Zumobi ditches beta, gets its act together

Zumobi releases Version 1.0 of the glossy Windows Mobile widget app with notable performance improvements and the same good looks.

Quickly search for local fare from Zumobi\'s widget interface.

Surfing the Web on a cell phone screen can be the laggy, draggy pits, but companies like Zumobi want to make it a rush. The announcement of Zumobi's first full release (for Windows Mobile 5 and 6) brings the Microsoft-birthed, now Microsoft-partnered platform for delivering mobile content closer to the dream.

I've been following Zumobi's young career for some time and happily, its character is catching up to its glitz. Version 1.0 corrects many of the beta's more glaring errors, including major functionality potholes that are now mostly paved over.

For the uninitiated, Zumobi is a grid of 16 thumbnails that users access by zooming into a quadrant and then zooming in again to an often-customizable "tile," each of which is populated by the content partner and updated several times a day. For instance, Amazon's tile operates a portable-book store that also links to Amazon's mobile site. AP News, MTV, Epicurious, and Flickr are other well-known brands.

Significant improvements to speed, image rendering, and a roster of other back-end tweaks have made their mark with faster, less pixelated loading and zooming. Zumobi's footprint is ever-shrinking, and the app can now live on the phone's expansion card, whereas the beta was hemmed into the phone memory. Some visual elements have also benefited from intense developer scrutiny, including the "0 (zero) Menu" with its gallery of featured tiles, and other interface upgrades that make navigating and rating tiles more intuitive.

Program tiles are divided into four quadrants.

That isn't to say that total intuition has been achieved. The purpose of the "7" and "8" keys on a zoomed-in tile is still a little murky and leads to different outcomes depending on the sponsor. In testing, the keys often did the same thing, and usually resulted in channeling several tiles to my Zumobi in-box. Had that been my intention, I could then replace tiles on my zoom space. Since it wasn't, precious seconds were sucked into waiting while the unwanted tile populated the in-box and in opening the "message" to then delete it. The app needs an abort mechanism and fewer clicks to nix a mistake.

While navigation has gotten better on the whole, there's some evidence it will further improve. John SanGiovanni, Zumobi's co-founder and vice president of products and services, hinted that the next update should dispatch one of my biggest peeves, which I'll speculate means that users won't have to zoom twice to crack open a widget.

The one thing that won't change in future iterations is Zumobi's high visual standard. "We still have a religion around the lushness of this experience," SanGiovanni said in a phone call. "We're trying to create a really sexy experience that makes the user feel like they're using an iPhone or a PSP." So far, so good. Zumobi has the looks, the advertising partners, and now, acceptable performance. It will be interesting to see how widely it'll be adopted, but with plans for Zumobi to ship on Windows Mobile phones, half that work is already done.

Zumobi 1.0 is available for Windows Mobile phones (including touch screens) by downloading the CAB file to the PC or by pointing the phone's browser to http://get.zumobi.com for over-the-air installation. BlackBerry and J2ME apps are expected in Q2 of 2008.

About Jessica Dolcourt

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.