Emperor’s new screen

I’ve just returned from the Windows Mobile (WM) 6.1 launch event. Regular readers will know that I don’t normally cover “news” events in this column – I rather report on stuff that I’ve been using in anger over an extended period. Well WM 6.1 may be brand new, but I’ve actually been running various “leaked” builds of the mobile operating system for some time now and, since I know that many readers are WM users, it’s important to examine the latest release from a “real world” perspective.

Emperor's new screen

Let’s start with its headline feature, a new home screen. You may have read in various other reviews and news reports how WM 6.1 introduces a fancy two-dimensional sliding panel arrangement: you see full details about one item (say, your latest text messages), but there are other panels available that you can scroll onto, such as appointments, weather and your profile, and as you scroll both left-right and up-down these panels slide across the screen.

All this slippy-slidy-ness is very much the fault of Microsoft’s arch-rival Apple, because ever since the release of the iPhone, every manufacturer fears that a new mobile phone will be rejected by the money-paying public unless some part of its user interface slides around the place like a greased eel. Microsoft is simply kowtowing to the hardware vendors. So how does this sliding panel interface work in practice? What’s it actually like to use?

I’m going to stick my neck out slightly by saying I reckon the new interface has a nasty case of style-over-substance syndrome: it looks snazzy, but when you come to actually use it the limitations quickly become obvious. To get to a particular panel, you have to slide three times down and then 15 times right: or was that four times and 14 times? It’s pure madness. At the launch, the demonstration device running WM 6.1 Standard had one of its panel groups showing “1/42”, which means that somewhere up to 41 clicks to the right you might find what you’re looking for. Perhaps I’m being a bit of an old stick in the mud here, but please give me a traditional list or group of icons over this sliding monstrosity! As a response to the splendid iPhone interface, it sucks big time.

But WM 6.1 is more than just a new home screen – there are quite a few other things going on beneath its surface. The two biggies as far as readers of this column are concerned are probably the new device management capabilities and the improved web browser. Let’s start with management: WM 6.1 is the first version of the phone operating system that will work with the recently released (takes deep breath) Microsoft System Center Mobile Device Manager 2008. What is it with recent Microsoft product names? Is there a competition between the various groups at Redmond to see who can come up with the longest one? I’m going to risk the wrath of Microsoft’s PR department by calling it MDM for the rest of this column.

For those of you familiar with the device management capabilities in RIM’s BlackBerry Enterprise Server, MDM brings something similar to the WM platform. As well as useful security features such as remote wipe and enforced password changes, there’s a shed-load of policies that can be used to enforce security on your mobile fleet. I can actually foresee a “who’s got the most policies” contest breaking out between Microsoft and RIM, and although right now RIM is in the lead, Microsoft is catching up fast.

There’s one slight snag with MDM, though: while corporate WM devices were managed via Exchange Server in the past, MDM moves that management task out into a separate product that has a superset of the older Exchange Server functions. So far, so good. The trouble is that MDM only works with WM 6.1 or later devices, and I reckon that here in the real world it will be some considerable time before large enterprises are fully upgraded to 6.1 or better: right now, there are loads of phones with version 6 and earlier out in the wild. In fact, some manufacturers (especially in the ruggedised-device marketplace) are still launching new WM 5 devices. This means that if you deploy MDM, you’ll have some of your users managed using the new tool and the rest via Exchange Server, and it doesn’t take a genius to see that this will introduce all kinds of support and maintenance complications. When adding a new group of policies for example, you’ll have to do it in two different places – how crazy is that?

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