After years of championing the consistent look of the Windows Mobile UI, Microsoft is now working with mobile carriers and smartphone makers to craft fresh and funky interfaces.
It's been a hallmark of handhelds and smartphones for almost a decade. That tall Today screen - most recently cast in a Vista-ish glowing cyan, before that blue and sometimes bearing XP's Bliss wallpaper - but always packed with rows of information on new emails, upcoming appointments and today's tasks. Third-party programs added more plug-ins to the Windows Mobile home page, usually underscoring its role as a highly focussed everything-at-a-glance screen.
|The 'in-your-face' interface: Windows Mobile rejoiced in loading up the main 'Today' screen with information for the busy mobile professional
But now, as its partners work to crack the burgeoning mainstream consumer market - and at the same time face competitors with a funkier interface, such as the iPhone and Sidekick - Microsoft is easing back on the reigns of the Windows Mobile interface.
HP has in the past flirted with shells for some of its specialised iPAQ models, while Palm's Treo 500v sports a very different carousel-style UI which we like for its functionality but not the low contrast of its red and grey colours
The latest and boldest effort yet is Neo, which Microsoft developed in concert with T-Mobile for the US carrier's new Shadow smartphone (also known as the HTC Juno).
The Shadow is squarely aimed at the same ‘connected consumer' segment as devices like the BlackBerry Pearl, and Neo is an attempt to give the relatively large 2.6 inch, 320 x 240 screen of this slim slider more of a simpler menu for consumers than a ‘daily agenda' snapshot for the busy mobile professional.
Rather than stack the home screen with plug-ins, "Neo does the opposite - each plugin occupies one full page" writes Microsoft developer Jay Onng at the company's Windows Mobile blog. "When you navigate up and down, the whole screen animates to the newly-activated plugin. In addition, there is a navigation bar on the left so you can tell which plugin you're at."
The animated UI takes advantage of the Shadow's integrated 360 degree scroll wheel and d-pad controller, and is similar in some regards to the interface on Telstra's Hiptop (aka Sidekick) - you can also check out a video demo online.
The main menu options are for what T-Mobile terms ‘MyFaves' (a list of your five most-called numbers), Notifications, Calendar, Message Centre, Internet, Music, Photos and Settings.
|A simpler home screen: the Neo UI strips back the clutter to make more use of the screen itself
"Normally when Windows Mobile creates a release, we release it out to OEMs who then do their own customizations" Ongg observes. "With Neo, however, Microsoft worked with the OEM to create an experience that catered to what T-Mobile wanted. HTC had their talented industrial design team working on the hardware form-factor and wheel. Microsoft wrote the homescreen and worked out an interface for the myFaves information to bubble up for the user to see."
|Circle of friends: this customised Neo screen on T-Mobile's Shadow smartphone works with the device's scroll wheel to select from a menu of your five most-called numbers
While Neo is a proprietary development written specifically for T-Mobile's Shadow, Ongg notes that "Microsoft is spending more of a focus on creating a good user experience, and working with the operator to deliver for their customers."