MWC 2009: Preview of Windows Mobile 6.5

MarketingMobility

Video: 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, although we have subsequently had more information at the MWC presentation.

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 customise 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?