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Microsoft Unveils New Windows Mobile Software

Yesterday, Microsoft debuted a dramatically revised version of its Windows Mobile operating system. Microsoft's new software, announced by chairman Steve Ballmer at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, features a simpler interface, over-the-air synchronization, and a tap-to-install application catalog.

This looks like a dramatic change from the current Windows Mobile 6.1. it could be the biggest change to Microsoft's mobile-device software approach in a decade, giving the Redmond, Wash., company some badly needed relevance next to such slick, Web-connected mobile-phone options as Apple's iPhone, Google's Android and (coming soon) Palm's webOS. Hence, Microsoft has christened the new platform with the thoroughly undramatic name "Windows Mobile 6.5."

You can see a few pictures of WM 6.5's new interface at Microsoft's press site, but other news sites provide much more detailed coverage. See, for instance, the illustrated write-ups posted by Pocket PC Thoughts and Brighthand, which demonstrate such redesigned components as a programs list designed for taps with a thumb instead of a thin plastic stylus, plus a mobile version of the Internet Explorer browser that no longer gags on most Web pages.

There's one unmentioned subtext to those changes. For years, Microsoft advertised Windows Mobile as something that required minimal learning for anybody used to desktop Windows, thanks to its use of many of the same interface elements -- even right-click menus! -- as that full-sized operating system. Now the company now seems to be backing away from that strategy.

Microsoft's new over-the-air synchronization option, called My Phone (hmm, what does that rhyme with?), appears to duplicate many of the functions of such Web-to-phone sync systems as Google's Android and Apple's MobileMe. But unlike those services, MyPhone will also back up photos, videos and text messages to the Web.

Finally, the new "Windows Marketplace for Mobile" application storefront -- Microsoft had alluded to this at a meeting during the Consumer Electronics Show last month -- promises to fix one of the most horribly broken aspects of the current Windows Mobile experience. Today, installing a third-party program requires either a) downloading an .exe installer program and running that on a Windows desktop or laptop to which you've plugged in your smartphone, or b) downloading a ".cab" file to your phone, running it and then deleting that original download. The new Windows Mobile app store could finally end that usability nightmare... if, of course, it functions as advertised.

Windows Mobile 6.5 won't ship until the second half of this year, and it may take longer yet to show up on phones in the U.S. market -- no American carriers appear in the Word file listing Microsoft's first round of WM 6.5 partners. It's also unclear how many current Windows Mobile phones will be upgradable to this release.

By then, the iPhone may be on its third iteration and should have plenty of competition from multiple Android phones and Palm's Pre smartphone. Does that delay mean WM 6.5 may arrive too late to make a dent in Microsoft's mobile fortunes, as writer Sascha Sega suggests? You tell me. How long would you wait for a major upgrade to your current phone's operating system before giving up on your current investment -- in sync software, acquaintance with its interface, third-party programs you've bought -- and switching to a competing platform?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  February 17, 2009; 11:55 AM ET
Categories:  Gadgets , Telecom , Windows  
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Microsoft doesn't provide minimum hardware specs for Windows Mobile, which results in many users having a horrible experience with it.

OTOH, it's easier to develop software for than for the iPhone, as users can install it without going through an app store. This is especially important for business and government users who run custom apps.

Posted by: wiredog | February 17, 2009 1:12 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of custom apps -- where does one find decent FREE custom apps for the Blackberry Storm -- besides the pitiful selections on Blackberry's own site?

Posted by: | February 20, 2009 2:06 AM | Report abuse

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