Looking at Windows Mobile 6.1 with Fresh Eyes

Microsoft released Windows Mobile 6.1, the latest version of its smartphone OS, back in April, but only now are we beginning to see the first generation of truly interesting 6.1-based devices. As I opined back in October ("Windows Mobile: What Went Wrong?"), Microsoft has some interesting issues on its hands in getting consumers and business customers energized about its lagging mobile platform. To understand the state of Windows Mobile then, I've been using a Windows Mobile 6.1 smartphone for the past few months and, last week, I met again with the Windows Mobile team in Redmond.

To frame this discussion, I'd like to first point to some of the more obvious problems that Windows Mobile faces in a rapidly changing industry. First, there are exciting and interesting newcomers like the best-selling iPhone--already outselling all Windows Mobile devices combined in North America, by the way--and Google's Android platform. Second, there are entrenched rivals, like RIM, whose Blackberry products seem to be running away with the business end of the market. And third, there is the almost surreal slow pace of Windows Mobile development: Microsoft says that the next major revision to this OS won't ship until late 2009 at the earliest. That's more than a year too late, in my opinion.

That said, the Windows Mobile team cites progress in both the consumer and business markets. There will be more than 25 Windows Mobile 6.1 phones in the marketplace by the end of 2008, I was told, and I can see for myself that many of them are quite nice looking. And many include innovative UIs, the only common denominator there being that they are all seeking to hide Windows Mobile's ancient looking UI as much as possible. It's pretty clear that device makers and service providers are racing to overcome the limitations of Windows Mobile while they wait for Microsoft to deliver the long-awaited 7.0 release.

There's good ecosystem support too. The recent release of Microsoft Online Services (MOS), which includes a hosted Microsoft Exchange service that Windows Mobile devices support by default, could also help the platform. Yes, it's possible for enterprises to offer Blackberry support for Exchange, and many hosted Exchange solutions do so as well, but that requires an expensive and complex additional server. Microsoft, not surprisingly, only offers native Windows Mobile access. And this is functionality that should appeal to businesses of all sizes. Small businesses that go the Small Business Server (SBS) 2008 route, and mid-sized businesses that opt for Essential Business Server 2008, will get the latest Exchange version as well, and that comes with integrated Windows Mobile support of course. Enterprises should at least look at Mobile Device Manager 2008, which lets you manage Windows Mobile devices as you do PCs, setting and controlling policies via Active Directory (AD).

Looking beyond Microsoft, there are over 19,000 Windows Mobile applications out in the wild. But because the software giant doesn't offer a centralized application store, as does Apple and Google, customers must rely on second-rate third-party services like Handango. That's better than nothing, but this is clearly an area for improvement as well.

Microsoft currently offers three discrete versions of Windows Mobile, each aimed at a certain market. There is a Classic version for vertical (i.e., non-phone) devices, a Standard edition for smartphones that lack touch screens, and a Professional edition for those that do have touch screens. Hopefully these will be consolidated into a single product going forward, but the up side to this situation is that there are a wide range of Windows Mobile devices to choose from, all with different form factor types and even software interfaces. Apple, by contrast, offers a single form factor, and you can buy it only from a single service provider.

Looking specifically at Windows Mobile 6.1, I see some interesting improvements, but I also see some curiously ancient bits as well. The basic Windows Mobile UI hasn't actually changed a bit since the original version of Windows CE shipped over a decade ago; there's a Start Menu with application shortcuts and the same icon-based view styles I recall from that early mobile product. The UI has been adapted for the small size of today's phone, of course.

The best feature of Windows Mobile 6.1, curiously, is available only on devices based on the Standard edition of the software. It allows you to change the Home Screen from the default screen to a new UI called, simply enough, Sliding Panel. This UI is actually quite nice, and while it can't touch (ahem) the iPhone for simplicity and ease of use, it's certainly a huge improvement over the stock Windows Mobile Home Screen. They really, really need to get this UI working on Windows Mobile Professional devices.

Functionally, the Sliding Panel UI is very similar to the UIs for Windows Media Center and Zune, if you're familiar with those solutions. You can scroll up and down to select major options--time, communications, appointments, getting started (which can be removed when you're ready), and settings. As you select each major option, you can also scroll left or right within those options. For example, the communications choice includes missed calls, voice mails, text messages, email (with multiple account), and, if you've installed Windows Live, Hotmail. Settings includes such things as profile (sound and vibration settings), wireless manager, ringtone, background image, and task manager.

This UI is logical and easy to use, and you'll be up and running quickly. The only downside, of course, is that it's just a thin veneer over the otherwise ancient Windows Mobile OS. Select most of the aforementioned items, and you'll be brought to an old-school text menu that looks like it was last edited 10 years ago. This is the case with the proprietary new UIs that Microsoft's partners are creating on top of Windows Mobile as well, and it's a shameful reminder that what lies underneath isn't nearly as sophisticated as that top layer.

I'm out of space--what else is new?--but I have a lot more to say about Windows Mobile. I'll conclude this discussion on the SuperSite for Windows by the time you read this.

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