Is Android Destined to the Same Fate as Classic Windows Mobile?

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By: Brandon Miniman | Date: 22-Mar-10 | 9 Comments
Android is on a path that is all too familiar to those of us that have been using Windows Mobile devices for years. Remember how Microsoft's biggest defense for Windows Mobile (think back to versions 5, 6, and 6.1) was the flexibility they allowed to OEMs and carriers, thus resulting in a lot of consumer choice? Yes, indeed we saw many form factors and many choices for consumers (in fact, we once counted 18 form factors), but we also saw a lot of very crappy devices. Devices from i-mate (JAQ3 comes to mind), E-TEN (how about that X500?), Toshiba (can't forget the G900), and Pantech (with the Matrix Pro), all harmed the reputation of Windows Mobile severely because these devices brought horrible software interfaces, poor device performance, weak build quality, tons of third party carrier apps that required payment to function, and an experience totally inconsistent with every other Windows Mobile device on the market. All of these detriments translated into a bad user experience, which is one of the reasons Microsoft is trying to get as far away from legacy Windows Mobile as possible and exert a lot of control over their second try in mobile.

On its current path, I feel that Android is destined to the same fate. Android is just as open as classic Windows Mobile, allowing OEMs to completely change the interface, build a massive variety of form factors, and come up with hardware variations that often lead to underpowered devices. The only real unifying aspect between Android devices is the Market.

Examples? Recently I used the Motorola Backflip, a device crippled in several ways. First, the MotoBlur interface, while sort of cool for teenagers, was confusing, not elegant, and very slow in terms of performance (or perhaps the device was just underpowered/not optimized to begin with). Second, the hardware (with the backflipping keyboard) will be seen as a novelty to most people. And third, the device was crippled by AT&T by coming with last year's version of Android and the inability to install non-Marketplace apps.

Case two: the Sony Ericsson XPERIA X10. While a powerful device under the hood, the Rachael interface that probably cost SE tons of money and time to develop is slow, confusing, and difficult to use. As shown in recent a Engadget review, the device often goes from being snappy to slow without any given reason. Back at CES I had a chance to use the X10, and while I was wowed by the eye candy, I knew I'd have a hard time living with the device as a daily driver.

And yes, there are some great Android phones out there like the Nexus One, Hero, and soon the Legend and Desire. What do these devices have in common? They're made by HTC. If you think back to Windows Mobile, there also have been some really good devices over the years like the Touch Diamond, Touch HD, Touch Pro2, and HD2. And yes, these devices were made by HTC as well. If HTC was the only OEM on the planet, perhaps legacy Windows Mobile and Android of today wouldn't have these issues, but that's just not the case. If 50% of device on a given platform are crappy, it can overshow the other 50% that are good.

The smartphone industry is in its relative infancy. We're starting to see what works and what doesn't from a user experience perspective. Apple thinks that the best user experience comes only when one company controls the hardware and software experience. Microsoft thought the complete opposite for a decade with Windows Mobile...that the best user experience comes when they have a plethora of choices, and when OEMs can be free to do whatever they want to the software and hardware. Microsoft has gotten smarter, and while Windows Phone 7 Series will be perhaps a bit *too* much locked down, it's a step in the right direction that will ensure that if and when you buy a Windows Phone 7 Series device, it won't suck.

But for Android, there will be some struggles ahead unless Google and the Open Handset Alliance can figure out a way to put a tighter grip on what the OEMs and carriers can and cannot do.


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