HTC Is Most Virtuous in Microsoft Brothel: Rich Jaroslovsky

There’s a lot to like in the new HD2 smartphone, manufactured by Taiwan’s HTC Corp. and available in the U.S. for Deutsche Telekom AG’s T-Mobile network.

Start with the huge 4.3-inch touch screen, which T-Mobile says is the largest available on a phone. Add the same Qualcomm Inc. Snapdragon processor that powers Google Inc.’s much-touted Nexus One phone, also made by HTC. Include a five-megapixel camera with flash. And put it all into a sleek, thin package that still manages to fit into a shirt pocket.

So with all that, what do you end up with? A very nice phone that, because it is powered by Microsoft Corp.’s soon-to-be-replaced mobile operating system, has no future. To say the HD2 may be the best Windows Mobile device ever is a little like calling someone the most virtuous in the brothel.

While Microsoft recognized the importance of hand-held devices and smartphones early on, whatever first-mover advantage it had has long since been squandered. Successive versions of its mobile software have been quirky and clunky, saddled by the company’s determination to treat the devices as if they were shrunken Windows personal computers.

Meanwhile, others, most notably Research In Motion Ltd. with its BlackBerrys, took over the corporate market; then Apple Inc. rewrote the rules for the consumer market with its iPhone.

Just a Veneer

Version 6.5 of Microsoft’s operating system, released last fall, placed a superficially improved user interface over the existing software. It proved to be just a veneer, though, and has done nothing to arrest the company’s slide.

Microsoft’s share of U.S. smartphone subscribers fell to 15.7 percent in the three months that ended in January, according to comScore Inc. That was a decline of four percentage points from the preceding quarter. Already trailing RIM and Apple, Windows Mobile now may be in danger of falling behind Google’s Android platform too.

While Microsoft this week unveiled two new phones aimed at younger, social-networking users, its full next-generation operating system, to be called Windows Phone 7, won’t show up on handsets until late this year.

Moreover, the new software won’t be backward-compatible -- meaning HD2 users shouldn’t expect to run it, or new applications written for it. So T-Mobile customers are essentially being asked to plunk down $199 and sign a two-year service agreement for a phone whose freshness-expiration date is already looming.

Watching ‘Transformers’

All of which is really quite a shame, because the HD2 hardware could make it a genuinely nice experience. Start with that large screen, which makes movie-watching on a plane or train a pleasure. T-Mobile ships the device with the two “Transformers” movies preloaded -- which should give you some idea of the demographic it’s aiming for -- and an application from Blockbuster Inc. to download more.

The screen’s size and the tactile feedback of its virtual keyboard make it easy for stubby-fingered users like me to type even in portrait mode. Its ability to recognize iPhone-like fingertip gestures to zoom in and out aids in navigation. Unfortunately, that means getting lost in the phone’s complicated package of software and hardware is easier too.

Out of the box, the HD2 uses HTC’s Sense, a proprietary user interface that is fairly intuitive and simple to navigate. But it’s way too easy to stumble from the Sense interface into the separate Windows Mobile one.

Dueling Buttons

The front of the phone includes two buttons side by side. Pressing the one with the “home” icon takes you from wherever you are back to the main Sense desktop screen. Pressing the one next to it with a Windows logo -- Microsoft calls it the Start button -- takes you to the main Microsoft desktop screen, which has a different look and feel.

Some of the application icons on the Microsoft screen are the same as you’ll find on the Sense screen while others may be for competing versions of critical programs such as the Web browser. If you’re using the Sense interface, for example, you may find yourself in Opera Software ASA’s widely used mobile browser; if you’re in the Windows Mobile environment, you may end up in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

While I’m used to this sort of weirdness in Windows phones, even I sometimes found myself absentmindedly or accidentally hitting the wrong button, and wondering just what sort of usability testing convinced anyone it was a good idea.

So, while I like the HD2 hardware, I can’t recommend it. With its doomed operating system, reliance on financially troubled Blockbuster for movies and the sometimes spotty T-Mobile network, the HD2 has the feel of an elegant dead end.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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