20 Minutes in the Room with Windows Mobile 6.5

The other day, Microsoft invited me over for an early look at Window Mobile 6.5, the next iteration of the company's operating system for phones. I didn't get to actually use the OS, but from my brief time watching it in action, I garnered several first impressions. I think it

The other day, Microsoft invited me over for an early look at Window Mobile 6.5, the next iteration of the company's operating system for phones. I didn't get to actually use the OS, but from my brief time watching it in action, I garnered several first impressions.

I think it safe to say that people will like using Windows Mobile 6.5 more than previous iterations. On the down side, there remains a lot of work still to be done before the operating system is ready to ship (I would say a November release is more likely than July), and the focus of the OS has swung back toward end-user enhancements over the needs of corporate administrators.

First of all, the new icon-based Start Menu looks to be a significant improvement over the current menu-driven layout. The honeycomb shape of the touch zones leaves lots of room for finger-based manipulation of the screen -- perhaps too much. While I absolutely love the idea that I will no longer need a stylus to get around in WM, I found on-screen real estate is now not consumed efficiently and users may need to do a lot of scrolling to find the applications they want.

Unlike with the iPhone or Android user interfaces, Windows Mobile 6.5 scrolls top to bottom (rather than side to side). The vertical scroll presents the Start Menu as a long list, rather than a page turning, which required more manipulation than I felt was necessary. This may have been due to the overwhelming sluggishness of the scrolling function, which I was promised will be improved as the OS moves through the beta process. The user can manually customize the order of icons in the menu to put more frequently used applications at the top, but that process could probably use some intelligence to automatically move icons up as applications get used.

I really liked the new approach to showing the user time-sensitive details, even when the phone is locked. I could see the next calendar item without unlocking the interface, and I could directly access applications with a state change from the lock screen. For instance, if a new voice mail is detected, I could go directly from the lock screen to the voice mail application without having to interact with the main menu or home screen first.

Unfortunately, the Microsoft representatives would not show me a touch-screen keyboard -- in fact, I saw no typing at all during the demonstration. The unit I saw in action (an HTC Touch Diamond, I think) did not have a physical keyboard, and I was anxious to see if the new on-screen keyboard was finger-ready (as I truly hate the tiny stylus-oriented on-screen keyboard that usually comes with WM). Even though I specifically asked to see the keyboard, I was deflected off with the nebulous statement that the keyboard will be different depending on the device.

This lack of cooperation leads me to believe that nothing has changed to this point with the touch keyboard. Microsoft had no qualms about showing me other features that didn't yet work right, so why be coy with the keyboard?

WM 6.5 also brings an updated mobile browser with it, at long last bringing a full browser experience natively to Windows Mobile. Users have the choice of either the full Web experience (which includes built-in Flash support) or a more mobile-friendly iteration.

I definitely found the zoom controls more user-friendly than some of the competition. Users could bring up a slider on the right side of the screen to adjust the zoom, then use a finger to move the on-screen focus to the appropriate spot, keeping an eye on on-screen markers that indicate the relative position on the page. The feature is not as intuitive as the iPhone's pinch and spread gestures, but much easier to use than the zoom on RIM's latest BlackBerrys.

Interestingly, the Microsoft representative told me that the browser in WM 6.5 is based on Internet Explorer 6, because that browser was still the most commonly used (and developed for) in the world. To my ears, that claim sounded out-of-date. I took a quick look at the browser utilization rates over the last year for eweek.com, and indeed found IE 6 was runner up to IE 7 (and third, also behind Firefox 3.0 for 2009). I'm no expert on Web development, but it sounds like the WM 6.5 browser may already be a little creaky from old age.

The Microsoft folks also showed me a demo of Recite, the early-stage voice recording and search feature. Although the feature sounds like total winner -- record a voice message and then search for it later with just a keyword -- I got the sense during the meeting that there was a pretty decent chance that Recite would not be in the official 6.5 release. The demo itself was pretty much a disaster, as only one out of four attempts identified the intended message.

We talked a bit about the My Phone synchronization service. First of all, calling My Phone a synchronization service is somewhat disingenuous, since the phone only connects once a day in the middle of the night. Let's just call it a daily backup -- a one-time full backup with ongoing incremental updates. Fortunately, from the screens I saw during the demo, it looks like My Phone will be usable for more than documents, contacts and calendars, as users should be able to back up some media (photos) as well. Ring tones will not be backed up.

The mobile administrator in me got hung up on the utility of My Phone in a business setting. For regulatory purposes, administrators need to be able to account for sensitive information wherever it may be. But My Phone really runs the risk of letting corporate documents out into the wild. Let's say a user downloads an e-mail attachment to the mobile phone, and then the attachment gets backed up to My Phone. Suddenly, this document has replicated to another service altogether, where it is accessible from other devices and PCs and out of corporate control.

When I asked about how administrators could stop this from occurring, I didn't get the sense this was a high priority for Microsoft at this time. Administrators could probably bar the user from replicating documents to My Phone altogether via policy, but perhaps not limit the synchronization to only certain stores or storage devices.

Let's just say I have some fear that in its zeal to replicate and expand beyond some of the appealing features that draw users to Apple or Google devices, Microsoft is giving short shrift to one of the largest segments of its existing customer base -- corporations. While Windows Mobile 6.1 was all about enhancing the mobile OS for corporate use and management, the newest version has swung back the other way to attract consumers and business end users, apparently without expanding the administrator's control over or visibility into how these new features behave.