Zumobi logo

The long-awaited beta for the Zumobi (download it for Windows Mobile 5+ from CNET Download.com) mobile widgets platform (at least awaited by me) became available Friday to Windows Mobile 5 and 6 users and developers who register on the site.

Zumobi, like Yahoo Go (which just moved out of beta) and Plusmo, is an experiment in mobile widgetry that cooks up an interactive recipe for getting wanted Web content fast.

Zumobi's twist is part interface, part monetizing. The app opens to a grid of 16 tiles, each its own app readied for your click. Four tiles cluster around a central hub, what Zumobi likes to call its "flower." To access an app, click--I mean zoom--into the nearest "flower" foursome and use whatever navigation your phone provides to draw up the app you want.

Each widget contains a Google search bar, a share action, and the ability for the tile developer to serve up a banner ad, Zumobi's revenue-sharing model. Users interact with AP News as an RSS feed, play blackjack, and view random or tagged Flickr photos. Zumobi encourages feedback and places that mechanism in a suitably tucked-away, but tragically mis-mapped, star button that pops out a five-point rating scale--when you press the 8 key, though, not the asterisk.

Zumobi interface

Though Zumobi loads with 13 default apps, there's room for 3 more, which users add from a gallery of about 80 apps on Zumobi.com. The company plans to enable the phone's gallery function by mid-2008. Apps can be shuffled around or deleted, but also revived if users change their minds.

Zumobi seems to make much of its multi-navigational sensitivity, but that's secondary to me, especially when some navigational responses, like to the T-Mobile Shadow's scroll wheel, experience hiccups. I expect mobile apps to seamlessly respond to touch phones, D-pads, keypads, and swiveling displays as handsets diversify. A much sharper usability point is why users are compelled to click twice to get to the single app they want, once to zoom into the quarter-screen, and once again to open the full app.

There are other issues Zumobi has to iron out with mapping keys to symbols, tightening image rendering, and filling in functions on the Zero menu, which is part in-box, part tile gallery, and part sharing hub.

The app certainly has promise, particularly if third-party developers can do for it what they did for Facebook, but I admit some disappointment. Everything about Zumobi is so polished--the conference presentations, the Web site, and the crisp, glossy app interface--but seems overcomplicated where it should be effortless. I wouldn't say Zumobi lacks substance, but right now the special effects and tie-ins trump the plot.

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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.