Microsoft aims at IT with Windows Mobile 6.1 launch

Microsoft on Tuesday launched Windows Mobile 6.1, an operating system update the company said will make it easier for IT managers to set up and manage devices than using BlackBerry Enterprise Server and offer greater usability for mobile workers.

The company officially announced the OS at the CTIA show in Las Vegas this week, but in a pre-briefing with ComputerWorld Canada, Microsoft’s Alec Taylor said customers can reasonably expect new versions of Windows Mobile approximately once every 18 months. This reflects the much faster refresh cycles Microsoft is seeing within its installed base compared to the desktop segment, he said.

“We’re seeing developers upgrade every six to 12 months,” he said. “The cost of the device is becoming an afterthought compared with the value in terms of productivity.”

Windows Mobile 6.1 will offer users Exchange connectivity to both IMAP and POP mailboxes, as well as auto-discovery features that will speed up the process of connecting to Bluetooth or other networks, Taylor said. Microsoft has embedded the most common passcodes for client devices, so that all users would need is an e-mail address. This will be much faster than what IT managers would experience in setting up BlackBerry devices using RIM’s BES, he said.

The OS will also feature tight integration with Microsoft’s System Center Mobile Device Manager 2008 management software. As a result, Taylor said, IT managers can control what users are doing with devices. An IT manager might want to lock down the text function on a phone within a brokerage firm, for instance, or disable the camera function for those passing through a high-security facility.

“IT guys step in and want to know they can manage risk,” he said. “This allows them to manage on an exception basis.”

Microsoft’s Canadian ISV partners include Toronto-based Luna Development, whose CEO, Mike LoPatriello, said Windows Mobile 6.1 will respond to several user headaches. One of Luna’s customers, for example, is energy drink maker Red Bull, whose delivery workers commonly use smart phones to print receipts or order information.

“Tethering (to a printer) used to mean going into a control panel,” he said. “If the printer gets damaged, then you have to connect to a new one, which tends to be an arduous process.” Windows Mobile 6.1, on the other hand, means a company like Red Bull could simply enter the PIN code for a new printer if they knew it or hit “next” if they don’t, because the code is likely already pre-saved in the OS.

Windows Mobile 6.1 will offer users the choice of using applications via keypad or through an iPhone-like touchscreen mode. A Task Manager will immediately walk the user through the most common settings, LoPatriello said. This includes the clock, e-mail, device lock, background and ring tone, he said. Users will be able to monitor the status of three different inboxes (voice, e-mail, SMS) at a glance and simply click on a user’s name to contact them. A special Zoom feature, meanwhile, will show Internet users a small image of an entire page and allow them to identify the area they want to get to without a lot of scrolling.

Graham Chalk, manager of data strategy and support at Telus Mobility in Scarborough, Ont., said anything that can ease system setup and management will be a bonus, and not just to Microsoft.

“We hear about all those issues through our customer support services too,” he said. “It’s really detrimental if in the first hour they’re having problems with their device. That’s a bad impression.”

Telus isn’t launching any phones to specifically capitalize on the Windows Mobile 6.1 launch, Chalk said, but will likely see interest once it hits the market.

Microsoft also announced an updated IE Mobile browser which will support Adobe Flash and Microsoft’s Silverlight so that Windows Mobile users will be able to view multimedia Internet applications in their browsers. Microsoft had previously announced that it would support Flash and Silverlight in Windows Mobile but had declined to say when the capabilities would become available.

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