Microsoft has announced another update to its Windows Mobile operating system, along with a change of branding. Although this is version 6.5 of Windows Mobile, handsets will now be referred to as “Windows Phones” and will start to carry the familiar Windows logo.
Previously, phones have come with either Microsoft or Professional editions of Windows Mobile, each with slightly different interfaces and only Professional models have had touchscreens; now there will be only one edition, with the features and interface options determined by what the hardware on a phone can support.
According to Alfredo Patron, director of mobility marketing for Microsoft in the Emea region: “6.5 merges the two worlds, the business space and the consumer space into one. Historically we have catered more to the business user. We started to make an impact in the consumer space this year with devices like the Touch Diamond, the Samsung Omnia and the Sony XPERIA. Now we’re taking that to the next level.”
Mr Patron calls the new look “cleaner, fresher and more user friendly”; it is also more reminiscent of Windows 7, Microsoft’s new desktop operating system, especially the Media Center interface for video, music, photographs and TV, and the interface of the Zune media player, with a vertical list of tools and information.
These include the weather, the time and upcoming appointments, the number of unread e-mail and text messages, plus favourite applications. Drag the selection bar up and down the list with your finger to see more details for each time; many items have a tab you scan scroll through sideways to see more options, such as favourite web pages and photographs, missed calls, recent e-mails or text messages.
When the phone is locked, you can still see key information on screen including missed calls, voicemails and messages by tapping on the lock icon, so that you don’t have to check the front screen or wait for a notification to pop up to see if you’ve missed anything urgent. And you can drag the icons for calls, voicemails or texts to open the messages immediately rather than having to navigate through menus.
The Start menu becomes a full-screen pane of hexagonal icons in a honeycomb shape that fits more options on screen than a square grid; you can scroll down by swiping your finger to see more icons and re-arrange them to put your favourites at the top (a feature Windows Mobile has been missing for some years).
The hexagons may look odd, but they put more icons on screen at once than a square grid. Applications here include the new Internet Explorer Mobile 6 browser as well as the clients for the new Microsoft My Phone and Marketplace services (200MB of free online back-up for the contents of your phone and storage card, from text messages to photographs, and an application store you can access from the handset).
Internet Explorer Mobile 6 is a much richer browser than the version in Windows Mobile 6.1, and can cope with the layout of complex pages such as eBay, Flickr and airline booking sites. Microsoft claims the new browser does better than competitors at enabling users to complete transactions and tasks such as booking or changing seats for a flight, rather than just looking at web pages.
Unlike the iPhone browser, it includes Flash support so it can play videos on sites such as YouTube and the BBC without needing to use a separate application. It doesn’t have multi-touch support (which will come in Windows Mobile 7, expected in 2010), but you can double-tap to zoom in or drag a zoom control.
The browser controls are hidden by default but tapping an icon reveals buttons for opening the previous page, favourite sites, zoom and viewing all open tabs as well as opening the on-screen keyboard.
The new look applies to many of the applications, including e-mail. Entries in the Contacts list and message titles in the inbox are larger and easier to touch with a finger rather than a stylus. Contact information is divided into tabs so you don’t have to scroll down and it’s easy to send e-mail or start a phone call from a contact.
The Media Player has volume and menu controls that are again designed for finger touch. Handset manufacturers such as HTC, Samsung and LG have created interfaces that sit on top of Windows Mobile, but these have previously gone little further than the front screen and an application launcher, with a somewhat jarring effect when the underlying applications launch. Extending the new interface into applications and utilities makes for a more seamless user experience.
Although many of the new Windows phones launching at this year’s Mobile World Congress inm Barcelona will initially run the current Windows Mobile 6.1, version 6.5 will be available on new devices probably in late summer and manufacturers can choose to offer an upgrade for suitable phones.
Toshiba has already said it will put Windows Mobile 6.5 on the new TG01 handset, which already has Internet Explorer Mobile 6; HTC promises free upgrades on the forthcoming Touch Pro2 and Touch Diamond2 and other suppliers are expected to follow suit.