The last time Microsoft (MSFT) delivered a major upgrade to its smartphone software, Windows Mobile 6, in early 2007, Apple's (AAPL) iPhone was still five months out on the horizon. You can tell how radically Apple changed expectations about smartphones if you pick up any Windows Mobile handset today. The software seems positively quaint.
On Oct. 6, Microsoft released a significant upgrade, Windows Mobile 6.5, on HTC handsets from AT&T (T) and Verizon Wireless. Unfortunately the results fall far short of what Microsoft requires to get back into the top tier of mobile communications. And it won't get another shot until version 7.0, a complete overhaul that should appear in late 2010.
Windows Mobile 6.5 sports a new screen design that eliminates just about all vestiges of the Windows desktop interface. In its place is a home screen inspired by Microsoft's latest Zune media player and an iPhone-like grid of applications.
These changes help, but they don't go far enough. The biggest problem with the design is that it has to work on a broad range of handsets. There are WinMo phones with touchscreens and physical keyboards, such as the European version of the HTC Touch pro2, which I used to test the software. There are also handsets with keyboards and no touchscreens, and those with touchscreens and no keyboards.
It's hard to see how any single interface would be a match for all these combinations. In the case of WinMo, all kinds of things go wrong. If, for example, you have an e-mail message or Web page that doesn't fit on a single screen, you flick your finger to move the text up, just as you would expect. But the display also has scroll bars for use with a stylus. This wastes screen real estate and causes confusion, because sliding the scroll bar up actually moves the text down.
Also, Microsoft supports only the relatively insensitive "resistive" touchscreens, not the finger-friendly "capacitive" screens used by phones running Google's (GOOG) Android software, as well as the Palm (PALM) Pre and the iPhone. (Microsoft plans to rejigger version�6.5 within a few months so it can handle capacitive screens.)
On the positive side, the new version of Internet Explorer on these handsets is much better than its predecessor—even if it is still a step down from browsers on iPhone and Android handsets. One helpful feature is a slider at one edge of the screen that lets you expand or shrink text and images. But it doesn't work consistently. You cannot, for example, use it to rescale Bing Maps, Microsoft's alternative to Google Maps.
Microsoft is taking a couple of steps to make Windows Mobile feel more up-to-date. My Phone is an online service that backs up your phone content and gives you Web access to contact and calendar information. It is more limited than Apple's MobileMe, but unlike that $99-a-year service, it is free.
Microsoft also is launching a store called Marketplace that will bring thousands of Windows Mobile apps under one virtual roof. Each wireless company will get a section of the Marketplace for sale of carrier-specific apps. These will be included on phone bills, and the carrier will get a cut; others will be charged to a credit card, with revenues split 70-30 between the developer and Microsoft.
Microsoft executives concede that version 6.5 is a placeholder until a more modern Windows Mobile 7 is ready. The company plans to impose much stricter rules for hardware, which will allow a more coherent software design and a better user experience. WinMo 6.5 will plod along until then, but Microsoft and its software are sure to take a lot of abuse.