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Windows Mobile: Greatest app story ever told

You may think Apple invented the app, but Windows Mobile is the greatest mobile app platform there ever was -- and we have the apps to prove it

Windows Mobile is the Frankenstein's monster of mobile phone operating systems  -- hideously misshapen, yet powerfully intelligent, it spends its time outrunning the fiery torches of disgruntled users and mobile phone reviewers. It doesn't have the cachet of the iPhone, the ubiquity of Symbian or the geek chic of Android, and it's the calling card of suits who wear pleated trousers and mobile phone holsters -- it's so square it makes BlackBerrys look cool.

The problem with Windows Mobile is that it tries to bring the wonder of your Windows desktop -- your Windows 95 desktop, that is -- to the tiny screen of your phone. And if you think Windows is complicated and incomprehensible on your PC, try controlling it with a stylus the size of a matchstick.

But there is one advantage to WinMo's attempt to recreate your PC in your pocket -- it's the greatest mobile app platform on the planet. You thought Apple invented the app for a little baby called the iPhone? Forget it. Compared to the iPhone OS or even open-source Android, WinMo is the king, because it's dead easy to develop for, and you can stick almost any program on it.

Windows Mobile app attack

This may come as a surprise to the Apple fanboys and girls who think the sun shines out of their MacBook's apple logo, but most of the world's programmers are Windows programmers. And since they already know how to use Visual Studio and the rest of the development-suite gubbins, which are too boring to mention here, they're pretty much ready to dive into making phone programs. Voila -- bust out those classes and start emulating, haxx0rs.

That means apps that have barely made it on to the iPhone -- such as sat-navs -- roll out on Windows Mobile before any other phone. TomTom, the sat-nav star of the iPhone 3GS launch, has been doing sat-nav for Windows Mobile since phones were carved from a single, magic block of wood. It's not cheap, though -- the current version, Navigator 7, costs £90.

In fact, Windows Mobile phones are the home of some of the greatest apps you've never heard of. There are untold thousands of Twitter apps, photo editors and games, but delve a little  deeper and the bottomless pit of apps is revealed.

From the suit-soaked horror of SalesForce to the geeky depths of hacking your phone's registry, there's nothing that somebody, in some basement, with the help of some energy drink, hasn't coded up for your consumption. You can even make your WinMo phone look good, or, in a move similar to Hannibal Lecter wearing the face of a hapless bystander, look like an iPhone.

And it's not just software apps. Thanks to the fact WinMo welcomes developers with a warm robe, a hug and a glass of cognac, hardware designers can get their gear up and running fast. Much of the good stuff we hear about on Crave comes out first on WinMo -- the WildCharge wireless charging mat springs to mind.

Where did it all go wrong?

So why did the 'app' word only enter our vocabulary with the iPhone? The answer is simple: iTunes.

Before Apple grafted applications on to its music shop and called it the App Store, there were already thousands of apps out there for Windows Mobile, but they're harder to find than an icicle in Satan's summer home.

First, you have to figure out your version -- is it Pocket PC, also called PPC or Windows Mobile Classic? Or maybe Windows CE, Windows Mobile 2003 or Windows Phone -- or is it just running the latest version of who the heck cares?

Sites such as Handango and GetJar have tried to make it easier by letting you search by the type of phone you've got, but with handsets proliferating like bunnies on Viagra, these lists are often out of date.

Then you have to find what you want, but there's no official place that lists everything that's out there -- so you can Google around for stuff, but there's no easy way to search right from your phone.

Once you've found the app you want, you have to get the darn thing installed. It's not brain surgery, but it requires a USB cable, a PC and ActiveSync software, and it's complicated enough that most people couldn't be bothered.

In a one-click world, Microsoft's own instructions highlight the hesitant procedure for installing a WinMo app: "The phone will repeatedly display 'Are you sure?' during this process. Be sure to respond 'yes' each time."

Enter the Marketplace

Even Microsoft knows it's no use bemoaning Apple's usurping of its King-of-Apps crown. Before iPod, there were heaps of MP3 players about, but Apple managed to make a product so easy to use that it took over the whole category. With the iPhone and the App Store, it did it again -- so thoroughly that many of us don't know you can even get an app for a non-iPhone.

With the recent release of Windows Mobile 6.5, Microsoft has launched the Windows Marketplace -- which is basically the Apple App Store for WinMo. Instead of finding applications online, WinMo 6.5 users can click an icon on the phone, browse and buy apps, and then install them without touching a PC.

But Windows Marketplace has a massive amount of catching up to do. Its shelves are still almost bare, and there's no way to browse or buy apps online or on your PC. You can't yet back up or restore your apps along with your other data using the new My Phone service, either.

Meanwhile, the other app stores have been filling up with the more complicated apps that we used to only see on WinMo. There are SAP apps for the iPhone and FTP for Android, and it leaves us wondering what's the point of floundering around with WinMo's user-interface problems. Microsoft has its work cut out for it -- and a huge new release of Windows Mobile 7 -- if it wants us to put down our torches and pitchforks and let Frankenstein into our pockets.