Free the Windows Mobile UI

I have a phone that runs Windows Mobile. It's a somewhat aging Audiovox unit that I intend, at some point in the near future, to upgrade to a Samsung Blackjack.

I have a phone that runs Windows Mobile. It's a somewhat aging Audiovox unit that I intend, at some point in the near future, to upgrade to a Samsung Blackjack. Windows Mobile has a great developer story as its Windows CE core supports a modified form of WIN32, and with the .NET Compact Framework and integration with Visual Studio, makes it easy for Windows developers to target. That has likely been key to the platforms success in the enterprise, and the developer-oriented strategy plays to Microsoft's strengths in development tools and technologies.

Windows Mobile phones have a fairly distinctive UI, a likely part of Microsoft's attempt to build a strong brand association through its mobile platform. However, the imminent advent of Apple's iPhone introduces a radically new approach to the mobile user interface, one that appears to be more task oriented than the more general-purpose desktop Windows-inspired UI found in Windows Mobile (I say appears, as I have only ever played with the demo UI available on the Apple website).

Should Windows Mobile be more flexible from a UI standpoint? Ross Rubin at Engadget certainly thinks so:

Disappointing software is nothing new in the US handset business as manufacturers have focused on alluring hardware designs, but there are only so many ways to flip, slide, twist or otherwise reveal a wafer-thin keypad. Phones are increasingly turning into small computers, but that does not mean that their user interface conventions should mirror those of PCs any more than TiVo did, particularly when these devices still lack the PC's large screen and efficient pointing device. These devices that accompany us to work and play need to embrace the productivity and connectivity of today's Windows Mobile handsets with the fluidity and media prowess that the iPhone has demonstrated.

Strong brand identity makes a certain amount of sense on the desktop. Desktop computers provide a wide range of features, and you wouldn't want wide disparities in UI any more than you'd want a hotel that rearranges shape every day ("I thought I had a top-floor room with an ocean view?" "That was yesterday, you now are by the parking lot.").

Devices, however, are different. Devices like mobile phones, or even TV set-top boxes, are supposed to do a handful of things particularly well. What those handful of things are is implementation-specific, but implementers should have the ability to create UIs tailored to the features chosen for the device.

Does this mean the UI should be completely replaceable? I think so. There are smart UI designers outside of Microsoft, and I don't see why arming them with the ability to create innovative UIs would harm the brand. Microsoft could still create standard UIs, and people could choose to use them, but flexibility would enable third parties to drive the product into more niches than Microsoft by itself might manage with its rigid UI structure.

Microsoft would still create UIs, which would still be widely used because making your own UI involves a lot more work. Freedom to create new UIs, however, would create more competitive churn in the mobile UI space, something that would be good for Microsoft internally even as it enables more innovation outside Microsoft.

Better UI, combined with the developer advantages of Windows Mobile, would be a killer combination.