AT&T, Sprint Phones: Hope for Android, None for Windows Mobile
My latest column describes one phone that feels like a new beginning and another that looks like a closing act. And in this blog post, I'm going to talk about a big factor behind how each phone fared in my evaluation: its software.
First, the device I hated -- AT&T's HTC Pure, running Microsoft's allegedly upgraded Windows Mobile 6.5 software. How much do I dislike this inept software? I would rather attend a Windows 7 house party than use Windows Mobile 6.5 full-time.
Seriously, I haven't been this annoyed at reviewing a mobile device since I took an axe to Palm's Treo 755p a couple of months before the iPhone's arrival.
Like that forgettable phone, the Pure is handcuffed to an aging operating system that is starting to look beyond redemption. Smartphone systems like Apple's iPhone, Google's Android and Palm's webOS work well because they don't try to cram a desktop computer's interface and practices into a screen the size of a credit card--while the whole idea of Win Mobile has been to recreate the desktop Windows experience, right down to the My Documents folder, on a handheld device.
Also like Palm at its worst, Microsoft seems unable to focus its efforts. Its Zune HD features a compact Web browser and application storefront that were developed independently of the equivalent features in Windows Mobile.
Other reviewers have been no kinder than I towards Win Mobile 6.5. For instance, MobileCrunch's Greg Kumparak writes that typing with its onscreen keyboard "is like sewing with your feet." At Gizmodo, John Herrman says 6.5's bizarrely inflexible programs list "makes organizing apps feel like completing some kind of horrible puzzle game."
(You can see Microsoft make its own argument for Win Mobile 6.5 in the reviewers' guide it's posted online.)
The other gadget I tried out in the column -- Sprint's HTC Hero, its first phone running Google's Android software -- has issues of its own, but it still feels like a device that has the capability to improve.
Google has already shipped one major update to Android since its debut last year, with a lesser upgrade in the works. And Android users should soon have better options for syncing their calendars and contacts lists directly to the software on their computer.
But the most promising part of Android is its selection of third-party programs. True, the iPhone's App Store inventory -- more than 85,000 programs -- dwarfs the 10,000-plus titles of the Android Market. But just as the quality of individual Mac software compares well with the quantity of Windows programs, Android users can point to such smart, Android-only applications as ShopSavvy, mentioned in my review, and Layar, an "augmented reality" application that overlays snippets of Web data on the camera's view of the world around you (for instance, pointers to Yelp reviews of nearby establishments).They can also enjoy many "Android-first" applications that run better on that platform than anywhere else--say, Google's Google Voice program, which connects to its ingenious voice-calling service.
Oh, right: Google did write a version of Google Voice for the iPhone, only to have Apple reject that application. The absence of such restrictive, seemingly arbitrary gatekeeping in Android can only lower the cost of developing software for that platform. Plus, mobile-phone developers tell me it's a lot easier to write Android programs than iPhone software. So this gap in quantity may shrink faster than you'd think.
(The formerly moribund Palm also realizes the importance of making software writers welcome: Last week, it radically reformed its developer program, allowing app authors to publish their titles on the Web instead of only through its webOS App Catalog and cutting fees for open-source programs. Palm could use a lot more applications for its Pre and its upcoming Pixi, but this move should help that happen.)
The Hero itself has some hardware issues, such as its occasional sluggishness, lack of a physical keyboard and a low-quality camera. But it will have company soon enough--Sprint plans to sell a second Android model, Samsung's Moment, soon, while Verizon Wireless just announced a partnership with Google that will yield two Android phones this year, with Android netbooks and other phones coming in 2010.
Are you in the market for a new smartphone? If so, what kind are you considering- - iPhone, Android, Palm webOS, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile -- and what factors will play into your decision? Share your shopping list in the comments...
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