What’s in a name? Well for Microsoft, almost 20 years of various successes and public failures. Yesterday, the Internet collectively chuckled as Microsoft’s company-wide rebranding efforts have the handset maker backtracking to an almost 20-year-old naming convention for its mobile efforts. As of today, the confusingly named Windows Phone mobile operating system that came preloaded on phones, will now just be called Windows 10 Mobile. Back in September, Microsoft quietly dropped the Windows Phone naming convention for phones. Without Windows Phone on phones, phones brandishing the Windows Phone OS started unofficially retaining the common sense title of Windows Mobile. The Windows Mobile title was a natural fit for two reasons, the first because it eloquently encompassed Microsoft’s vision for Windows and mobility. The second reason the unofficial name change became the go-to reference was, Microsoft officially used it no less than five years ago for roughly the same product.
The history of Windows Mobile
If you’re confused, I’ll try and start at the beginning of the circle. A little over 20 years ago Microsoft started producing an embedded version of Window called Windows CE. Similar to Windows 10 for IoT, Windows Embedded Compact (CE) was a way to run Windows on non-traditional devices. Not to be confused with Windows Embedded Standard, Windows CE used a hybrid kernel rather than the traditional NT found in the bigger brother Windows operating systems. The minimal system requirements to run Windows CE made it the ideal candidate for low memory welding devices. Windows CE made its way into ATMs, POS terminal healthcare monitors and more. However, it wasn’t until 2000, and the evolution of Windows CE turned it into PocketPC 2000. PocketPC was based on version 3.0 of Windows CE and worked best on devices with 240x320 (QVGA) displays but brought a host of desktop features to the tiny screens. Microsoft iterated and developed PocketPC 2002 for use on smartphones for the first time. As with all of Microsoft’s offerings, the company couldn’t help itself from offering seemingly redundant versions of the hybrid OS, but its most successful version came on phones that were targeted at the enterprise consumer.
Ironically, Windows Mobile software development mirrored, well, current Windows Mobile development. Microsoft intended Windows Mobile to offer similar features and appearances as the Windows desktop operating system of the time. Microsoft also encouraged 3rd party developers to create and distribute software applications within the Windows Marketplace for Mobile, where the company imposed few developer restrictions. Since Windows Mobile was mimicking a mouse and keyboard interface for much of its features and functionality, the core of Windows Mobile, Windows CE built in strong support for pen input to navigate. The pen support led to some side projects that involved internal experimentation of a Galaxy Note like device called the WinPad. Due to pricing and some touchscreen issues, the device never made it past the alpha stages of development. Oh, what could have been!
When PocketPC 2002 started hitting smartphones, Microsoft made it clear in its design, that the OS was intended to look like the newly released desktop counterpart Windows XP. Hmm, where else have we’ve seen this happen before? As PocketPC finally made the familiar name switch to Windows Mobile 2003, it brought with it four versions of the OS. Although there were officially four branding names, there were only two distinct versions. One for phones and one for PDA’s or phablets that possessed phone (calling) capabilities. As sad as it is to report, Windows Mobile 2003 was unveiled with features that took Windows Phone almost five years to reincorporate. Some features included a media player with streaming capabilities, a widely used multi-platform messenger in MSN Messenger, a more feature-rich Outlook experience, file beaming to non-Microsoft devices, Terminal Services, VPN, and UI theme support.
When Windows Mobile 5 landed in 2005, Microsoft shipped it with a .NET compacted framework. This inclusion boosted the phones support for more desktop-like parity. The OS also shipped with a bundled version of Microsoft Office Mobile that included PowerPoint Mobile, Excel Mobile and Word Mobile, which offered the ability to insert tables and graphics. Windows Mobile continued to keep up and often outpace the other mobile OS of the time. By the time Windows Mobile 6 and 6.1 rolled around, Microsoft had leading technologies in ActiveSync, Mobile Device Manager, Remote Desktop capabilities, and VoIP. The culmination of Microsoft’s earlier smartphone efforts came in 2010 when Steve Ballmer shoveled out Windows Mobile 6.5 as a stop gap measure. Even after admitting the company “screwed up with Windows Mobile”, Windows Mobile 6.5 found an audience when the OS got paired with the infamous HTC HD2. Thanks to some hacks done on HTC’s part, the non-multitouch OS was given multitouch support throughout various areas of the OS and the OEM added its own HTC Sense skin. Fortunately, for some users, HTC was able to sugar coat the mess that was the transition OS of Windows Mobile 6.5 but Microsoft’s stumbles in smartphones was only beginning.
The Windows Phone experiment
Not too long ago, when Microsoft made a mistake, they were slow to correct it and often that speed resulted in an over-correction that took just as long to fix. Steve Ballmer mockingly pointed out some of the weakness of the iPhone when it first unveiled back in 2007. Revisionist journalists salivate when dragging out this commentary to support iPhone-based arguments. In retrospect, Microsoft made the mistake of underestimating multi-touch and consumer-grade simplicity. In an effort to correct its mistake, the company took three years to introduce a barren OS with an over-emphasis on simplicity and uniqueness. In some respects, Windows Phones 7 Series (as it initially called) was different for the sake of being different. The differentiation Windows Phone 7 sought after in the consumer space was to the detriment of the operating system. Windows Phone focused so much on hubs and live tiles the development team seemingly lost the insight into making the operating system scalable. The Windows Phone team was so determine to prove to themselves that they could compete with the iPhone of 2007, they also lost sight of their key mobile customer base, enterprise. The enterprise recipe they had cooked up with Windows Mobile went out the window right along with the feature set educated smartphone users were appreciating.
During Microsoft’s over-correcting development of Windows Phone 7, the company seemingly missed the smartphone education that iPhone and Android phones were teaching users as well the rise of BYOD. Windows Phone seemed to be developed to compete with the iPhone of 2007 rather than the iPhone and Android phones of 2010. Without any legacy support for features the other operating systems were gaining, Windows Phone 7 was effectively dated before it hit the shelves. Add to the fact that iOS and Android were extending their smartphone operating systems to larger screens with tablets just as Microsoft just mastered a multitouch experience for phones. It would be another few years before Microsoft sought to over-correct that mistake with Windows 8. In that time, Microsoft lost their strong presence in enterprise, and dropped what little favor it had in consumer mindsets.
It wasn’t all bad news and dated development for the mobile OS. Windows Phone 7 brought a carefully thought out approach to integrated experiences and a new level of OS wide information sharing. The approach of an integrated communication experience is becoming standard operation for mobile operating systems now. Android has offered it for years and recently iOS began to open up to offer similar functionality. While the integrated approach is being adopted the methods are changing and Microsoft is more adopting of the change. Rather than lowering their head and running through suggestions, Microsoft appears to be listening to feedback as well as implementing competitive methods for expanding their mobile efforts. Some of the new implementations include the unbundling of integrated services and repackaging them as dynamically updated Universal Apps. Unfortunately, for Windows Phone the lessons being learned at the time were whack-a-mole siloed app-type navigation among smartphones. Without the big named apps and three years of mind share to deal with, Windows Phone 7 was effectively smothered before Microsoft could correct yet another mistake.
Windows Mobile is the future of Windows Mobile
My feelings on Microsoft’s mobile efforts is of a mix bag. At times, I’ve been dazzled by the potential on several occasions, and other times, I’m handed a a heavy hand of frustration with the realities. Back when I bought the HTC HD2 I had the device for all of few months before I was being promised Windows Phone 7. The potential and the functionality of the HD2 had my hopes up for Windows Phone 7. I’m not sure how the development teams worked out behind the scenes but the Windows Mobile 6 and 6.5 teams had the feature set people would eventually come to appreciate; but lacked the polish and execution of the Windows Phone 7 team. When Windows Phone 7 released, Microsoft once again, claimed aggressive development would be done to get the new OS caught up with the competition. Windows 7.5 was a solid first step to that promise. Unfortunately, in Microsoft’s rush to over correct the wild-wild-west like environment Windows Mobile 6 evolved into, they locked down too many API’s and forced developers to jump through hoops to develop for the platform. Not having feature parity or a system in place for developers to supplement the missing features, Windows Phone languish behind yet again.
With Microsoft rolling back to the name Windows Mobile again, the over-corrected experiment of Windows Phone seemingly comes to an unclimatic end. Perhaps foolishly I am once again dazzled by the prospect of Windows Mobile. I am less enthused for the mirrored philosophy of ‘desktop parity’ both the old and new Windows Mobile offer, but more excited at the idea of Microsoft finally finding their footing again. I see the return of Windows Mobile as the official announcement that Windows Phone was a short-sighted reaction to the industry. A reaction that has arguably cost Microsoft a solid place in the future of mobile computing. Windows Mobile may only be a name change but the name Windows Mobile symbolized a hyper-functional smartphone OS ahead of its time, but lacked the technology to polish the experience.
Now that the smartphone market is becoming increasingly saturated, smartphone requirements are becoming a bit more refined. Smartphones are increasingly becoming the default computing experiences for millions. Smartphone users are now more sophisticated with their needs and require more functionality out of their mobile devices. Windows Mobile offered that functionality back in the day and Windows 10 Mobile is shaping up to offer it once again. The new Windows Mobile operating system is also set to span various mobile devices, namely phones and small tablets, thus making the making the name Windows Mobile more aptly suited. Again, I am aware that this is only a name change but I think it’s a significant indictment of where Microsoft has come and gone as a company. The new naming conventions show signs of a company no longer as tone deaf as it had been in the past. Windows Mobile signifies a Microsoft that is starting to realize that some of its most useful and powerful products have been right in front of it all along.
Welcome back Windows Mobile.