The review of Microsoft's Windows Mobile 5 operating system in the Sept. 25 Fast Forward column incorrectly said that its Contacts program does not allow users to skip ahead to an address-book entry just by pressing buttons. That kind of shortcut does exist: Open Contacts, then press the up or down buttons on a Windows Mobile device for roughly two seconds to jump through your contacts list by letters of the alphabet instead of one contact at a time. (Published 9/30/2005)
The operating system in a mobile device -- whether it's a handheld computer or a smartphone -- isn't something that you should have to fuss over.
These devices are made to compete with paper organizers and shouldn't require much effort. Here's the usage scenario: Take a handheld out of a pocket; use it to look up or jot down a phone number, appointment, e-mail or shopping-list item; then put it away -- repeat as needed, dozens of times a day, and often one-handed. Anything that slows down those actions chops away at a handheld's utility.
Microsoft was late getting into the business of handheld software, and its first attempts looked and worked way too much like miniature versions of Windows itself. (Microsoft somehow considered this a selling point.)
Now it's making another attempt at the market. The changes in its new Windows Mobile 5.0 software aren't obvious -- it looks enough like earlier releases that it's tempting to call it Windows Immobile -- but they show that this company is working to deal with the reality of how busy, distracted people use handheld gadgets.
Beneath its little-changed front end, Windows Mobile 5.0 makes it easier and faster to use the calendar and address-book programs at the center of any handheld organizer. It also brings a badly needed upgrade to the mobile versions of Microsoft's Office applications. But this new operating system also fails to solve old problems with performance and complexity.
As auditioned on two devices -- the Dell Axim X51v handheld and the UTStarcom PPC-6700 smartphone sold by Sprint Nextel -- Windows Mobile 5.0 is better, but not a breakthrough.
The most welcome change in Windows Mobile 5.0 is the way it lets you perform more tasks -- from shuffling through calendar entries to navigating the still-complex settings screens -- by just using a four-way controller below the screen. Companies that put Windows Mobile 5.0 on their handhelds can also add special shortcut buttons to perform other common tasks.
The Sprint Nextel phone ($480, but sold only through Sprint Nextel's business channels at the moment) takes good advantage of this new flexibility. With buttons to invoke Windows Mobile's Start Menu, to confirm an action and to select actions listed at the bottom left and bottom right corners of most screens, the PPC-6700 can be comfortably wielded even while you're bogged down with a shopping bag or carry-on luggage.
Dell's Axim ($499 as tested, with versions starting at $299) sticks to the same layout of controls as earlier Axim handhelds. That means you'll still need to tap the screen to make things happen -- either with your stylus or a carefully-placed fingernail.
But on both handhelds, one of the most common operations in handheld computing -- finding somebody's contact information -- takes longer than necessary because the software doesn't allow you to skip ahead in the alphabet just by pressing buttons. You'll have to break out the stylus -- or, on the Sprint phone, flip open its hidden keyboard -- first.
The tax imposed by Windows Mobile gets steeper once you move outside its core Calendar and Contacts applications.
Its Notes program, intended for you to jot down quick memos to yourself, locks up the entire handheld for five long seconds -- a spinning-beach-ball cursor is meant to persuade you that the system is still working -- every time you close a note. And that's not the only time or place you'll see this unwanted cursor.
To check a handheld's remaining battery life -- something Windows Mobile won't display at the top of the screen until the battery is nearly drained -- you must select the Start Menu's Settings item -- most of the way down that list -- select the System category, navigate down to a battery icon, then open that. (Fortunately, Windows Mobile 5.0 stores programs, files and settings in non-volatile memory, so a dead battery won't wipe your data.)
Adjusting the screen's orientation from tall-and-skinny portrait mode to short-and-wide landscape demands a comparable detour through the Settings screens on the Dell handheld, although the Sprint phone is smart enough to switch automatically when you slide its keyboard open.
Connecting to WiFi wireless networks was pointlessly difficult on both devices, thanks to redundant, jargon-laden controls and the software's determination to make entering a WiFi access point's 26-character alphanumeric password as painfully slow as possible. Just figuring out how to shut off the WiFi receiver on the Sprint phone was a minor mystery. (The Sprint device also communicates over Sprint's 1XRTT and EV-DO networks, making it one of the most data-capable phones ever made.)
Windows Mobile 5.0 bundles a handful of Microsoft programs meant to work like those on your PC. Its shrunken copy of Internet Explorer does a fine job of displaying complex Web pages, although its default font size is big enough to require extensive scrolling. Windows Media Player 10 Mobile can play songs bought or rented at Windows Media-compatible stores such as MSN Music, Napster, Rhapsody and Yahoo.
The cut-down versions of Microsoft Office's programs take a big step up in Windows Mobile 5.0. Word Mobile and Excel Mobile no longer mangle Word and Excel files brought over from a desktop computer and Microsoft now bundles a mobile edition of PowerPoint, as well.
In all of these handheld programs, Microsoft offers a choice of three handwriting-recognition systems. Palm offers only one, its inefficient Graffiti 2 software.
Microsoft also beats Palm soundly with its ActiveSync 4 program (Win 2000 or XP), a far more reliable and stable way to get data on and off a handheld than Palm's antiquated HotSync software. For example, if you unplug a Windows Mobile device in mid-sync, ActiveSync quietly stops and the handheld recovers immediately. Try that with a Palm, and both the handheld and the HotSync software will lock up for a few minutes.
ActiveSync connects to Microsoft's bloated, convoluted Outlook calendar/contacts/e-mail program, but if you don't have a copy already installed, the ActiveSync CD includes only the old Outlook 2002 version, not the superior Outlook 2003 release that replaced it years ago.
The biggest advantage Windows Mobile offers over Palm today may simply be that it's under any sort of development at all.
The Palm OS has been stuck in limbo since Palm spun it off to a separate company, PalmSource Inc., and now even the future of PalmSource is unknown now that Access Inc., a Tokyo company, has put in an acquisition bid for the company. Likewise, Palm itself is reportedly readying a version of its Treo smartphone that runs on Windows Mobile, with that announcement expected at a Palm-Verizon-Microsoft press conference Monday morning in San Francisco.
For now, Palm remains the simpler, faster choice. But if Microsoft keeps plugging away, that won't be the case forever.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at email@example.com.