Microsoft has launched a new version of its Windows Mobile smartphone software sporting a revamped user interface and enhanced browser. Officially unveiled at the same time are the My Phone web synchronisation service, and an online store for mobile applications known as Windows Marketplace for Mobile.
Windows Mobile 6.5, announced today at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, is the latest incarnation of Microsoft's phone platform. It puts a greater emphasis on ease of use, and introduces some gesture-based controls similar to those seen on platforms such as Apple's iPhone.
The new release is thus a relatively minor update focused on changes to the user interface. A more significant overhaul is to come with Windows Mobile 7, which is expected later this year or in early 2010.
However, even handsets with Windows Mobile 6.5 are not expected until the fourth quarter of 2009, according to Microsoft, and the exact timing will depend on vendors such as HTC and Samsung.
Microsoft also said it is moving to rebrand the platform as 'Windows Phone' in an attempt to more closely associate its mobile software with other Windows platforms in the minds of consumers.
"It's not about the phone alone. It's about the user experience," said Alex Reeve, Microsoft business group director for Windows Mobile.
Reeve claimed that Microsoft's phone strategy is open and enables partners to provide the end products, in contrast to vendors like Research In Motion, which tie buyers into a single source for BlackBerry handsets and server software.
As part of Microsoft's goal of a better user experience, the Windows Mobile 6.5 home screen is a departure from earlier releases. It features hexagonal on-screen buttons forming a kind of honeycomb pattern to access common functions such as phone, email, calendar and web. This design was chosen as an easier target to hit with a fingertip than square buttons, according to Reeve. Users can also swipe the screen with a fingertip to scroll up and down.
The Today screen also shows browser favourites of the user's choosing for speedy access to commonly viewed sites. Local weather information is displayed, and the screen has larger icons for touch activation.
Attention has also been paid to the lock screen, because unlocking the handset is the most frequent user action, Reeve said. This now displays at-a-glance indicators showing whether the user has a new email, text message or voicemail, and swiping one unlocks the phone and opens the relevant application at the same time.
"You swipe the one you want and it takes you straight to where you want to go in one gesture instead of three or four," said Reeve.
The enhanced browser is comparable to Internet Explorer 6 on the desktop, according to Microsoft. As well as being able to show full web pages with a zoom function, it supports Flash Lite and wraps text intelligently for easier reading.
Many recent handsets with Windows Mobile 6.1 are capable of running the new platform, Reeve said, and it is likely that some handset vendors will offer upgrades, but that this would depend on the specific vendor and model.
Complementing the updated platform are new services to synchronise user information to the web, and to buy and download applications. The Windows Marketplace client will be pre-installed on Windows Mobile 6.5 handsets, enabling users to download applications over the air.
"A key differentiator for us is that there are already about 19,500 available applications on Windows Mobile," said Reeve.
It is not yet clear whether users with current versions of Windows Mobile will be able to download applications direct to their handset in the same way.
Meanwhile, the My Phone service will also come pre-loaded on Windows Mobile 6.5 devices, but users will be able to install this on smartphones running version 6 or 6.1, according to Microsoft.
Still officially in beta, My Phone enables users to synchronise their handset with a cloud-based data repository that acts as a backup and allows access to the files from a PC browser via the user's Windows Live ID.
Google unveiled a similar service for users of the iPhone and Windows Mobile last week.
My Phone can synchronise a wide range of content, such as email, contacts, calendar entries, text messages, music, video, photos and document files, according to Microsoft.
"If you lose your phone, you can just download all your data back down to your new handset," said Reeve.
Synchronisation is bi-directional, enabling users to delete files that are unwanted from a PC browser and have the changes reflected on to the handset.
As revealed last week when Microsoft's My Phone web site prematurely went live, the service allows each user up to 200MB of storage space to synchronise data. The company also said it will not initially charge for the service.
Reeve said that Marketplace and My Phone are just the first services that Microsoft plans to bring to market to complement Windows Mobile, and that more will follow over the next 12 to 18 months.