Microsoft aims for market share with Windows Mobile 6.5

Microsoft this week unveils Windows Mobile 6.5, with its new full-blown Web browser, IE Mobile 6, in a bid to stay competitive in the fast-changing mobile market
  • John Cox (Network World)
  • 18 February, 2009 09:03

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.

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But it's under pressure from two opposite directions. One is from proprietary solutions: the success of Apple's iPhone, RIM's BlackBerry, and potentially Palm's brand new webOS announced with its recently unveiled Pre smartphone show they've been able to compete within the mobile space as no one has in the PC space.

On the other hand, open-source Linux platforms like Android are showing fast maturation, and growing marketshare, according to Schreck. "The current economic climate is forcing vendors to look for methods of cutting costs," he says. "Not only does Linux offer an OS free of licensing costs, but it also cuts down on [OS] development costs."

"Microsoft will be in a slightly more tenuous position, as it will be the only smartphone OS developer utilizing the traditional [software] licensing model with its customers after 2009," Schreck says. "It will be up to Microsoft's developers to continue to provide a product [that's] worth the licensing costs when compared to Android, LiMo, Symbian, etc."

Whether the changes made in 6.5 will energize the Windows market remains to be seen. But Microsoft has made extensive changes with this release, though many of them are subtle.

"Finger friendly" Windows

The UI in 6.5 includes larger menu items and icons, the goal being to create a larger 'target area' for a user's touch, according to Sullivan.

In the current 6.1 release, Windows Mobile uses a vertical scrolling action to find items, and a side-to-side movement to show additional layers of selections. The new version makes these actions much more fluid, for example being able to scroll in either direction by swiping a finger or thumb over the screen.

Users can now put browser favorites on their Windows Mobile start screen, and have the browser open up directly with that site, rather than going through multiple steps of calling up the browser, and entering or selecting a URL.

The entire start screen has a new look and feel. Instead of a block format, with program icons arranged in a linear 3 x 3 pattern, the screen subtly resembles a honeycomb: each icon is set in a hexagon and offset slightly from its neighbors. The screen is easily navigated with finger swipes. The intent is to give a larger touch target for each icon, and creates visual cues for the user that additional icons exist outside the viewable screen display.

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There's also a new lock screen, which prevents someone else from accessing the phone until a password is entered. The lock activates after a configurable period of inactivity. But this time, the phone even when locked will provide a user with much more information: alerts about incoming calls, new e-mails or voicemails, and the ability to unlock just that latest entry, for example.

A stage for IE Mobile 6

In some ways, the easier to use touch interface is the stage for IE Mobile 6, a major effort by Microsoft to bring the full Web to Windows-based phones. Microsoft is emphasizing the fact that the new browser renders Adobe Flash content flawlessly, unlike the iPhone's Safari, which still does not support Flash, which is widely used in Web pages.

Users can set the browser to render a full HTML Web site, or if the site has content specifically designed for mobile devices, to render that specialized format instead, according to Sullivan.

In a demonstration, IE Mobile 6 filled the large screen of a HTC touch phone with a complete standard Web page, in this case the homepage. Tapping a small "ghost" icon at lower right, brings up a set of browser control buttons (back, menu, keyboard, search, and so on).

Using Microsoft's newly announced My Phone hosted service, a 6.5 phone can back up, store, and synchronize contact and schedule information, as well as text messages, photos, documents and files. The goal is to blend together content and features from the user's Windows phone, PC, and Web-based services. Google offers a similar service and just announced support for Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync, allowing users to hook up with Microsoft Exchange-based e-mail systems, and receive mail pushed out by Exchange.