New HP iPAQ hw6500 smartphone is a dud

Here at Gartner Symposium ITxpo, HP held an early morning breakfast to give the press a preview of the Windows Mobile-based smartphone that it announced today: the HP iPAQ hw6500 Mobile Messenger (pictured left).  You can’t buy such smartphones the way you buy PDAs.


Here at Gartner Symposium ITxpo, HP held an early morning breakfast to give the press a preview of the Windows Mobile-based smartphone that it announced today: the HP iPAQ hw6500 Mobile Messenger (pictured left).  You can’t buy such smartphones the way you buy PDAs. They have to be provisioned with phone and data services by a wireless provider (aka: a cellco).  In the case of HP’s new device, it’s Cingular which means that it’s of the same GSM/GPRS/EDGE wireless ilk that devices from T-Mobile are (Verizon Wireless and Sprint are CDMA-based).  

While at the breakfast and sitting next to HP handheld and mobile computing vice president Rick Roesler, I grabbed his device and played around with it for about five minutes to see if it sets any sort of new bar for a smartphone that hasn’t already been set by one of the other leading smartphones on the market such as Palm’s Treos, Research in Motion’s Blackberries, or the various Windows Mobile-based devices on the market (such as my Audiovox XV6600).  I was not impressed.

First and foremost, instead of running the newest mobile operating system that was shipped by Microsoft five months ago -- Windows Mobile 5.0 -- the hw6500 is running Windows Mobile 2003.  Since 5.0 is designed to overcome many of the shortcomings in WM2003 (as all major OS upgrades invariably do with respect to their predecessors), this decision, regardless of how it came to be, has in my opinion, set the device up to be a dud.  For 5.0-based devices from HP, you'll have to wait until 2006Q1.

Based on my experience with my Windows Mobile 2003-based Audiovox XV6600, one example of why I'd much rather have a Windows Mobile 5.0-enabled device is that Blackberry-like keyboards (or thumbboards as I like to refer to them) were largely an afterthought for the older operating system.  As a result, manufacturers of  thumbboard-based devices had to jump through some clever hoops to make it possible to  navigate certain user interface elements (buttons and menus for example).  Some limitations were impossible to overcome and as such, certain user interface elements in certain applications are simply unaccessible from the thumbboard.  The result is that the end user must take out a stylus.

WM2003 also has no provision for depressable thumbwheeels (used for scrolliing menus, inboxes, and the like, and then selecting an item).  Thumbwheels are invaluable for single-handed operation of a smartphone and Research in Motion really perfected the idea of how to give end users single-handed (actually, single fingered) access to virtually every feature of a handset with nothing more than a depressable thumbwheel.

Some Windows Mobile 2003 device manufacturers recognized the need for something like a thumbwheel and included a three-position non-depressable shuttle button on the side of their devices.  It's not a wheel, but, when shuttled up or down (it always springs back to the center position), it will scroll the cursor.  But these shuttle buttons -- found on devices like the XV6600 and Dell's Axims -- are really an abomination when compared to thumbwheels.   According to Microsoft, thumbwheels (as well as an edge-mounted "escape" button to back out of any place you went by mistake, are supported in Windows Mobile 5.0.  This is evidenced by the new Motorola Q phone, which, based on Windows Mobile 5.0, has both the thumbwheel and the escape button (photos here) and will ship sometime in 2006 (Motorola is showing it off here at the event)

When I first spotted that the hw6500 was running WM2003, I instantly checked the device's edge for a shuttle button or thumbwheel.  It has neither.  Just above the keyboard, it does have a depressable north-south-east-west pointing device that looks and works like the Trackpoint pointing device found on many notebook computers, but it's tiny and reaching my thumb across to it (an action which could obstruct your view of the display depending on how big your hands are and how you're holding the device) as I often do to a similar button on my XV6600 is not nearly as natural a gesture for me or my thumb as is using a thumbwheel on the edge of a Blackberry. 

This is not a device that's as well-designed as its competitors (Blackberries and Treos for example) for single-handed operation for the tasks that can tolerate it (writing the text of an email really isn't one of them), a thumbwheel is really an absolute must-have in my book for any smartphone.  Microsoft apparently recognized the need for this by including support for it in Windows Mobile 5.0, but, as I said earlier, this device doesn't run that five month old OS.  Incidentally, for a device manufacturer, picking an operating system for smartphone isn't nearly as trivial as picking one for a PC.  In a companion blog entry, I explore this issue in depth.

HP of course would probably want me to highlight some of the $449 device's highpoints.  For example, the inclusion of a Bluetooth radio, an integrated GPS receiver an on-board camera (in the 6515 model) and two expansion slots: a Secure Digital (SDIO) slot and a mini-SD slot.   It also has a 240x240 display that HP thinks positions the hw6500 as a better, more viewable device than the forthcoming Windows Mobile-based Treo from Palm. But Palm has wisely elected to run Windows Mobile 5.0 and, I don't care what features HP packs into this device, the selection of Windows Mobile 2003 over Windows Mobile 5.0 makes it a non-starter in my book.