In-Depth

Windows Mobile Dogged by Reliability Issues

Readers appreciate the features of Windows Mobile 5.0, but getting it to work consistently on most devices is difficult.

Among the things readers particularly like about Microsoft's Windows Mobile 5.0 are its slick support for e-mail, calendaring and tasks, its tight integration with Office and-most of all-its ease of use. Unfortunately, many users have experienced reliability issues with their Windows Mobile-equipped devices. This lingering issue has forced many to rethink their support.

"It just locks up for no apparent reason," says Russ Alexander, Exchange administrator for a large government utility in Los Angeles.

Alexander says he's tried different devices, including the Palm 700w and the PPC-6700, but still has reliability issues. "I'd realize that I hadn't received a phone call or e-mail in a while, and I'd pick up the phone and it would be hot to the touch. I'd hard boot the phone, then I'd get several voice mails and all my e-mails would start coming in," he says.

After going through four different phones, Alexander gave up. "I just went back to a BlackBerry," he says.

Adrian Dickreiter, Senior Network Engineer, San Antonio, Texas

Petro Lawriw, a network administrator at CorVel Corp., a health-care management services company in Cleveland, says he also went through several Motorola Q phones before he hit on one that worked reliably. "I was rebooting my phone constantly, and I ended up having to replace it three times," he says.

Lawriw also did a software upgrade on the mobile applications. He isn't sure if the problems are due to Microsoft, his carrier Verizon or Motorola (see "The Reliability Dilemma"). After he upgraded the software, the problem lessened considerably.

Another problem for Lawriw was battery life. "When you do instant messaging or use the browser, anything with the Internet, it just eats the battery," Lawriw says. To mitigate this issue, he bought a larger battery for his phone. "Now everything works great," he says, "but it took a while to get here."

The Apps Have It
Readers were initially interested in Windows Mobile for a variety of reasons, most notably its native support for Microsoft applications such as Exchange, Outlook, Excel and Word.

The Reliability Dilemma

Pinpointing the problems in Windows Mobile is tough due to the multiple-vendor paradigm. Although readers seem less than enamored of Windows Mobile 5.0's reliability, they find it difficult to pin the blame squarely on Microsoft. Microsoft developed Windows Mobile, but each device maker and carrier tweaks the software to suit their own ends.

A case in point is the Microsoft Securities and Features Package (MSFP). The MSFP promised a wealth of security and feature upgrades for Windows Mobile 5.0 users, including the abilities to "push" e-mail from Exchange and remotely wipe clean a lost or stolen mobile device.

"MSFP was a great update, but there was a fundamental problem. None of the phone manufacturers added it on," says Russ Alexander, an Exchange administrator. "Having those three people involved [phone manufacturers, the carriers and Microsoft] makes it difficult to get the features we need."

Others find their Windows Mobile device is slow and has performance problems, but they can't trace that directly to the device operating system. "Running applications in Windows Mobile is slow, but I'm not sure that's Microsoft's fault," says Petro Lawriw, a network administrator. "It could be the phone vendor and how they implement Windows Mobile, or it could be the carrier. Verizon had an update for the phone that I downloaded and I got better performance-and that didn't come from Microsoft or Motorola." -J.C.

"The nice thing about Windows Mobile is that it integrates with Outlook. You can always have all your contacts and tasks," Lawriw says. "We sync it up wirelessly [via ActiveSync] through our mobile provider [Verizon]. Even if you're on the road and you put new contacts in the phone, it automatically syncs it back to your contacts in Outlook at the office."

Devices equipped with Windows Mobile also have a leg up on PDA competitors like those with the Palm OS because they tend to be cheaper and leverage the large installed base of Windows users.

"How many real options do you have when you want a smartphone or a PDA? [You have] Windows Mobile or Palm and that's it," says Adrian Dickreiter, a senior network engineer in San Antonio, Texas. Windows Mobile is the stronger platform because it's widely supported by developers, he says.

It's also easy to get up and running on Windows Mobile apps. "It's very user-friendly and easy to pick up," Lawriw says. "If you know one Microsoft product, you know them all. The interface is familiar."

Lawriw also likes the fact that the OS can "learn" to apply shortcuts for the applications used most frequently. "The shortcuts are nice," he says. "You don't have to go to the start menu. It's right there for you and for the applications you use most."

Another plus is its integration with Microsoft Exchange. Alexander says this is a key reason he looked into Windows Mobile. "Because it integrates with Exchange, it meant our disaster recovery [DR] plan for the mobile devices was automatically built into our disaster recovery for Exchange," he says. "It works through Outlook Web Access [OWA], and because we have disaster recovery on OWA at our DR site, these mobile devices would automatically work."

This was especially attractive because implementing a disaster recovery plan for the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) was difficult. "The disaster recovery for BES is a pain because they don't have a clustering service for their software," he says.

Still, Alexander's group didn't implement Windows Mobile because of its ongoing reliability problems. "Its unreliability under normal circumstances makes it doubly suspect for use during an emergency, so we decided against it," he says.

Saving Time
Beyond its lack of reliability, Windows Mobile has some other downsides, especially when it comes to central administration. "There's no way to push software updates to those phones," Alexander says, noting that this was a problem when it came time to update the phones for the change in Daylight Savings Time (DST).

"We actually had to send out SD cards with the update on them, because we don't allow people to put cables on their PCs and install software here," he says. "We had to mail it out to everyone who had a Windows Mobile device, or they had to do the ActiveSync at home."

That issue contrasts with the ease of updating his organization's BlackBerries. "For the BlackBerries, we pushed the updates out through a central console," he says. "All we did was make a new policy, applied it, sent it out and it was done."

Lawriw also sent e-mails to his Windows Mobile users to tell them to update for DST. "With any kind of upgrade issue, then, you have to send the users a link and have them actually install it," he says.

Another downside is the lack of Java support in Windows Mobile. "The Windows Mobile browser is nice to use, but certain sites aren't compatible with it," Lawriw says. "Some sites use Java a lot, but Java isn't incorporated in Windows Mobile." He says this makes it difficult to use applications like Google's Gmail, which requires users to have a Java Virtual Machine installed.

ActiveSync Not So Active
Alexander ran into other issues that make Windows Mobile less attractive for enterprise-scale users. However, those problems may actually have more to do with ActiveSync, Microsoft's data synchronization software for mobile devices.

One issue is a limit on the number of contacts it supports. A user in Alexander's group had 6,000 contacts. "There's some kind of limit on how many ActiveSync will support," he says.

Another problem is with passwords. If a company pushes e-mail to Windows Mobile from Exchange 2003, those users first need to sync up their Exchange domain password with their password on their Windows Mobile device. Once the Exchange password is changed, though, as happens every 60 days in Alexander's organization, ActiveSync locks up.

"ActiveSync stops functioning because the password on your device is no longer synchronized," he says. "You can go in and change that password until you're blue in the face, reboot, do this or that, but it won't work. The only way to make it work is to go into the task manager, stop Outlook, stop ActiveSync, change your password in ActiveSync, and then restart your applications. That took us months to figure out."

Wi-Fi support is another missing link. Microsoft changed Windows Mobile 5.0 and ActiveSync 4.5 so they can no longer sync up via Ethernet or a Wi-Fi connection. (Wi-Fi connections aren't encrypted, according to Microsoft, which opens the devices to security problems.) "To sync up wirelessly requires a persistent cellular connection from your carrier. It doesn't do Wi-Fi," Alexander says.

Windows Mobile 5.0

Not Ready for Prime Time
Overall, readers like the idea of Windows Mobile, but find it's not quite ready for prime time. "Palm and BlackBerry do 'professional' work better, and are more reliable," Dickreiter says. This could change once devices equipped with Windows Mobile 6.0 (announced in February) begin hitting the market. But some readers are skeptical.

"We have no intentions of going to Windows Mobile 6 because nobody's told us what's wrong with Windows Mobile 5," Alexander says. "That's really what it comes down to. If Microsoft and the carriers don't see it as a problem and they're just shooing this under the door, then we can't address it head on and make plans for Mobile 6 deployment."

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