch (and I’m sure in the future multi-touch). Windows Mobile 6.5.3 has restyled controls, repositioned Start menu and Ok buttons, specifically geared to making it easy to navigate with touch and gestures. Windows Phone 7 series is all about touch, swipe, gesture and motion in general. It’s clear to see that this is the way forward and that the old Blackberry style non-touch devices are a thing of the past.

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