If you’re a long-time handheld or smartphone user, you might be in for a shock: both Microsoft and PalmSource are in the process of significantly changing the way their mobile operating systems look and act.
Thew reason for this is simple: the way people are using their mobile devices is changing and the operating systems need to keep up.
Freeing Up Your Hands
When the first PDAs hit the market back in the 1990s, they were designed to be used with two hands; you held the device in one hand and a stylus in the other. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about a Newton, Palm, or Pocket PC, they all used the same arrangement.
But things started to change when smartphones came on the scene. Most of these didn’t have touchscreens, so people used them with just one hand… often while driving.
This is so convenient, people began to demand this on all kinds of devices, even ones with touchscreens. And Microsoft and PalmSource are listening.
A Real Change
Right now, we’re in something of a transitional phase. Developers at Microsoft and Palm have given users ways to control the “classic” Palm OS and Windows Mobile user interfaces through the D-pad.
This is nice but hardly ideal because, as I said earlier, these operating system were never designed to be used this way. It’s a bit like steering a car with a set of reigns; it’s possible but hardly ideal.
Let’s look at a couple of examples. With a stylus-driven device, it’s easy to quickly glance down a long list of options and tap on the one you want. If you’re doing this with a D-pad, you have to manually scroll through each option to get to the one you want.
And, when using a stylus, it doesn’t really matter if the most frequently used on-screen buttons are at the bottom of the display, as they can easily be tapped on wherever they are. If the interface for a one-handed device is arranged this way, though, users often have to scroll through multiple options they don’t want to get to the one they use most often.
Removing irritating things like these are why the look and feel of the next versions of the Palm OS and Windows Mobile will be redesigned from the ground up to make one-handed use as easy as possible.
Not a Theory
This re-design isn’t something I’ve dreamed up, or am just hoping will happen.
I’ve seen a demo of the next major version Windows Mobile — code-named Photon — and while I’ve agreed to not share any details, I can tell you it looks absolutely nothing like any previous version. This is because it’s being created to run on one-handed devices, not the handhelds of the past.
And keep in mind, Photon will be the end of having different versions of Windows Mobile for Pocket PCs and Smartphones. After its release, there will be only one version for both types of devices.
My exposure to the look and feel of the next version of the Palm OS is more limited, but PalmSource has made it clear that its user interface is going to be re-designed to make it easier to use on smartphones.
Based on the few screenshots I’ve seen, I’m expecting big friendly buttons that can be easily seen and touched.
The Best of Both Worlds
I don’t envy the people who have the job of re-making the appearance of the Palm OS or Windows Mobile. They are going to need to satisfy two groups with completely different wants and desires.
One group will be made up of long-time handheld users, and most of them are going to strongly resist any changes. They like the current setup and don’t see any need for a change, especially as this will require them to learn whole new ways of interacting with their devices.
The other group will be made up of first-time smartphone buyers, and they will want their new device to be as easy to use as possible. They will be just fine with replacing the old way of doing things with a better one.
There’s a simple solution for this: give users the option to choose between the new user interface and the “classic” one. I suspect that many of the people in the first group will eventually migrate over to the new and improved setup, but they’ll resent being forced to.
You’ve Got Some Time
If you aren’t thrilled by the thought of learning a new user interface for your Palm or Pocket PC — even if it’s a better one — then you might take some comfort in the fact that nothing is going to happen any time soon.
PalmSource is still hard at work on the next version of the Palm OS, and I wouldn’t expect any handhelds or smartphones running it to debut before next spring at the earliest.
The next major upgrade to Windows Mobile is even farther away. Microsoft said a few months ago that its current timetable shows Photon going to licensees in late 2007, with the first devices coming out early the next year.