Seven's up
Wonder of the mobile world?
Microsoft's "Windows Mobile" operating system faces a disheartening and generally agreed-upon problem, which is that it sucks.

The devices designed for Windows Mobile by companies like HTC and Sony-Ericsson run the gamut from massive, powerful business phones to sleek iPhone challengers, and the reviews consistently say the same thing: hardware good; software godawful.

I can attest to this. Before my Android phone, I had an HTC Hera, which was a small, box-shaped contraction with an ok screen, too little RAM and a slide-out keyboard. It was not the best phone, even at the time, but it should've more than filled my needs. Should have — I came to the Hera just off a Motorola Razr, and so I had yet to discover the joys of a phone where you need to reboot occasionally.

Or reformat and reinstall the OS.

Or drop to the task manager to kill something that was preventing the phone application from working.

Or edit the registry to get it to start.

Or wind up with a configuration where the SD card has to be removed from the phone until it starts up, then put back in quickly so that it doesn't lock up.

Enter Android, filling the gap for phones that are not business-like enough to use RIM's OS, not ubiquitous enough to use Symbian, and not cool enough to be iPhones. Android also brought a new, app-centric paradigm to the common-man's-smartphone market — Windows Mobile had apps, to be sure, but there was no central repository to get them from, just websites where you could manually download install files.

The iPhone's success with application developers has traded on two primary facets. First, there are a lot of iPhones out there, and everybody who has an iPhone likely uses apps for it. This gives you a guaranteed market in the millions or tens of millions. Secondly, the platform is standardised — you know exactly what to develop for, what hardware quirks to code around (or take advantage of), and what resources you have available (camera, accelerometer, etc).

For the first few months after Android debuted, this held true for it as well — there was only the HTC Dream, marketed as the T-Mobile "G1" and sold unlocked as the "Android Developer's Phone". It was not an iPhone, but it offered the same ease of development — when everyone has the exact same phone, you know exactly what you have to code for.

Unfortunately, as more Android phones have come out, this has started to break down. Android has replicated Windows Mobile's pattern of presenting a basic kernel that is wrapped by hardware manufacturers — Motorola's Cliq, HTC's Rosie UI, and so on. It has also adopted Windows Mobile's key failing in the application market: you don't know what you're coding for.

Even if your code runs on all possible devices — and this is a non-trivial 'if'; after other Android phones started coming out, there were plenty of problems of people having to port their code over to non-G1 platforms — there's no guarantee that it will run well. The new Nexus One phone has more RAM, a faster processor, and more on-board storage. It also has new devices — a different LED set, a proximity sensor, and so forth.

Into this Android has added another kink. Windows Mobile, historically, has pushed major version changes — version 5 to version 6, version 6 to version 6.5, etc. The Android Open-Source Project, though, tracks substantially more incremental version changes — 1.0 to 1.5 to 1.6 to 2.0 to 2.1 inside of a year. Applications developed for one version of the OS aren't necessarily compatible with others, and not all devices support all builds of Android.

With all the analysts coming out in favour of Android as the new/closest challenger to the domination of Symbian and the iPhone OS, I'm going to go predict the opposite. I think this fragmentation of the Android development base is going to strangle the phone's potential for widespread quality app development, and I predict it winding up in the smartphone ghetto with whatever Palm and WinMo 6 are doing these days. It's going to be hard to beat Symbian's current market share if Nokia ever gets off their ass to do something about it, and the iPhone isn't going anywhere. That leaves a hotly contested third space. RIM? Android?

I think Microsoft has done the right thing with Windows Mobile 7. I think people will grow to like the UI — certainly, the Zune HD is fun and easy to use, and I don't see the obstacles to transitioning it to a phone interface that some do. Moreover, the strict minimum system requirements — not just processor speed and RAM but also phone features like an accelerometer — should leave Microsoft with all the potential device agnosticism of Android and all the commonality of the iPhone.

The key word, of course, is should. Microsoft has key barriers to overcome, particularly when it comes to their historically lacklustre ability to translate vision into results. But I, for one, am deeply optimistic.

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