Dirty little secret

So, I’ve got a dirty little secret…

I quite like Windows Mobile.

Yes, I know, there’s a support group for people like me. I know! I’m sorry!

I’ve used tons of phones. I’m a geek, first of all. We’re congenitally incapable of using the same piece of hardware for more than six months in a row. Second, my partner works in a cellphone store. So, yeah, I’ve seen ’em all.

For a phone – nothing but a phone – you can never beat Nokia. Right now I have a 6300, with the firmware upgraded to 6.0 and a larger capacity battery squeezed into it (this requires that you have a relaxed approach to attacking Li-Ion batteries with sandpaper…or, in my case, a kitchen knife, and so isn’t advised for the cautious). As a phone, you really couldn’t want much more. It’s well-built, sturdy, extremely reliable, has a well-thought out operating system (Series 40), and does exactly what you need to do really well. With the firmware upgrade and the bigger battery, it has great battery life too.

But, being a geek, the lure of the smartphone is strong. I had a Palm Treo 600 for a while, a few years ago. It was a good device, but a smartphone without 3G is a painful proposition, and I never wound up using the data features enough to justify it, so in the end I sold it. Nowadays, though, with affordable 3G data, it’s completely different.

I’ve tried out quite a few different smartphones, now. Apart from a ton of Windows Mobile models, I’ve tried four different Blackberry models, the ubiquitous iPhone, and some others. I haven’t tried a really top-end Nokia (highest I’ve used is the N73), but I know that they’re not quite what I’d want.

Blackberries are great. They’re really, really impressive devices. However, they’re built to work with Blackberry email, not IMAP, the keyboard is quite small, and they’re very locked-down.

The iPhone just didn’t grab me. It’s very, well, cool. But I like more of a gadget than a lifestyle. And it, too, is massively locked down. I don’t fancy doing the jailbreak dance forever.

There’s also the T1, of course. However, no matter how open source Android is, it’s still a nasty Google mess. From the reviews I’ve read, Android is fundamentally tied to your Google identity. You must have a Google identity, and you must be logged into it permanently, whenever you’re using the phone. So Google gets to know EVERYTHING you do. …no, thanks. Besides, I dunno, it’s all still a bit v1.0.

So where does this leave me? Well, it means that in a few days I’m going to switch from my 6300 to an HTC Titan (known hereabouts as the P4000) which my partner has lying around spare. For a start, I really like it as a hardware device. It’s the third generation in its line – starting with the Harrier, followed by the Apache (which I’ve also used).

It feels like a really polished and well-thought out device: it has little things you don’t usually read about in reviews of Hot New Smartphones. It has a jog dial, for one, which is incredibly useful on a smartphone; sliding things around with your fingers is cool, but once the coolness wears off, a little wheel is in fact a lot more practical. It has a neat extendable stylus which is engineered to automatically compress when you’re sliding it back into the phone, and extend when you’re sliding it out: I love little details like that. The battery compartment door has a little latch button on it – when was the last time you saw a phone with that kind of attention to detail? It has a ton of useful hardware buttons in really sensible places, which don’t detract from the appearance of the phone at all. It doesn’t have an external antenna (which the Apache did), and is rather thinner than it. It has an easily externally-accessible microSD slot. And, finally, the slide-out keyboard is amazing – and, in yet another of those nice little touches, has two tiny hardware LEDs which indicate when you have symbol lock and caps lock modes enabled. Some hardware design team clearly put a huge amount of dedication into this phone. The only better phone hardware I’ve seen is the Touch Pro, which makes sense, as the Touch Pro is the successor to the Titan. I don’t feel like paying $300 for one, though.

So it’s an awesome device. But, how can I live with that evil, evil Microsoft OS?

OK, yes, bits of Microsoft are pretty evil. Working for Mandriva, I know that as well as anyone. Ironically, though, Windows Mobile is about the most ‘open’ smartphone OS around.

It’s not open source, no. But then, only Android is, and we don’t know how that’s going to work out. Besides – I can run Android on the Titan anyway, and if it turns out to be awesome and if it turns out you can escape the Google trap, I will. But…you can install tons of apps on it, without any restrictions by Microsoft – can’t do that on the iPhone, or a Blackberry. It’s extensively configurable and themeable. And, thanks to the ridiculously awesome folks at PPCKitchen, you can – very unofficially – build heavily customizable, very up-to-date OS images. BuildOS lets you basically build a completely customized WM 6.1 ROM, based on the latest patchlevels of the OS, with all sorts of stuff baked in or out depending on your preferences. Then you can flash it straight from a microSD card (using nueSPL). Try doing that with a flipping iPhone. This is, of course, utterly unofficial and massively unsupported, but it’s been going on for years and Microsoft has never made any serious attempt to stop it. I think they understand that it ultimately increases the market for the devices, and doesn’t lose them any revenue because you ultimately had to buy a license when you bought the phone anyway. Which is fairly enlightened of them.

And ultimately, as I said, I kinda like Windows Mobile. Yes, the interface is a bit silly if you look at it from the point of view of “how should I use a mobile phone?” rather than “how can I cram Windows into a two inch screen?”, but fundamentally it works. It was easy to find my way around it and know how to do what I want to do. All the apps do what they’re meant to be pretty proficiently. The email app is good, fast, responsive, and works well with my IMAP server. I use Opera for a browser, and that’s great. And there’s a great ecosystem of little apps like ssh clients and IRC and stuff.

People bash it for being unstable or unreliable, but I haven’t really seen anything like that. I’ve never seen an app that’s actually part of WM itself crash, nor have I had spontaneous resets or hangs. It’s not remotely ‘cool’, but it works, and the workflow is actually pretty efficient once you get down to it and forget about flicking stuff about with your finger.

So, yeah, I like HTC hardware, and Windows Mobile. And I’m not sorry! 🙂

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