Windows Mobile: Call Waiting?

Developers ask if Windows Mobile is on hold.

When Craig Dahlinger was invited to give a demonstration of Windows Mobile for developers at a code camp in Richmond, Va., last fall-one of several parallel sessions slated for the event-no one attended. This alarming lack of interest surfaced again in January, when he attended a local MSDN Developer Conference: There was no formal discussion of the company's beleaguered handheld operating system.

Much to the chagrin of many mobile app developers, Windows Mobile is receiving short shrift, laments Dahlinger, as Microsoft focuses on strategic technologies such as Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), Silverlight, ASP.NET MVC and new cloud services under development such as Azure.

"There is nothing Windows Mobile-oriented. It's all Azure and all the new stuff, which was fine, but there aren't many developer events that are [geared toward] Windows Mobile," says Dahlinger, a software engineer at Indianapolis, Ind.-based Interactive Intelligence Inc., which develops telephony integration software. "It seems like Windows Mobile is always the bastard child."

Developers agree that Microsoft's lack of emphasis on Windows Mobile at its events couldn't come at a worse time. Yet it's merely one of several issues dogging the company's ability to lead, or even keep pace, in the fiercely competitive, and potentially lucrative, mobile communications race. Critics have lambasted Microsoft for its slow progress on modernizing its handheld computing platform while rivals have usurped the company in functionality and, in some cases, sales growth.

The criticism comes as Q3 sales of Apple Inc.'s iPhone for the first time exceeded revenues from Windows Mobile devices, according to both Gartner Inc. and IDC. Making matters worse for Microsoft and the Windows Mobile community, the market researchers predict that other platforms, including Google Inc.'s open source Android and Nokia Corp.'s soon-to-be open source Symbian platform, will continue to threaten Microsoft moving forward (though the latter is dominant worldwide, it has a miniscule presence in the United States).

Progress on the Way
Developers are also concerned that Microsoft has been slow to reveal when Windows Mobile 6.1 will take on features that match its rivals', such as a more modern interface, support for touch and improved Web browsing. Microsoft indicated it plans to shed at least some of that mystery at this month's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. Jay Roxe, group product manager for Windows Mobile, tells RDN Microsoft will officially unveil Windows Mobile 6.5 "very soon."

Windows Mobile 6.5 will sport an improved user interface with gesture and touch capability and better Web browsing with Internet Explorer Mobile 6. The upgraded browser provides improved JavaScript rendering, support for widgets via AJAX and an integrated Adobe Flash Lite runtime, says Roxe, who transferred from the developer division to the mobile computing business (MCB) group after Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in October.

Roxe offered little detail in terms of when the first devices based on Windows Mobile 6.5 will ship; nor would he discuss Windows Mobile 7. It's also unclear when Microsoft's Silverlight plug-in will be linked to Windows Mobile. Silverlight for Mobile, announced at PDC, is based on Silverlight 2 and expected sometime this year. It will initially support Nokia S60 and Windows Mobile devices, according to Microsoft.

Microsoft will release new APIs for Windows Mobile 6.5, though Roxe declined to elaborate, only indicating that information will be disclosed imminently. When asked about developers' complaints regarding Microsoft's lack of communication about its mobile strategy, Roxe insists it will change.

"The next 12 months will be some of the most aggressive in MCB's history in terms of the software and services we deliver, the partnerships we're going to announce and the phones that we're going to help create," he says.

With so many unknowns, developers are candid about what they'd like to see: Microsoft needs to borrow a chapter from Apple's book. Apple has sold 17.4 million iPhones since its release in 2007. The widely admired App Store now boasts 15,000 applications and Apple reports 500 million downloads since its launch last year.

"If you look at the number of applications being developed for the iPhone versus other platforms, the iPhone is trouncing all the rest," says Mike Phillips, CTO of Vlingo Corp., a software supplier that offers voice-recognition capability for the BlackBerry and iPhone and is working on a release for Windows Mobile. "I think it's really driven by the App Store in that there's an open sort of way to get applications to market."

Even the strongest proponents of .NET development with a long and vested interest in Windows Mobile suggest that Microsoft needs an answer to the App Store. "The App Store is a killer app, it definitely is, and I can tell you as an MVP, we provided a lot of feedback to Microsoft," says Nick Landry, principal architect and practice manager for enterprise mobility at New York-based Infusion Development. "I am definitely hoping that Microsoft will answer with something else in kind, and I can tell you I will keep working feverishly with Microsoft to make sure this comes to life."

Windows Mobile apps are available today through Microsoft's Windows Mobile Catalog and online retailer Handango, which sells apps for multiple platforms. Roxe would not comment on published reports of a service to be launched in Barcelona, code-named "SkyMarket": "We know that we need to make it easier for users to get new applications and for developers to distribute those applications-that's as specific as I can be at this time."

Nick Landry, Principal Architect and Practice Manager, Infusion Development "I haven't seen a single company evaluating the iPhone for enterprise use to replace Windows Mobile or the BlackBerry. "
Nick Landry, Principal Architect and Practice Manager, 
Infusion Development  

This is more than just a checklist item. Joe Ciechanowski, an independent .NET developer who builds SQL-based enterprise Web apps, says Microsoft has to deliver its own competitor to the App Store. "I want the potential to generate revenue from it, and without a central place to distribute, it doesn't seem like near the opportunity that Apple presents to their developers," he explains.

Ciechanowski, who's equally frustrated at the number of people he sees with iPhones, is not about to start developing for Apple's platform, however. "I'm not a Mac guy, I'm a Microsoft .NET developer," he quips. And if he develops to any smartphone platform, it will be Windows Mobile-but not until he's convinced it's viable.

Indeed, at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and Macworld Expo last month, a cadre of developers launched new wares for the iPhone. While there was some anticipation that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer would showcase Windows Mobile 6.5 and perhaps even talk about Windows Mobile 7, the only noteworthy announcement on the topic was centered around an agreement with Verizon Wireless to make Microsoft's Live Search the default search interface on devices offered on the carrier's network.

Ironically, Microsoft's Live Labs unleashed a new version of its Seadragon visual demonstration application on Apple's App Store during Macworld, making the iPhone the first mobile platform it supports. Seadragon is designed to create a new model for how individuals can manipulate graphics and images. Microsoft's Live Labs has said it will port Seadragon to other mobile platforms, but the move has surfaced in the blogsphere as another reminder of the lagging capabilities of Windows Mobile.

Despite the huge growth of the iPhone, IDC analyst Ryan Reith says its days of outpacing Windows Mobile will likely be short-lived. Apple said it shipped 4.4 million iPhones in the fourth quarter, but Reith says: "My initial instinct is that Microsoft shipped more devices."

While its market share in the United States was 21 percent compared to 20 percent for Windows Mobile in 2008, IDC is forecasting that by 2012 Windows Mobile will have a domestic market share of 33 percent compared to the iPhone, which will drop to 12 percent. IDC is projecting market leader Research In Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry will grow from 42 percent to 45 percent. IDC is not yet tracking Google's Android because it only recently started shipping on one device offered by HTC Corp. on the T-Mobile network. "You'll start to see some applications for Android that are very much the equivalent of what's available for the iPhone," Reith says.

Enterprise First
Windows Mobile was designed from the ground up as an enterprise computing platform. Microsoft is now challenged with broadening its appeal to consumers, while the iPhone and Android were consumer-focused devices from the outset, says Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies Inc., a market research firm based in Campbell, Calif. By supporting Microsoft's ActiveSync and more recently 3G wireless networks, the iPhone gained basic hooks into the enterprise via support for Microsoft Exchange. "Apple will drive the Windows Mobile platform to become much more consumer focused in the future," Bajarin says.

"One of the things that I hope will happen is the Zune [marketplace] becomes much more like the Apple iTunes store, [so] that it can be a medium for smartphone applications as well as consumer applications," he adds.

The new Palm Pre, a showstopper at CES last month, has also raised the bar for Microsoft. "They introduced a very solid platform, [and] the big question will be how many developers they can entice to come over and write applications," says Bajarin.

While Bajarin and others don't foresee popular features like multi-touch appearing on Windows Mobile in 2009, Microsoft still has time. Only 10 percent of the 1.1 billion cellphones sold in 2008 were smartphones, according to Creative Strategies. Within three years, the market researcher projects 60 percent of all mobile phones shipped in the United States will be smartphones. "So the market is still in its early stages," says Bajarin.

For all its benefits from a usability perspective, developers say the iPhone platform has plenty of limitations for those looking to program enterprise applications. "On the iPhone, we don't have access to a messaging API, so we're not able to send a text message or an e-mail message from our application-so we had to take away that functionality," Vlingo's Phillips says. "On the BlackBerry, we have that sort of thing and on Windows Mobile, we can easily do that kind of thing. Even more application functionality is exposed to us on Windows Mobile than either of the two other platforms."

While some enterprise clients do inquire about the iPhone, it's typically only for consumer-facing scenarios. "I haven't seen a single company evaluating the iPhone for enterprise use to replace Windows Mobile or the BlackBerry," Infusion Development's Landry says.

Windows Mobile APIs
Like many mobile developers, Jay Steele, CTO of information service provider Viigo Inc., located in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, says Windows Mobile has a leg up over other mobile platforms with its tools, notably Visual Studio and .NET Micro Framework 3.5. "I would say Microsoft has the best tool set out there on the market, bar none," Steele says. "Their developer support, their APIs, their documentation-everything is top rate. It's an absolute pleasure to work in that environment. It's much better than the BlackBerry environment for sure."

Viigo's content and RSS feeds services support Windows Mobile and BlackBerry environments. The company has plans to support the iPhone.

While Google and others may be offering more favorable licensing terms for their mobile platforms, Interactive Intelligence's Dahlinger points to the fact that .NET developers incur little added expense by utilizing Microsoft's mobile tools.

"You get .NET Compact Framework for free," he says. "You can basically write up an application using the framework, post it up on a Web site and you don't have to go through any third party taking money from an applications perspective. When you post an app in the App Store they take a percentage and it has to be approved to be posted."

Unlike the iPhone, Dahlinger adds, .NET Compact Framework allows developers to invoke the services of Windows Mobile and features of supported devices such as Bluetooth, SIM Cards, storage, network and file systems. "The device is pretty much at your disposal, and that's a lot to be said compared to developing on the other platforms right now," he says.

Likewise, he points out tools on the Web that make it easy to write Windows Mobile apps. "You can switch back and forth between WinForms and Windows Mobile, you can write a desktop native app in C# and most of that code will port over for Windows Mobile."

Still, there's plenty of room for improvement, even on the tooling, Steele says. "I'd like to see a more consistent and tighter API. It's gotten way too big because of its history.

"But I recognize where it has come from," he adds. "It's come from a long history of Pocket PC and trying to maintain backward compatibility over time. The only way to really slim it down is to say, 'Sorry guys, backward compatibility is something we're no longer going to worry about.' Imagine how well that would go over."

Mobile Mesh
Landry believes one of the key tools that will strengthen Windows Mobile is last year's release of Live Mesh, which he uses actively. "Microsoft has tried time and time again to bring a good synchronization story, and I can confidently say that now-finally-Live Mesh gives us the synchronization that the true enterprise user wants," he says.

Once the Live Mesh API for Windows Mobile is available, Landry says he looks forward to writing his own applications that will link to Live Mesh. Infusion Development already uses Live Mesh to share important documents and code drops with Microsoft.

In the end, Landry and others are optimistic that Windows Mobile will become competitive, though no one expects any one device to take on the level of dominance Microsoft has enjoyed with Windows on the desktop.

"It's not easy to build a full-fledged, pre-emptive multitasking OS with background processing, while doing so on a device where people expect instant response," he says. "I think Microsoft knows real well that they need to make sure that whatever comes next, there isn't going to be any doubt in anybody's mind that it will be a strong rival to the iPhone while still being true to what Windows Mobile is."

Tips from a Mobile MVP

As Microsoft Plans new features for Windows Mobile, Infusion Development's Principal Architect and Practice Manager Nick Landry recommends the following guidelines for mobile app development:

  • Learn Azure. That includes mobile, desktop and server components as well as new services such as Live Mesh. Treat a mobile client as just one form of client architecture.
  • Don't try to port a full desktop version into the mobile UI-that's a leading cause of project failure.
  • No application should require more than 30 seconds to two minutes of user interaction to get something done.
  • Avoid feature overload: A common mistake among developers is building capabilities that mobile users don't care about.
  • Don't build functionality that will consume too much power or require too much network bandwidth.
  • Features may be limited to certain devices. For example, before adding GPS awareness to an app, make certain the devices have that capability.
-- J.S.