Mobile Tech

Windows Mobile Inches Up to 6.5

Microsoft on Tuesday announced that smartphones running the Windows Mobile 6.5 OS are ready for the market.

It also announced the My Phone service, an online service similar to Apple’s MobileMe for the iPhone.

In addition, Redmond launched the Windows Marketplace for Mobile, its mobile phone app store.

About WinMo 6.5 Phones

Tuesday’s Windows Mobile 6.5 launch was worldwide, but the world may have to wait a while before getting its hands on some of the new models running the OS.

In North America, for instance, the Samsung Intrepid will be available from Sprint on Oct. 11, while AT&T will offer the HTC Tilt 2 in the coming weeks, Microsoft said. It’s the same in Latin America and several European countries.

Meanwhile the competition is gearing up its own products. On Monday, T-Mobile unveiled a new Android phone from Samsung, and on Tuesday, Google and Verizon announced that they are forming a partnership to offer Android phones.

“The phone industry is far different from the PC world, where users are forced to wait for Microsoft to get its act together and release new operating system updates,” Allen Nogee, a principal analyst at In-Stat, told TechNewsWorld. “Palm, Android, Apple, Symbian and others are adding new features all the time and can roll out new devices with these features in no time at all. Microsoft has never had to compete in such and environment before and isn’t built that way.”

About WinMo 6.5

Windows Mobile 6.5 offers several new features. These include “What’s New” feeds; improved Windows Live photo sharing across Twitter; Facebook, MySpace and Flickr functions; and what Microsoft touts as a “best-in-class e-mail experience” with the ability to manage multiple accounts from the smartphone with Outlook Mobile and Exchange Server synchronization.

Microsoft has redesigned the Internet Explorer mobile browser, adding Flash Lite. However, that Flash Lite capability may depend on the smartphone brand, which could mean not all smartphones running WinMo 6.5 will have the feature.

In an attempt to tap the customization-happy Net generation, Microsoft now offers the Custom Theme Creator, so users can also create their own themes for their smartphones.

However, whether such a feature could be a hit with the OS’s corporate base is yet to be seen. “I think Windows Mobile is struggling, at least outside of the enterprise space,” In-Stat’s Nogee said.

My Phone, Your Phone, the iPhone

Microsoft also introduced the My Phone service, which is similar to Apple’s MobileMe for the iPhone.

The basic My Phone service is free and is available now on all smartphones running WinMo 6.5, said Greg Sullivan, senior product manager for Windows Mobile. It lets users manage and back up the data on their smartphones, automatically synchronizing the content the user selects to a password-protected Web site in the cloud. Users can go online and map the last known location of their phone from when it was last synchronized.

Although the basic service is free, users may have to pay data transfer charges, and Microsoft says users should check with their wireless carriers before using it.

Redmond also offers a My Phone premium package. This will let users locate the phone’s current location on a map, but only in the United States. It offers remote lock and lets users post an “if found” message on the screen telling the finder how to return the device and to whom. Users whose phones are lost can also remotely trigger the ringer even if the phone is set to silent or vibrate mode, and they can erase the phone remotely if needed.

The premium package is free until Nov. 30. After that, WinMo 6.5 owners get to use it one more time for free, following which they will have to pay $4.99 per use. “You use it when you need it and can use it after you’ve lost the smartphone,” Sullivan said.

Mobile Apps for WinMo

Together with WinMo 6.5, Microsoft unveiled 246 apps in its Windows Marketplace for Mobile. “We have more than 753 independent software vendors (ISVs) worldwide to continue building out the catalog,” Microsoft’s Sullivan said.

Microsoft may not be able to attract enough developers to make its app store a real player, Carl Howe, director of anywhere research at the Yankee Group, told TechNewsWorld. Redmond has issued about 40 million Windows Mobile licenses, but the market is fragmented because it lets smartphone vendors select the handset’s features, making for a diverse collection of different phones with different capabilities.

“If I’m a developer with a limited budget, deciding whether to develop for a single interface and screen size versus a wide range of interfaces and screen types is a no-brainer: The single-screen development will be less than half the cost,” Howe explained. “With Apple’s installed base of iPhones and iPods now exceeding Microsoft’s phone base, Microsoft is at a big disadvantage wooing those developers.”

Review Blues?

Generally, reviewers have categorized WinMo 6.5 as a minor update.

WinMo 6.5’s improvements are slight because it is really designed as a place holder for Windows Mobile 7, said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group and a Windows Mobile smartphone user himself. “It’s better than Windows Mobile 6.1, but it’s a point release, which means minor, largely cosmetic improvements,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Windows Mobile 7 will be a full release and move the bar further.”

However, Microsoft needs to ramp up its efforts on Windows 7 if it wants to succeed, he added. “Google and Apple will hardly be sitting still doing nothing for the next year,” Enderle said. “Microsoft will really need to push the bar on Windows 7.”

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