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Windows Phone is only slightly better off in this year's Smartphone Round Robin than Palm was last year -- like we substituted in the WinMo Treo Pro for the aging PalmOS in 2008, we're using two heavily HTC-skinned devices as WMExperts entries in 2009 -- the HTC Touch Pro2 and massive HTC HD2.

And I'm melancholy about that, because I kind of liked the unabashedly Windows Mobile tweaky, geeky Treo Pro last year, and was hoping to see a pure Microsoft Windows Mobile 7 device this year. Scrappy, underfunded Palm was able to deliver webOS after all, Google went Android 2.0, and Apple went iPhone 3.0. Instead we got Windows Mobile 6.5, which was decidedly bashed, and the aforementioned HTC Sense UI/TouchFlo shellacked over it -- a UI so opaque I think users might have trouble distinguishing HTC's Windows Phone devices from their Android ones going forward.

But those are the WinPhos we were dealt, and they're certainly tremendous in their own rights. To help me make sense of them (no pun intended), Phil Nickinson went over the finer points for me and the WMExperts Forum members really helped me out.

(And just a reminder, every day you post on that WMExperts thread, or any of the official Round Robin threads, is another day you're entered to win one of six (6!) new smartphones!)

Okay, enough preamble, it's time for the review... after the break!

Windows Treatment

Previously, Phil took me on a tour of the HTC Touch Pro2 and HD2:


[YouTube Video link]

And here are the rest of the contextual links:

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Hardware Design

HTC makes great hardware, no ifs, ands, or buts. These are two distinct form-facters, the landscape slider (with tilt!) of the Touch Pro 2, and the massive black slab of the HD2, but they both feel solid, they both feel premium.

HTC Touch Pro2

The Touch Pro2 is one of the better sliders I've tried, far less rickety in the hinges than last years devices, and the keyboard, impossibly, is even better. If you're really one of those people who demand a physical keyboard on your mobile, if you're really serious about the QWERTY, then this device is for you. It may not be a tiny netbook like the Nokia N900, but it's got almost a netbook-caliber keyboard. Fear it. The screen is also big and bright, but it's still resistive and requires you not just to touch and flick but press and drag to trigger interaction. And even though resistive screens are reaching new heights, they're still nowhere near as visceral, as tactile, as I'm-a-part-of-this-device as capacitive screens. In all fairness, however, none of us ever reached for the stylus, if I recall right, but that's only because most of us would rather grit our teeth and press and drag.

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HTC HD2

On the other hand (or both hands, it's that huge) the HD2 is the first Windows Phone to have a capacitive screen -- supposedly coded by HTC itself. And what a screen it is! I think just the screen is as big as the iPhone. While I won't use the analogy CrackBerry Kevin did, it really does verge on the ridiculous. The entire device, in fact, is so utterly pimped out I'm certain HTC made it just to show off what their hardware engineers are capable of. It's the $10K gaming rig of smartphones. It's gadget pr0n. And because it's capacitive, it's size doesn't stop it from being usable. If your thumbs can reach across its girth, you're good to go.

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Software Experience

I usually break software experience down by device, but in this case while there's minor version differences in the HTC Sense UI/TouchFlo lacquered over both these devices, by far the biggest difference between the HTC Touch Pro2 and HD2 is to the latter's capacitive screen (which, yes, I'll keep harping on because I'm an iPhone guy, okay?). Especially for someone coming from the iPhone, it makes all the difference in the world.

HTC Sense UI/TouchFlo

If Sense UI/TouchFlo kind of warbles on the Touch Pro2, having the right notes but missing the rhythm at times, it sings on the HD2. And its eye-candy, frankly, makes the iPhone look dated. It's got all the bells and whistles and widgets you want, and every time I write about it, I'm compelled to mention that the HTC weather screen is an instant crowd pleaser, and on the HD2 the windshield wiper is almost big enough to really make you think you're in your car. The UI still isn't as intuitive and consistent as I'd like -- when to move in what direction and so forth -- but it's so far beyond last year's frustrating TouchFlo experience on the Fuze that I'm hopefully they'll nail it completely in the near future.

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Windows Mobile 6.5 Titanium

One of the huge advantages of WIndows Phone is how customizable they are, especially the HTC devices for which ROMs are readily available. Lots of "cooks" and their "kitchens" whip up custom versions of the entire software stack, giving previews of upcoming, unreleased versions, stripping out carrier bloatware, maximizing speed and/or stability, and so on. And flashing ROMs is fast. I mention this because Phil was able to change the ROM on his Touch Pro 2 in the time between two video shoots. Super fast.

Whether it was a result of this, or simply Phil turning off SenseUI/TouchFlo on the Touch Pro2, I'm not certain (I lost track!) but he also showed me the default Microsoft experience on the phone, Titanium. If you imagine the ZuneHD interface layered on top of a new, "finger friendlier" (please, someone, anyone, kill that term -- it's embarrassing to the implementer in this day and age!) home screen and... pretty much the same Windows 98-esque UI beneath the surface.

Windows Mobile... Everything Else

And SenseUI and Titanium are just two of the many, many, (did I say many?) UI options available to Windows Phone aficionados. Since the iPhone only has one, and even if you Jailbreak you can only skin that one, it's a huge difference and shows how truly tweak-able Windows Phone really is.

George Ponder rounded a lot of them up over at WMExperts, including SPB Mobile Shell, Winterface, Xperia Panels, Touchwiz, etc. Check it out.

Wherein We Explore the State of the WIndows Phone

While we're looking at individual phones this year, we're also looking at the platforms in general, where they are, and more importantly where they're going. And that's actually a good thing for Microsoft because where they are is nowhere good. I know a lot of people love their Windows Phones (if they know they have a Windows Phone, but we'll get to that in a moment). I'm willing to bet these people love them in spite of Microsoft, not because of it, for what they and their community can do with Windows Phone and not what Microsoft has so far done for it. Could that change?

Ghosts of WinPhos Past

One of the questions I had about Windows Phone was -- if they were going to try to brand the overall platform, why call it Windows Phone? I mean, Apple didn't call their device the MacPhone, did they? Sure, it's Microsoft's attempt to bring some uniformity to their mobile device strategy, and okay Windows Vista was a consumer disaster but Windows 7 is proving popular and lots of people use Office, right?

But if a consumer walks into AT&T and sees all the phones on the wall, is a Windows Phone going to have any more luck against an iPhone or BlackBerry than an HTC phone?

Microsoft's most consumer friendly brand is the Xbox. Yet they didn't name their MP3 device the Xplayer to leverage that name (nor did they bother to integrate the services, but that's another rant), they called it the Zune. And while the latest ZuneHD is outstanding, it still hasn't been anything approaching successful. Now people, including WMExperts, have asked Microsoft to make a ZuneHD a phone (just stick a microphone on it, Nickinson oft bellowed), but is slapping a phone on a failed brand really the answer? Instead of Xbox, Zune, and Windows Phone in the commercial space, why isn't it Xbox, Xplayer, and Xphone? If a consumer sees the Xbox ecosystem next to an iPhone, maybe then it becomes a fight for their mindshare.

But we know why this hasn't happened. Microsoft isn't one company, it's multiple companies, 6 or so, and they don't get along together. In fact, Microsoft is willing to sacrifice one to benefit another. Instead of keeping Exchange tied to Windows Mobile to combat BlackBerry's proprietary push service, they'll license it to everyone, including BlackBerry, iPhone, and Google. Microsoft has Exchange, and Bing, and yes, Zune not so that they can expand their platforms but so that they can offer those services to competing platforms. Maybe you'll get Zune services for webOS one day. Who knows. On Windows, that's fine because it has a 90% share. On Windows Phone?

Compare that to Apple. Seen iPod App for Android lately? It looks to this iPhone outsider as if Microsoft has intentionally fractured their offerings and licensed or given them out -- or set them up to license or give out -- at the expense of Windows Mobile. That's great for those services, arguably great for the overall internet (though open source, non-proprietary versions would be better), but -- again -- it's not great for Windows Mobile.

That's problem one. Problem two is the same things I mentioned about Google and Android -- I don't think Steve Ballmer cares about Windows Mobile any more than he thinks Microsoft needs the mobile screen in their catalog. He's smart enough to know the future is mobile and he wants Microsoft to own that future, but he doesn't care about the end products to the degree that Steve Jobs cares about iPhone or the RIM co-CEO's love their Berrys, or Jon Rubinstein poured himself into Palm. Even Android has Andy Rubin at the helm, a singular visionary whose vision is hampered by the needs of a larger corporate mandate, but remains singular none the less.

Who has Windows Mobile got in their corner?

Ghosts of WIndows Mobile Future

I just said I don't think Windows Mobile really has Steve Ballmer in its corner. I don't think it has its own division honcho, Robbie Bach in its corner either (which may be a good thing). I'd hope it has J Allard, who WMExperts called their savior and is responsible for the Xbox 360 and ZuneHD, given the seriousness of connected mobile. However, given his grand role, he may well be dreaming up the UI for the Xbox 720 or Zune1080p, and not be dedicated enough to give Windows Mobile the attention it needs. Maybe it's Roz Ho, formerly of Microsoft's Mac Office Business Unit (sigh) and currently leading up the horribly code-named Project Pink, reportedly based on Microsoft's acquisition of Sidekick-maker Danger. But anyway, that it's not widely known, that we don't see a singular visionary on stage at CES, Mobile World Congress (MWC) or special Microsoft events holding up Windows Phone version whatever, putting his or her name and reputation on it, just like Andy Rubin did for Android and the Nexus One... makes me nervous.

Windows Mobile 7 is delayed. Yes, it's not fair to call an unannounced product delayed, but if Microsoft didn't intend to get a new OS out earlier than now, they have bigger issues than a delay. So, yeah, delayed. I don't know if Microsoft got the same kick in the restarts Palm did after seeing the iPhone, but 3 years have passed since Macworld 2007 and Microsoft still has nothing revolutionary on the market -- not for consumers.

If they have restarted, if they've restarted more than once or several times already, it's taken so long now that they can't just equal or even better iPhone or Android or webOS in terms of user experience. They can't rely on a Windows Vista-esque bad taste that makes for a Windows 7 equally and opposing-ly sweet reception. Windows doesn't have the competition Windows Mobile has. No, for Windows Mobile 7, Microsoft has to knock it out of the park so far it lands in the basketball stadium across town and swooshes clear through the basket, no net.

What that revolution is, I have no idea. It's easy to imagine the Zune UI but that lacks telephony features and other elements a phone would require (think how much more the iPhone is than just the iPod app). And the ZuneHD still suffers from being merely competitive, not revolutionary. Microsoft could go for natural interfaces, the kind Bill Gates has been advocating for years, but Google's Nexus One already does voice well enough that Microsoft is still only left with better. Current rumors postulate an Xbox "Project Natal"-style gesture interface where you can wave your hands and cameras pick up your movement along with facial detection and voice. Maybe that's Star Trek enough, but it occurs to me when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone and its capacitive display and said, at last, people could "touch their music", he was exactly right -- people like the intimacy and sense of connection provided by touch. Not to go all CrackBerry Kevin on this review, but is waving your hands 5 feet away from your significant other and reading their body language with no contact the best experience you can imagine for human interaction? Likely not.

I have no answers, only questions, but Microsoft will need answers to slingshot Windows Mobile 7 back into the public mind, to become relevant again.

If that sounds harsh, I don't apologize. 4 years ago I was all in on Microsoft. I had a Windows XP machine, Xbox, and Windows Mobile device, and… none of them worked together in any significant way. Individually I was annoyed enough to change all of them for other platforms. Collectively I was disheartened enough to leave Microsoft entirely and go almost all in with Apple (and Sony, since Apple doesn't make game consoles or TVs yet). Microsoft could have been the integrated offering a decade ago. They had all the pieces in place and whether they were scared of anti-trust (and I don't buy that excuse because you can integrate without anti-competitive behavior) or just couldn't get themselves organized as a company enough to do it, Windows Mobile as much as anything suffers for that today.

Wherein this Review, Lost Track, Attempts to Re-Find it

Thanks in large part to the versatility and partner-centric model Microsoft decided to imbue into Windows Mobile, and the near miraculous deep-skinning ability of HTC, the Touch Pro2 and especially the HD2 are fully competitive devices in this year's Round Robin. Spec for spec, the HD2 is unrivaled (perhaps only because the Android Nexus One, also by HTC, wasn't ready in time to enter). I could never have used the Fuze for more than a week last year. If there was no iPhone, I could use the HD2 for a good long while.

If you were to leave the iPhone for the Touch Pro2 you'd get a world-class horizontal keyboard, deeper and better Exchange integration, and a phone that's as individually tweak-able as your imagination and latest ROM cook-ups allow. You can also find versions across all the major carriers, multitask your heart out, and install Windows Phone apps from anyone and in any which way you please.

If you were to leave the iPhone for the HD2 you'd get… a bigger iPhone-like phone. That's not a knock, far from it. As you no doubt suspect I love the iPhone. But unlike the different form factor of the Touch Pro2, the HD2 is the same shape, just much larger, with a far more animated if not quite as consistent a UI, and the same integration and ecosystem issues as any other Windows Phone. It's also only coming to the US on T-Mobile at the moment, which means no 3G for any other North American network.

You'd lose out on the iPhone's iconic integration and ecosystem, however, which still includes the best user experience and apps in the mobile space. Power users won't care -- they can figure out, and around, almost anything. For new smartphone owners, however, it's hard to put a price on "just works".

At the end of the day, however, if Apple running the iPhone like a benevolent dictatorship drives you batty and you don't trust your privacy to Google and their Androids, if webOS is too abstracted and BlackBerry is too much messenger and not enough computing platform, if you want the latest and greatest hardware and the ability to do pretty much anything you're smart enough to do with it, Windows Mobile remains the only choice (outside of Nokia, which just isn't that popular here at home).

More than anyone else in this year's Round Robin, Microsoft has to bring it next year. It won't be enough to impress us, they'll have to astonish us. Here's hoping they can and do.

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