March 17th, 2009 by Mike Fulton

For the last few years, I’ve been using a cellular phone with Windows Mobile. First it was the AT&T (HTC) 8525. I was pretty happy with that device overall, but I’d had it for less than a year when they announced the Tilt. So-named because the top would tilt up when you opened the device to reveal the built-in keyboard, the Tilt was mostly similar to the 8525. However, there were a few new features that caught my attention.

The first new thing in the Tilt was that it had a 3mp camera compared to the 8525’s 2mp camera. That difference in resolution wasn’t really a big deal, but the Tilt’s camera featured autofocus and that was a big deal. The 8525’s lens was focusable by means of a little slider along the bottom perimeter, but it was not something you could set onto far distances, put into your pocket, and then expect to be set the same way later. The slider was simply too easily bumped while the phone was in your pocket. The overall result was that you had to remember to check the focus slider every time you took the phone out to take a picture.

The other big deal about the Tilt was built-in GPS. At the time, I was occasionally using a little Bluetooth-based GPS module with my laptop, and the idea of having it all built into the phone was quite attractive. So even though the 8525 still had a lot of life in it, I decided to go ahead and get the Tilt.

Somewhere in the time between getting the 8525 and getting the Tilt, Apple introduced the iPhone. It was clear this was a revolutionary development and yet for a number of reasons I didn’t think that version 1.0 was for me.

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The first reason was that the iPhone was initially not accessible to programmers wanting to write their own applications. One of the appeals of the Windows Mobile platform for me was that I could write my own applications. In fact, I had my choice of writing native code with the Microsoft SDK or I could write Java code and run it on the phone’s Java runtime package. Of course, Apple eventually opened up the system to developers, but at the time it wasn’t clear if that would ever happen. (And of course there’s still no Java for the iPhone.)

The next reason was that I was using my Windows Mobile phone as a cellular modem with my laptop. This sort of connection, known as “tethering”, was something that Apple did not support with the iPhone. So even though I was using an Apple laptop, I was forced to use a Windows Mobile-based phone in order to get an internet connection when out on the road. In fact, that’s how I’m connected right now as I’m writing this.

When Apple introduced the iPhone 3G last year, I thought that maybe the time had come. In addition to supporting the higher-speeds of the 3G network, the new phone had built-in GPS and was now accessible to programmers wanting to write their own applications. The new version still didn’t allow tethering, but my travel habits had changed somewhat, and WiFi connections had become more prevalent, so I thought maybe I could get by without that feature.

Unfortunately, my two-year cellular service contract with AT&T was not set to expire for awhile yet and I didn’t want to pay the full $599 price for a new 16gb iPhone. So for the last 9 months or so, I’ve been trying to get the most out of the Tilt. It’s really not a bad machine, but it’s handicapped by Microsoft’s abysmal treatment of the Windows Mobile platform in general.

Actually to be fair, I suspect a big part of the problem with the Windows Mobile platform is that Microsoft has a dozen hardware makers and another dozen service providers to deal with, and everybody wants to do things their way. They all want their own custom user interface shell, their own little custom applets for stupid things like speed dial lists, and they all want to provide their own channel for selling apps. The result is that the UIs all suck, those custom applets hardly get used, and nobody buys any apps though the phone itself.

Meanwhile, Apple basically told their service provider partners to keep their damn hands off the hardware and just shovel the bytes. Not only have they gotten away with it, it’s largely responsible for much of the platform’s success. When you buy an app, you go though the APPLE store, not through the AT&T store, or the Verizon store, or anyplace else. Users buy a ton of apps, which makes developers happy, and everybody in the distribution channel gets a nice cut.

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Well, my two-year contract with AT&T is finished at the end of this week. At that time, I’l be eligible for an equipment discount should I decide to purchase a new iPhone. In a stroke of good luck, the latest buzz suggests that Apple is going to announce version 3.0 of the iPhone software just a few days beforehand. It’s still a few days away, but the rumor is that 3.0 will include the long-awaited tethering feature.

I still haven’t decided what I want to do, and I may have to wait awhile before I have the extra cash on-hand, but it looks like the iPhone may finally be the right choice for me.

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