Microsoft Debuts Windows Mobile 6.5 But Is Mum on Future

After months of silence, Microsoft finally revealed its plans to give the Windows Mobile platform a facelift which includes the launch of a Web-based sync service called My Phone and a long-awaited developer site called Windows Marketplace for Mobile.

As anticipated, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer on Monday unveiled Windows Mobile 6.5 at the World Mobile Congress in Barcelona. Windows Mobile 6.5 gives the aging platform a much-needed user interface update, though it is regarded as largely incremental. Ballmer did not disclose plans for the next-generation platform for smartphones, known as Windows Mobile 7.

"They are playing catch-up and they know it," said Philippe Winthrop, director of the global wireless practice at Newton, Mass.-based Strategy Analytics. "They are not going to throw Windows Mobile 6.5 under the bus by talking up Windows Mobile 7. But this is a nice evolutionary step."

Perhaps most noteworthy in Windows Mobile 6.5 is an improved touch interface, a new home screen and customizable widgets for accessing specific applications, Ballmer said. The release will also bundle the new version of Internet Explorer (IE Mobile 6), which provides improved JavaScript rendering, support for widgets via AJAX and an integrated Adobe Flash Lite runtime.

"With Windows Mobile 6.5, we are taking mobile phones to a new level in terms of stitching together the PC, the phone and the Web, and bringing them closer together into a more seamless and simpler user experience," Ballmer said in a webcast press briefing. "It is no longer about how the phone works by itself, but how it works in conjunction with the PC and Internet."

Microsoft's My Phone automatically backs up and synchronizes e-mail, contacts, photos and schedules with the Web, using the same model as Microsoft's latest release of Windows Live. The company is initially offering the service through an invitation-based beta program.

For now, My Phone is a standalone offering; it is not tied to Microsoft's Live Mesh or Azure Services platform, nor does it connect with Microsoft's Exchange Server, though it can be accessed using LiveID. My Phone is based on technology from Microsoft's MobiComp acquisition last year, according to a Microsoft spokesman who added it hasn't been determined when My Phone will be integrated with Microsoft's existing services and frameworks.

Amid frustration among developers about Microsoft's lack of outreach to those looking to build mobile apps, the company did not reveal anything substantive about new tooling or interfaces, though the launch of Windows Marketplace for Mobile is an attempt to answer Apple's iTunes App Store.

Windows Marketplace for Mobile will be available to those with Windows Mobile 6.5-based devices and via PCs to anyone with a LiveID account, Microsoft said. "We are going to give developers new tools to continue to build increasingly better applications. However, with the Marketplace, they will also have the freedom and the convenience to distribute them and have customers find them easily," Ballmer said. Further information and tools for developers will likely come in the next few months, the Microsoft spokesman said.

A number of device manufactures will deliver phones based on Windows Mobile 6.5 later this year, Ballmer said in his keynote address, among them HTC and LG Electronics. LGE said Windows Mobile will be its primary platform and that it plans to ship 50 new Windows Mobile-based phones over the next three years. Acer, Hewlett-Packard and Palm also said they are planning devices based on Windows Mobile.

Microsoft says there are 50 million devices based on Windows Mobile, with 20 million in the past year. Andrew Lees, senior vice president of Microsoft's mobile computing business, added that Windows Mobile 6.5 looks to bridge what was an enterprise-only platform with features used for general purposes. "We are also shifting focus from business to business and consumer," Lees said.

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of and news editor of Visual Studio Magazine.