The XPERIA X1 – A Windows Mobile device that I could really get excited over

Before I joined Black Marble I had a succession of Sony Ericsson smartphones – the P800, P900 and finally a P910i. They were great – the size was good, the UI was good, the handwriting recognition was excellent (with a grafitti-style interface that meant I could really get a good turn of speed) and I could work most functions one handed with the fabulous Jog Dial. Please note that the jog dial was sadly emasculated with phones after the P910i when Sony Ericsson foolishly reduced it’s degrees of freedom to simply rolling back and forth and clicking.

I currently have a Windows Mobile-powered Orange M3100 (the HTC TYTN). Don’t get me wrong – it’s good, but it’s no P910i. WIndows Mobile 5 can be uncooperative at times and Orange have not yet seen fit to release a mobile 6 upgrade. I like the keyboard a lot, but I haven’t taken to WinMob’s handwriting recognition like I did the Sony’s

There are good looking phones on the way, to be sure – Richard has his Touch Cruise on order and I must say I was tempted by one myself. Then today I saw two things which piqued my interest…

The first was a snippet which suggested that Microsoft are in discussions with Nokia about the latter running Windows Mobile on future devices (I wish I could remember where I saw that to link). Interesting, I thought, but I can’t see that happening. Certainly, the iPhone has set the cat amongst the mobile-manufacturing pigeons but Nokia own a huge slice of Symbian and I just can’t see it myself.

The second thing, however, made me sit up and take notice. No rumour or gossip here – cold, hard facts and a device that people have touched. Sony Ericsson announced the XPERIA X1 and it looks lovely. There is more about it on Engadget and Engadget Mobile if you haven’t seen it. It looks nice. All the features I need in a polished offering with a VGA scree, decent camera, 3G et al. Sadly, no jog dial but there is a keyboard and the whole thing doesn’t seem too huge either – marginally smaller than the P800 in every axis.

The reason this is interesting (apart from the fact it’s so sexy) is that Sony Ericsson as a brand occupy a space that current WinMob devices don’t. Think of Sony Ericsson and you think of the Walkman phones and their bretheren – gadget phones that most certainly are not targetted at the business end of the market.

There are big numbers being thrown around by the marketing droids for this phone, but it’s clear that it will be going head to head with the iPhone. Perhaps in the US market the Sony Ericsson brand lacks the cachet of Apple, but in the European arean they are well-established and the X1 is a much better specified device in terms of matching the demands of the European market.

Skipping back to something I said earlier, I would suggest that this announcement is evidence against Nokia releasing a WinMob device. Whilst Microsoft are very open about the fact that WinMob is a platform and anybody can build devices that run it, if I were Sony Ericsson I would want a clear run at the marketplace for my device and most certainly not want Nokia to come out with one very similar.

I also think the interface is interesting. WinMob 7 it isn’t. Nor is it TouchFlo – the HTC UI layer that graces their latest devices. There’s good and bad to this, I think. On the one hand it shows how flexible a platform WinMob is that it can support two radically different (and undeniably sexy) top-level interfaces. On the other hand, once you push beneath the oh-so shiny surface, we’re still left with the standard WInMob interface. Whilst that’s not bad, it’s not the greatest UI for a device you want to operate with one hand at best and one hand plus a finger at worst. Does the flowering of many different eye-candy strewn UIs dilute the benefit of having a single OS underneath? Does it hinder usability by forcing users to learn each new UI? When Apple released the iPhone the one thing everybody agreed on was that they had a great UI. Just because you can put an elephant in a shiny suit and call it an astronaut does not make it so, and WinMob+UI-of-the-month feels a bit like that, to me.

Ultimately it depends where you sit. One man’s ‘great for manufacturers because it allows them to differentiate their offerings and tailor the their customers’ is another man’s ‘why do you have to be different just for the sake of it – it makes it hard to use’.

One thing I will say – if anybody from Sony Ericsson is reading this, and they want an enthusiastic tester for the X1, sign me up!