Microsoft unveils Windows Mobile 6.5

Microsoft Corp. unveiled its Windows Mobile 6.5 operating system today on what are being called “Windows phones” that focus on touch-friendly features and quicker navigation, acknowledging the influence of the iPhone. The phones should ship as early as July.

“We’re building on our expertise in the business-user segment to expand the platform … for consumers,” said Greg Sullivan, senior product manager at Microsoft in a recent interview. Microsoft executives announced the operating system at the GSMA Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Sullivan admitted that Windows Mobile has taken some criticism from Motorola Inc., bloggers and even the public for providing an operating system in the current Windows Mobile 6.1 and earlier versions that has been termed “kludgy” or even unsophisticated when compared with those in newer smartphones by competitors.

Nonetheless, LG Electronics today announced it is making Windows Mobile its primary smartphone platform, with 26 different mobile models using the operating system in 2012.

Sullivan demonstrated beta software of 6.5 on an HTC Touch Pro , but handheld makers were expected to show new devices that Microsoft has decided to brand as “Windows phones” and that will ship early in the second half of 2009 using the updated operating system.

Microsoft provides the operating system for several major device manufacturers and has been concerned that its role in the highly competitive smartphone market has been diluted, especially because of the success of Apple, which makes the iPhone’s operating system as well as the device, and Research In Motion Ltd., which makes the operating system for its many BlackBerry models. One current Windows Mobile manufacturer, Motorola, recently said it will wait for Windows Mobile 7.0 to ship sometime in 2010 for its smartphones, skipping over the 6.5 release.

More than 20 million phones with Windows Mobile shipped last year from four major manufacturers.

Sullivan said Microsoft wants to “improve the user experience” and has designed 6.5 “on the notion that users want to get to their stuff and get it rather quickly.”

For example, the 6.5 operating system allows “fat finger touching” on a resistive touch screen, rather than requiring a user to pull out a stylus to make more precise touches as in earlier versions of the operating system, Sullivan said. That innovation means a user can make touches on smaller smartphones with one hand, using the thumb for touching icons. The home screen has a honeycomb look, with the icons further apart than with other home screens for easier touches.

Another upgrade allows users at the home screen, known as the “Today” screen, to quickly get to applications with a simple drag of an icon. A user also can see a missed a phone call, e-mail or text message, and touch that message to quickly launch a return call, without the need to unlock the smartphone and load the voice calling, text or e-mail application with what could amount to several steps.

The browser in Version 6.5 provides a built-in Flash video player as well as pan and zoom capabilities with the touch of a finger. It is built on HTML rendering done by Microsoft for its desktop Internet Explorer 7 version, Sullivan said.

Microsoft’s recently announced My Phone sync and backup service will also ship with the 6.5 phones. That service will give users 200MB of free storage, which is useful for users who want to store e-mail or other data for transfer to another device.

Microsoft also plans to launch an application store similar to Apple’s AppStore and other online storefronts from other operating system providers. It will be called Windows Marketplace for Mobile and will allow a user to control the applications from both the phone and the Web.

Two analysts gave Microsoft credit for recognizing the need to improve the user experience with 6.5.

“The cleaned-up interface in 6.5 is the most important thing they could have possibly done,” said Philippe Winthrop at Strategy Analytics. “Is it slick like an iPhone? No. But it’s not meant to be.”

Winthrop said Microsoft has held on to its operating system because it is practical for business users as well as IT shops that need to manage the devices in a secure way. But criticism about the current Windows Mobile interface, which Winthrop called “kludgy,” means that Microsoft needs to get 6.5 shipping “as soon as possible” to remain competitive.

He said one often-criticized feature in 6.1 — the long time it takes to boot the operating system — does not seem to have been significantly improved in 6.5. Sullivan said he didn’t know if the boot time in the shipping version of 6.5 will be reduced compared to 6.1.

“Microsoft has always done better at understanding the needs of IT, but now is crossing over to pay attention to the needs of the end user,” said Sean Ryan, an analyst at IDC. “It is crucial that they do well.”

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