Mobile Software Choice Is Clear

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, October 11, 2009

Will a new gadget stick around? You can't tell from its first act, but you might know by its second or third release. Or maybe its seventh. Consider two new follow-on performances in the wireless-phone industry: One broadens the appeal of Google's Android software, while the other cements the irrelevance of Microsoft's aging Windows Mobile platform.

The first item is Sprint's HTC Hero, shipping Oct. 11 for $279.99 before a $100 mail-in rebate for new or renewing customers. It's the first Android phone available here from a carrier besides T-Mobile. That alone is good news: Sprint's data coverage vastly exceeds T-Mobile's patchy service, and its prices beat T-Mobile's, too (Hero voice-and-data service, starting at $69.99 a month, includes unlimited calls to mobile phones).

As a phone, the Hero itself resembles T-Mobile's myTouch. Like that device, it employs an on-screen keyboard that discourages extended typing, thanks to its cramped spacing and distracting auto-correction feature.

The Hero has a 5-megapixel camera, but its soft-focused images and grainy video looked like the output of a device with lesser specifications. Its battery life falls short, too; Sprint estimates it at only "up to four hours" of talk time, and a day of Web use could easily drain it, even with its WiFi receiver shut off.

The real star of the Hero, however, is not its hardware but its open-source software. Android, with Palm's webOS, offers much of the smarts and style of the iPhone.

Like the iPhone, the touch-driven Android includes a Web browser that displays full-size pages (and on the Hero, accepts iPhone-style "multi-touch" gestures to zoom in and out), a capable e-mail program (though it stopped checking my work account after a day) and a GPS-enabled Google Maps application. Android's music and video player, however, doesn't synchronize with Apple's iTunes software.

Android's contacts and calendar applications, in turn, sync to Google's Web services. That can be a problem if you feel Google knows enough about you already.

Unlike the iPhone, Android can run multiple programs at once, although its multitasking capability can gum up the phone.

The Android Market on-screen catalogue provides one-tap installation of more than 10,000 add-on programs. Many are as crafty as anything in the iPhone's far larger App Store; for example, ShopSavvy uses a phone's camera to scan an item's bar code and look up prices for it online and at nearby stores.

The other, less impressive new phone development of the month is Microsoft's Windows Mobile 6.5 -- the company's first big update to its mobile software since the iPhone arrived in 2007. You might think that two years would be enough time for Microsoft to respond to its new competitor, but you would be wrong.

As tested on an AT&T HTC Pure, one of a handful of devices with the new software (a few older phones can be upgraded to it as well), Windows Mobile 6.5 is a miserable mess. Slow, clumsy and ugly, it offers a few surface refinements of the iPhone and Android but little of their underlying elegance.

For example, the scrollable list of applications that 6.5 offers in place of older versions' awkward Start menu doesn't actually present all the programs on the phone and permits little customization of their display order.

Likewise, its Internet Explorer browser no longer gags on desktop sites but stalls out when loading or redrawing a page and can't open more than one page at a time.

Windows Mobile 6.5's new on-screen keyboard seems designed for a shrunken species of human, to judge from its tiny buttons. And its menus often reveals cramped dialogs unchanged from older versions of Windows Mobile that required using a stylus.

As before, synchronizing Windows Mobile 6.5's contacts list, calendar, to-do list and notes requires that you own Windows XP or Vista and Microsoft's Outlook. Otherwise, you can sync the phone's e-mail and contacts, but not calendar or notes, to the free Windows Live service.

A separate, new My Phone backup service provides Web access to the phone's data, plus a basic "find your lost phone" tool.

Another new Microsoft service, Windows Marketplace, finally allows one-tap loading of extra software. But it carries only 246 applications out of some 20,000 available through the old, woefully complicated installation routine.

AT&T's Pure ($199.99 before a $50 mail-in rebate for new or renewing customers, with service starting at $69.99 a month) features an FM radio, a 5-megapixel video/still camera that took sharper photos than the Hero, better battery life than its HTC sibling, and a flashy TouchFlo home screen that displaces a smarter Microsoft interface apparently modeled after its Zune media players. But this carrier repeats the worst habits of PC vendors by cluttering the phone with irrelevant extra software (though the Opera Mobile browser works better than IE). And even though this phone requires headphones with a proprietary HTC connector, AT&T doesn't include a pair.

With all these issues, it can be difficult to see many people wanting a Windows Mobile phone now. It's even harder to imagine how long phone manufacturers will keep paying Microsoft for this software when Android is not only better but also free.

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