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iPhone vs. Windows Phone: It's in the Way That You Use It

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Apr 14, 2009 4:00 AM PT

When an iPhone fan picks up a Windows phone, his or her first impression may go something like this: "It's difficult to find various features, it's kind of ugly, the hardware doesn't quite match the software, and it's generally user-unfriendly."

iPhone vs. Windows Phone: It's in the Way That You Use It

Vice-versa, when a die-hard Windows Mobile user picks up an iPhone, he or she might think, "This is a locked-up, inflexible platform designed mainly to get you to buy more stuff from Apple, like movies, music and apps."

With the rise of the touchscreen form factor, though -- and Microsoft's new Windows Phone directions -- are the differences slipping away? What are today's big differences? Is it just the user interface, or is there more to it? Are there clear advantages and disadvantages beyond the slick Apple design and cool logo?

Microsoft on the Move

While Microsoft's Windows Mobile division may have seemed a bit stagnant for the last couple of years, the software giant is reinvigorating its mobile phone operating system. In February, the company announced that the next generation of Windows phones will be based on Windows Mobile 6.5, and we can expect to see Microsoft focus less on the old "Windows Mobile" moniker with a version number. Rather, it will tend to refer to the devices the platform powers simply as "Windows phones."

Despite the subtle branding change, the latest enhancements are definitely aimed at consumers rather than enterprise-based customers. Consider this: Windows Mobile 6.5 features a new user interface, improved touchscreen capabilities, and a better browsing experience. Plus, Windows phones will feature two new services that are eerily similar to the ground pioneered by Apple: Microsoft's My Phone service will sync text messages, photos, video, contacts and more to the Web (think Apple's MobileMe); and Microsoft's Windows Marketplace for Mobile will give Microsoft a consolidated storefront for selling direct-to-phone mobile applications and can be accessed from both the phone and the Web (think Apple's App Store).

There is one big hitch, though: Windows Mobile 6.5 running on snazzy hardware won't hit until the latter half of 2009, when HTC, for instance, is expected to deliver the Touch Diamond 2 and Touch Pro 2.

Consumers vs. Enterprise Users

The iPhone's intuitive touch interface, media-friendly integration with iTunes and a simple email setup and integration combine to make a big difference between it and Windows Mobile phones in the eyes of many consumers.

Some of the other big differences, however, result from Microsoft's go-to-market strategy and the history of Windows Mobile. For instance, Microsoft doesn't build its own hardware like Apple does with its iPhone.

"Windows Mobile is licensed to other manufacturers, and it has deep back-end development options," Ken Dulaney, an analyst and vice president of mobile and wireless research for Gartner, told MacNewsWorld. Plus, while Apple has made great strides in attracting developers to the iPhone OS platform, there are far more developers for the Windows Mobile/Windows Phone operating system.

Does that make the Windows Mobile operating systems and the actual devices more flexible than iPhone OS and the iPhone?

"That depends on how you define flexibility," Dulaney said. "Windows Mobile has many more options for just about everything, [but] from a user standpoint, Apple has many more app options."

This, of course, brings up the idea that there are certain types of users who are best suited to an iPhone, and others who are better matched with a Windows phone.

"Consumers are better suited for iPhone -- and those who prioritize browsing. Windows is more suited for custom applications, which Apple has shown little interest in," Dulaney said.

Plus, "iPhone 3.0 was pitched to us almost solely focused on the consumer," he added.

It's hard to say how that might change in the latter half of 2009 when Windows Mobile 6.5 arrives -- and you can't count the iPhone out of the enterprise entirely.

"When Apple licensed Microsoft's ActiveSync, which gives you synchronization with Exchange server, that was a big step in making the iPhone enterprise-ready," Matt Rosoff, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, told MacNewsWorld.

"That said, Outlook on Windows Mobile offers you the most synchronization, the most in-depth sync with Exchange and the most Outlook-like experience," he added. Plus, it is more focused on letting enterprise IT professionals control the devices and applications that can run on them.

However, while iPhone has made enterprise-related strides, the real competition is between Windows Mobile and RIM's BlackBerry devices, Rosoff noted.

No 'Can You Hear Me Now?' Options

"If you look at Windows phones versus iPhones from an end-user point of view, the biggest disadvantage to iPhone is that you have no choice of carrier -- it's AT&T in the U.S., and generally overseas, it's just one carrier, too," Rosoff said.

If you're a customer stuck with a service provider that didn't partner with Apple, you're out of luck with the iPhone. If you get poor AT&T service in your particular niche in the U.S., the iPhone isn't particularly a great choice, either. Windows phones, on the other hand, are offered by most major service providers, which means customers -- consumers or business users -- can choose the service that best fits their geography (or budget).

Microsoft is looking to counter Apple's MobileMe service with its My Phone offering -- and perhaps even offer a greater range of data-friendly features.

"I think the most interesting new thing is the Microsoft backup service, My Phone. It comes free, and if you lose the phone, everything on the phone is backed up -- all your photos, contacts, stored email, and so on. It's done automatically, and it solves some issues of getting data off of your phone and onto the computer," Rosoff noted.

"I think it's a great idea, but it's not out yet, so we'll have to see how well it's implemented," he added.

Microsoft Gets Finger-Friendly

"From what I saw at Mobile World Congress, 6.5 has an improved interface that's much more touch-friendly," Chris Hazelton, research director of mobile and wireless for The 451 Group, told MacNewsWorld.

"If you look at 6.1 now, it has a Today screen that has your messages, meeting notifications, status of certain parts of the phone -- it has a lot of information on it, and it's somewhat cumbersome. Any of those sections you can dive into by touching them, but with your finger, it's very hard to do. With a stylus, it's ideal," he explained.

"Windows Mobile 6.5 is a move more to a touch or finger-oriented UI (user interface)," Hazelton said.

For instance, to access different parts of a 6.5-based touchscreen phone, you might flick through core apps vertically, "and then when you get to the one you want, say Calendar, you scroll horizontally and you can see today, tomorrow, your first meeting, next meeting, and things like that. It hasn't been finalized yet, but it's more direct touch-based," Hazelton explained.

In addition, Apple's iPhone is limited to a touchscreen software-based keyboard -- Windows phones are not. "I think you'll see devices [for Windows phone] that have a large touchscreen and then also a slide-out QWERTY keyboard," Hazelton said.

Apple may eventually deliver a new form factor with a slide-out keyboard, but the company has given no indications that it's even thinking about it. So, what's the big deal? Those who need to type a great deal on a phone -- big text-message users and mobile emailers, for example -- may prefer the tactile feedback that comes with a hardware-based keyboard. iPhone doesn't have one. Choose accordingly.

For many consumers, the ability to let their phone multitask with third-party applications -- allowing apps to run and communicate in real time regardless of whether the user has the app open in the foreground -- would be handy feature, but hardly a deal-killer. For enterprises, the need for multitasking becomes more pronounced. Apple has avoided this feature to save on battery life (lots of running apps suck energy), as well as possible issues with security and controlling the performance of the iPhone. Run too many apps concurrently, and you might end up with a sluggish end-user experience.

The Big App Shootout

Apple has been aggressively marketing its App Store and its thousands of applications that run on the iPhone. Since launching last summer, the store has sold almost 1 billion apps. However, there are also thousands of Windows Mobile-based applications already in existence.

"Both Windows Mobile and iPhone have over 25,000 applications available, but the iPhone applications are easier to find, can be purchased over the air, and are arguably more innovative," Avi Greengart, research director of wireless devices for Current Analysis, told MacNewsWorld.

"Microsoft plans to rectify this with its own app store, Marketplace, but that is not available yet," he added.

Plus, there are key differences in how third-party developers create applications for each platform.

"Windows Mobile application developers need to optimize their applications for multiple screen resolutions and two separate versions of the OS -- Standard and Professional -- while iPhone developers have a single target to hit," Greengart said.

"Corporate Windows developers can use their existing tools to write Windows Mobile applications and distribute them internally. All iPhone apps need to be published via App Store. Apple plans to rectify this with an internal publishing tool, but that is not available yet," he added.

The point? For consumers, app delivery rocks on the iPhone but is a sad, sad song on a Windows Mobile-based phone. Meanwhile, for corporate users, app delivery is something to cry over on iPhone but rocks on Windows Mobile-based phones. For certain types of users, these are big, continental-divide-sized issues for now. However, they will likely be flattened out with similarities by the end of 2009.

Last but Not Least: Accessories

There is one last key angle of consideration, and that's accessories. In this space, Apple wins hands-down, largely thanks to the company's successful iPod line. The popularity of the MP3 player attracted a great deal of attention from accessory makers, many of which have expanded their lines to include iPhone accessories over the past two years.

"The iPhone taps into a huge -- and growing -- market of third-party accessories and [even] docks in cars and airplanes," Greengart said. "With iPhone 3.0 software, these accessories can directly interact with iPhone apps." Accessories for Windows Mobile phones, he said, are largely limited to cases.

All in all, the differences between iPhone and Windows Mobile are huge. However, they will clearly become smaller as Microsoft becomes more consumer-friendly and Apple becomes more willing to play with businesses -- assuming, of course, that Apple doesn't blow everyone away with something that turns everything upside-down this summer.

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