Some Welcome Variation In Our Increasingly Mobile World

The iPhone may be my favorite device of the last ten years. No other gizmo since the PC has so fundamentally altered the way I interact with the web and my social circle.

But the iPhone’s ubiquity in the mobile space scares the living daylights out of me.

It frightens me the same way I’m frightened by the deceptive feeling of serenity that blankets me as I continue to surrender more and more of my data to Google (current buddy, future megalomaniac). The thought leaders at Apple have crafted an experience so warm and fuzzy it’s nearly impossible to escape its allure, even as it wallops all of its competitors.

I simultaneously sing the praises of the Semantic Web (often at the expense of rich media plugins such as Flash and Silverlight) while gleefully supporting dozens of apps delivered via the iPhone’s closed, draconian marketplace. The irony (hypocrisy?) therein is not lost on me.

It seems pretentious to avoid these products solely on insular, geeky principal, so I continue to champion competitors in hopes that a superior device will emerge or, at the very least, keep Apple under enough pressure and scrutiny to maintain their innovation and avoid sinking into mediocrity (remember?).

I had extremely high hopes for Palm’s WebOS, but a still-floundering app ecosystem coupled with some truly strange hardware choices appear to have sabotaged its chances. While I have much more confidence in the Android OS as a powerful and capable mobile device standard (especially in the long-term), the platform seems troubled by a lack-of-consistency between devices and the same snore-inducing, incremental release cycle that eventually tempered my excitement for ambitious open source projects like Ubuntu.

It could just be my ignorance of the platform, but as the iPhone becomes increasingly capable at performing business tasks I begin to look upon Blackberry users as I did AOL users ten years ago—with a feeling of solicitude generally reserved for endangered species.

What we need is a platform with a distinctive and decidedly un-iPhone-like user experience (an iPhone killer killer), produced by a company with experience facilitating ecosystems yet still capable of supporting a wide range of hardware and service providers.

Did you just say Windows?

That’s right, Microsoft showed off Windows Phone 7 Series this week, and it looks great. The minds responsible for the well-reviewed Zune HD have re-designed the mobile operating system from scratch. Designers like myself who admire the HD’s interface are thrilled, but considering the Zune’s marketshare could be very generously described as having a “lack of ubiquity,” it’s a brave (and admirable) move to hand them the keys to Microsoft’s mobile future.

Instead of forcing the user into disparate applications specific to function (iPhone) or allowing the user to multi-task until their poor little phone grinds to a halt (Android), Windows 7 Phones establish contextual hubs of interest. If you want to see what your cousin has been up to this week, you don’t have to check email, Facebook, Twitter and chat in separate apps; simply tap “People,” then select your cousin’s profile. This style of traversing your media and social circle is extremely thoughtful and appears to be well-executed. I know it won’t please everyone, but I’m certain a percentage of the population will instantly prefer it.

The interface itself looks completely unique, at least if you’ve never used a Zune. Subtleties like highlights, shadows, soft corners and texture are completely absent, allowing only color, typography and your content to show through. While occasionally abrasive (especially in the calendar application), it’s a striking choice that’s extremely memorable and looks beautiful in motion.

It isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, though. The browser is still Internet Explorer, albeit the improved (but sluggish) version found in the Zune HD. Until Mobile IE supports the same sort of HTML5 features that have enabled web app developers to deliver rich mobile experiences to the iPhone and Android devices, Windows Phones will still be an obstacle in the evolution of the mobile web. Perhaps most depressingly, hardware actually supporting this OS probably won’t debut until Christmas, and who knows what may have changed by then.

Aside from the platform itself, what excites me most about this announcement is that another Apple competitor has finally shown they’re awake. Watching Apple merrily stomp ahead with Android slowly gaining ground and Palm off in the distance is becoming tiresome.

But an Apple/Google/Microsoft/Palm slugfest? I’d pay to see that.