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A Review of Operator Branding on Windows Mobile

Posted on 31-Jan-2006 19:18 by A Karantze | Filed under: Articles

In a previous career at O2 UK, I managed the Xda programme, which included the branding and customisation to give devices a uniquely O2 look and feel, and make it easier for new users to use their equipment. I worked closely with the user community, courtesy of the excellent Data Support customer care team at O2 and in association with the UK Windows Mobile user group 4WinMobile. In this way the evolution of Xda would in part be based on how the community was responding and what items were emerging as important.

Readers and customers of the operators may be curious to understand what exactly drives an operator to brand a device and add software to “improve” ease of use – especially for more advanced users who feel they don’t need the extra support. I have used the evolution of Xda over the last 4 years as the test subject.

I have focused on devices that use the Microsoft Operating system Windows Mobile, as this is where operator enhancement has been most widely used – a testament to the flexibility of that software, and items that were missed but glaringly obvious in retrospect.

For reference, in late November 2005, the gents at reviewed the O2 Xda Exec and Orange SPV M5000, both operator variants of the HTC Universal, a Windows Mobile Pocket PC with built-in QWERTY keyboard, high-resolution VGA screen, support for WI-FI, 3G (UMTS) and Bluetooth, running the latest Windows Mobile 5 software. Both articles had extensive pictures, and compared and contrasted the approach O2 and Orange took to branding this device.

The standard interface

This screenshot is a typical today screen from a device running Windows Mobile 5.0, and hasn’t really changed that much since the launch of the ‘Phone Edition’ software back in 2001. Not immediately obvious is how you could actually use your PDA to make a phone call – and on a device without a physical phone keypad (like the average Nokia phone…) the answer doesn’t jump out at you (you need to press the call key on your PDA, which looks a little like this: ().

This isn’t a problem for the technically minded user, or those willing to commit the time to read the manual and explore their device – i.e. those in the minority. The ubiquity of mobile phones means most people have experience already of a phone – typically a Nokia model – and generally don’t readily accept having to ‘start again’ with a new brand.

As in the web world, the key is to minimise the amount of taps or clicks for people to get to where they are going. The general rule of thumb is no more than 3 clicks to discover web content – but for the mobile world, the ideal is no clicks/taps!

In the picture above, notice the battery icon in the top right corner. This will begin appearing commercially in the next few weeks or so, and is part of the Microsoft Adaptation Kit Update 2 (AKU2) to Windows Mobile 5. But it only changes when the battery goes from 100% to 50% - I prefer to know well before then how much is left. Tapping the icon takes you to the battery control panel applet, which does give greater detail – but that requires me to tap the icon with my fingernail or stylus. My Nokia phone has more breaks for the battery indicator – it's better information and more useful, and takes no taps or clicks to discover.

Operator Enhancement
The need to differentiate from your competition is a staple subject of most books on building your business. “Find something you can do that is unique to your business, and exploit it”. Good common sense, except mobile operators are all in the same business – selling airtime and common services (egg Picture Messaging or Games Downloads).

In the GSM world there is little opportunity to differentiate among handset models, unless an operator is brave enough to source equipment from the Far East (Taiwan or South Korea typically) and manage the opportunities those partnerships present.

In truly competitive markets, like North America and New Zealand, there is competition among hardware types, because there are networks that use GSM/UMTS and CDMA2000 – which means there is handset competition because models vary in look, feel and technology. In GSM/UMTS only regions such as Europe, operators can only offer the same handset slightly tweaked at different price points.

The opportunity to differentiate is based on what looks better, what it costs and what you include with it. Canny customers, especially in the UK, go to different stores and ask for model XYZ and the sharpest deal and use that to get what they are looking for.

Business customers demand specific device models and functionality, and not having a certain model quickly becomes a barrier to sale; Orange originally went alone in selling a Microsoft Smartphone, but now most operators will offer one – not having one can lead to uncomfortable conversations, as the CDMA2000 operators have discovered.

So, operators will take devices and they will add their own look and feel to them, to make their offer stand apart from others in the market. With branded devices (Nokia, Samsung) the opportunity is very limited and consists mainly of wallpapers and settings, unless an operator commits to a large volume order (such as Vodafone with the V975 from Motorola, an average handset in the end). Operator brand models, such the Smartphone’s and PDA’s from HTC, offer greater opportunity to tweak – witness the model differences between the Orange SPV M5000 and Xda Exec:

Picture courtesy of

Picture courtesy of

Both of these devices are based on the HTC Universal, manufactured by HTC in Taiwan. The O2 device is coloured black, the Orange device is gun metal gray. The keyboard backlight is blue on the O2 device and Orange on the Orange device… The screen lid when closed has an O2 logo stamped in the metal and Orange logo printed on, respectively. Too bad if you’re an Orange customer who wants a black device, or an O2 customer who has had enough of black phones.

A significant driver for improving the on-device experience is support. Device manufacturers continue to improve what a mobile is capable of, and often include additional applications the carrier may not be in a position to provide a high level of support for.

Sony Ericsson was among the first to include a basic application for managing email on a mobile phone, starting with the T39 in 2001. Although simple to configure in principle (you need your ISP’s email settings, username and password), most ISP’s would not support configuring a phone to download mail. Even today 4 years later it is all too common to strike an obtuse mail provider who can’t or won’t help setup a mobile phone to receive mail.

So what does the user do? Call the person that sold them the gadget for help!

Most operators have specialist helpdesks of varying quality that can assist with using the secondary functions of a device. But as any support centre manager will tell you, this specialist resource is expensive, deals with a wide variety of questions that occur infrequently and has a habit of losing staff through normal attrition. There is no need to ask a customer to call the helpdesk to configure their phone for access to Paradise or Xtra (New Zealand ISPs) – there should be a wizard on the device to help with that, or at the very least information in an EASY TO DISCOVER website.

The evolution of Xda
Let’s examine how the Xda user experience has evolved over time:

The original O2 Xda branding, circa 2002. Note the first endeavour at making the device easier to use, along the top line – simple tap shortcuts for E-Mail, SMS, Internet, WAP and MMS. The device runs Pocket PC 2002 OS.

With the O2 Xda II, the O2 Active software came into being. Front screen shortcuts for news, sports, as well as activating the phone. In the messaging menu there is an email configuration wizard which takes the guesswork out of 95% of common mail accounts. The device is now running Windows Mobile 2003.

Taking feedback from the O2 Xda II experience, an updated interface for Xda IIs and IIi. Notice the battery icon on the today screen, and the clock is moved to reduce clutter along the top menu bar. Shortcuts are added for WIFI on/off and screen rotation. The device is based on Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition.

From a very basic user interface, the software evolved from conversations with Customer Care, market research and talking directly to end users on what worked well, what needed to be improved and what was just plain wrong.

The flip side of branding

Screenshot courtesy of

Screenshot courtesy of

The above screenshots contrast the O2 and Orange approach nicely. Both are for the same HTC Universal device. Orange has gone for a cleaner, minimalist look with quick start icons on the left hand side. This is a great phone interface, but many people choose PDAs to keep track of appointments and project tasks – the ‘at a glance’ option is missing from the Orange version. The Orange software is elegantly small – less than 600KB in size – and works by programming the Today screen directly, taking advantage of enhancements Microsoft has made to their basic software to make it more customisable.

O2 carries over the interface from previous models, with the O2 Active software developed by V2R. This hefty client weighs in at 6MB on Xda Exec (but 4MB is the raw data for the WIFI hotspot directory, O2’s service in Ireland and England respectively), and overlays the Today screen. The screen is a little cluttered but the most relevant items are present, including the list of the day’s appointments.

The other impact of operator branding is performance. Customising the today screen or providing a user interface consumes processor power to run, and even the most efficient software will occasionally grind slowly along, making it appear the device has come to a halt. This is acutely felt if a user adds their own 3rd party software to customise their device – such as iLauncher or Pocket Informant. Running two applications that manipulate the today screen is a recipe for disaster – there will be operational problems. The Xda provides an opportunity for the user choose a level of branding (Full, Basic, Corporate), but this assumes the user is aware of how they will use their device.

Microsoft periodically revises their mobile software and releases these as ‘Adaptation Kit Updates’ (AKU), which incorporate new features, improvements and bug fixes. These releases are important for users and operators, as they greatly extend the lifecycle of a device and the functionality provided.

The original Windows Mobile 2003 software, launched in May 2003, was sluggish and had a high impact on the battery. The last major revision to go to market, AKU2 in June 2004, nearly doubled battery standby times and greatly improved the speed of the device. A similar behaviour has been experienced with Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition and early testing with Windows Mobile 5 revisions demonstrates that it too will improve towards the end of its lifecycle.

So, is it all worth it?

The Future
Operator branding and enhancement will continue to be used for the foreseeable future, but is likely to evolve into lighter touch and faster performance. As the device vendors improve their own software and bring their products into closer alignment with operator demands, operators will eventually pare back what they do themselves to those items most relevant to the offer.

The main reasons are cost and speed to market. Device lifecycles continue to become shorter and more brutal for the operator, and the need to be in market at roughly the same time as your competition is greater than ever. Even when working directly with the software vendor (such as Microsoft), there is an inherent lag between when software, documentation and support is available.

Debugging and improving performance on a still evolving software platform is quite a challenge to manage.

Maintaining a team of developers, and the demand to test and debug an application take up people’s time, and as complexity grows the effort to debug grows exponentially. So the answer is to go back to lighter touch but offer enhancements where there are real gaps.

Love it or loathe it, it’s here to stay. As a customer, you are best served to choose the vendor who won’t force their brand on you but gives you options on how much is ‘too much’.

This article is produced independent of O2 and Orange, and does not necessarily reflect the views of those companies.