The unveiling this week of Windows Mobile 6.5, married with Internet Explorer Mobile 6, is a major attempt by Microsoft to remain a viable player in the fast-changing mobile market.
The new platform and browser are being showcased this week in Barcelona, Spain at the Mobile World Congress, a major annual conference of the global GSM cellular industry. Microsoft's efforts, and its entire licensed-software business model, will be weighed against the growing competition from such open-source Linux platforms as Android, as well as Symbian, and proprietary offerings from Apple and Research in Motion.
Also part of the MWC splash is Microsoft My Phone, a hosted service for backing up and synchronizing an array of content on a Windows Mobile phone. The Web site accidentally went live prematurely. My Phone is currently available to a select group of invited beta testers.
The new OS version makes an array of subtle but important usability changes in the user interface, including much greater capabilities for touch screens: multi-touch and gestures. Microsoft officials say it's the first release that lets users do away with the handling of a stylus.
That change makes it possible for users to get the most from the new Web browser.
The new OS and the new browser will appear in mobile phones in Q4 of this year.
"The user experience [for mobile] has changed dramatically in the past two years," says Greg Sullivan, a group product manager with Microsoft's mobile communications unit. Whether intended or not, that comment is an acknowledgement of the dramatic success of Apple's iPhone, which was seized by legions of enthusiastic users who liked its relatively large screen, a UI designed to support multiple touches and gestures instead of just a single finger-press, and the Safari Web browser.
"It's hard to imagine Microsoft not being relevant [in this market]," says Frank Dickson, vice president of research, mobile Internet, with In-Stat, a technology market research firm in Scottsdale, Ariz. "If [Windows Mobile 6.5] provides exceptional functionality, handset makers will implement it. But I'm surprised there's not more headway made by Microsoft as of yet."
Windows Mobile remains one of the key platforms for mobile operators and handset makers, says Chris Schreck, research analyst for the mobile technologies group of IMS Research, Austin, Texas. "They've expressed a clear interest in reducing the number of operating systems in their portfolios," he says.