Windows Mobile 6.5 swoops in and ousts the 6.1 variation of the mobile phone operating system. We first got our hands on Windows Mobile 6.5 at Mobile World Congress back in February and today it finally comes to market on a slew of handsets from a number of different manufacturers. If you are after a Windows Phone, then from today you have the choice of all shapes and sizes.
The most surprising thing, perhaps, is that Windows Mobile 6.5 was outlined at the same event that saw the unveiling of the HTC Magic, which has since been supplanted. Such is the rapid pace of evolution in mobile phones, does Windows Mobile 6.5 earn its place in today's line-up of smartphones?
There are improvements across the board, but it's obvious from the name – 6.5 – that this is more of an upgrade than a complete redesign. At Tuesday's launch event for the "new" operating system, Microsoft representatives were careful not to comment on what we already know is incoming: Windows Mobile 7.
So what is Windows Mobile 6.5? It is essentially a stop-gap, plugging the holes apparent in previous editions of the operating system before we see more significant changes in the next iteration. But with such a long lead-time, there's every chance that consumers will find themselves stuck in a contract with 6.5, when 7 emerges. For business users this is perhaps less of an issue, but if you are forking out your hard earned cash, it's certainly a consideration.
Windows Mobile 6.5 is all about shifting from the awkward interface of 6.1 (which bears hallmarks going back to editions much, much, earlier), to a more consumer focus. In this regard it addresses a major hurdle in the fastest changing segment of the mobile phone market: touch control.
One of the biggest changes in recent times has been the adoption of capacitive screens over resistive. In the past, all Windows Mobile devices were resistive, but that's all set to change with this latest iteration. We've had our hands on the HTC HD2 which features a 4.3-inch capacitive display. The response is remarkable, completely changing what you expect from Windows Mobile, and a world away from the experience of Toshiba's TG01, it's closest hardware rival.
With this capacitive display comes multi-touch too, giving you the sort of features that Apple iPhone users have been enjoying for years. But not all Windows Mobile 6.5 users will experience this with their device. In fact, the demonstration by Microsoft to assembled journalists at the official launch saw an awkward dragging around of an internet page, jumping and staggering around. A stark contrast to what is actually possible.
Microsoft's new homepage is one of the first things to be obliterated by customisation from the manufacturer. The Windows Mobile default homepage presents a selection of major heading bars like pictures, music, through to email and text messages. On each bar you can scroll left and right too, so if you have multiple email accounts you'll get easy access to them. Make a selection on the homepage takes you with a tap through to that image. It isn't whizz-bang flashy, but works well enough.
Microsoft has made a point of adding features to the lock screen too, so rather than just giving you a method of unlocking your phone, you can see your next appointment and notification alerts, with easy access to things such as text messages. It's a mindful modification and considers the way that people actually use their phone.
6.5 users are presented with a new honeycomb menu system, arranging icons which can be easily tapped to launch an application. It works well enough, giving you a long list of your applications, including those you pickup from the Marketplace, or sideload. You can rearrange to a certain degree, sending icons to the top, but you don't get a multi-page arrangement to organise these icons. An application search is included, so it's perhaps not a problem.
Many menus have this honeycomb layout, which is fair enough – getting to your applications or settings is pretty easy, but then the stop-gap which is Windows Mobile 6.5 ends. Dive into the Sounds and Notifications menu for example and you are presented with small tick boxes and tiny tabs, regardless of all the screen real estate on offer.
In fact, these menus are almost identical to a 2002 to a Compaq iPAQ we found in the office, running Pocket PC ver 3. And therein lies the problem that blights Windows Mobile: at its core, it is still an antiquated system and as you dig into Windows Mobile 6.5, it becomes abundantly apparent.
Getting back to new features, your new smartphone now features Microsoft MyPhone. This is a feature we like, not only because it apes Apple's MobileMe offering, but because it is free. All you have to do is run a quick set-up on your device, plug in your Windows Live ID and away you go.
MyPhone backs up your handset to the cloud, a quick and easy process that costs you nothing but the data. It will take care of your contacts, calendar, tasks, text messages, favourites, photos, videos, music and documents. You get to select what you want to sync too, so if you don't want a record of banal text messages, you don't have to have them.
You can then share items through the MyPhone website, with connected social networking sites including Facebook, MySpace and Flickr, as well as the obligatory Windows Live network.
Other exciting features include viewing your phone's last known location. Great! If your phone is stolen, you can see where it got to, until the thief disabled the feature in the menus. "Premium" features include ringing the phone, seeing it on a map, locking it and erasing the content. The MyPhone website offers a "limited time offer" on these features, so if you are planning on having your phone pinched, you'd better do it fast.
The Marketplace is another addition to your smartphone. It has been a long time coming and Windows Mobile users will appreciate finding applications in a central location, rather than having to fish around for them. The Marketplace is currently going through plenty of changes and in the last 2 days we've seen content come and go. Launch teething troubles, we hope.
The interface is rather basic and lacks the gloss you'll find on other devices from the Android Market to the BlackBerry App World. But there is a capable search function and you can select to browse only the free stuff if you want. It's a little early to judge at the moment, but first impressions are a little underwhelming.
The final major overhaul comes in the form of Internet Explorer Mobile. Browsing the Internet on the move has seen massive growth over recent years, fuelled by increasingly affordable data packages and enhanced solutions. Microsoft's Mobile browsers have never been very well received and Internet Explorer looks to change all that.
In reality, it's a bit of a clunky experience still. Double tap zooming in and out, dragging the pages around with a finger, it doesn’t really impress. No surprise then that HTC's CEO Peter Chou demoed multi-touch on the HTC HD2 with the Opera browser. It's free and still delivers the better experience.
But the killer criticisms of Windows Mobile still persist. If you want to close an application, you are faced with a tiny X in the top right-hand corner. Come to make a selection and often you are presented with a small Menu or Done button across the bottom, which is just as frustrating as it always has been. This, unfortunately, is the enduring impact that you are left with.
As a mobile phone operating system it is clear that Windows Mobile 6.5 is still a long way behind the pack. This update doesn’t bring it up to the offerings from Apple or Android which are gunning in the same market and walking off with the fat consumer contracts. Yes, Windows Mobile still delivers stalwart business support and when we hooked it up to our Windows 7 PC to sync with Outlook, the sync process swung in and took over. No messing around, no hiccups, and easy to solve conflicts. It may also be the only operating system that your company will support.
The experience that you get from Windows Mobile will differ greatly from device to device. Today we have seen handsets from Samsung, LG, HTC and Toshiba: all are different, but all have 6.5 lurking under the skin. In this battleground for your slightly-too-sensible smartphone, the lines are drawn out between Microsoft and all the manufacturers. Windows Mobile won't sell itself, but the Sense UI or S-Class interface might just.
These third-party skins can change many aspects of your device, not least including the keyboard. Today we've seen four different on-screen keyboards, QWERTY handsets, sliders and touch phones from the compact Samsung Omnia Lite to HTC's massive HD2.
The choices are almost overwhelming, but cut to its core Windows Mobile 6.5 isn't drastically different from its predecessors. Having seen the stark difference between device performance today, it is clear that there will still be "good" and "bad" devices to choose from.