Is Microsoft Developing Another Mobile Operating System?

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Reports are emerging that Microsoft could be developing a new mobile OS, other than Windows Phone 7. Tom Jowitt asks if Redmond has taken leave of its senses?

Next month Microsoft is betting its mobile business on the next version of the Windows Phone operating system, Windows Phone 7. But reports suggest it has another mobile OS in preparation.

Windows Mobile has never really captured the public’s imagination, and many believe Microsoft simply HAS to make Windows Phone 7 a glowing success if it ever hopes to compete successfully in the smartphone market and take on the likes of Android, iOS4, Symbian, MeeGo, Bada etc.

This is even more the case after Microsoft ditched its line of Kin mobile phones in June, reportedly because of “exceptionally bad sales figures.”

Skunkworks Project?

So Microsoft has an awful lot riding on the success of Windows Phone 7. But is Redmond quietly developing another mobile operating system, behind the scenes?

According to a number of blogs from Mary-Jo Foley, Microsoft is indeed working on a new mobile OS. Whether this is just an internal “skunkworks” project remains to be seen, but Foley has apparently spent several months looking for details of a Microsoft project that goes by the name of Menlo.

In her 8 August blog Foley said her tipsters described Menlo as a project by Microsoft researchers to investigate new operating system possibilities in the mobile space.

What Is Menlo?

Foley could be onto something here, as Microsoft has just published a research paper entitled “User Experiences with Activity-Based Navigation on Mobile Devices.” The paper includes the photo (left).

This paper describes Menlo as “a prototype mobile device with a capacitive touch screen (4.1 [inch] diagonal, 800 x 480) running Microsoft Windows Embedded CE 6.0 R2 which incorporates a Bosch BMA150 3-axis accelerometer and Bosch BMP085 digital pressure sensor (barometer).”

Foley points out that running on top of the Menlo platform is a new Microsoft Research Silverlight application codenamed “Greenfield,” which she says is a sensor-centric program allowing users to retrace their footsteps when trying to find their cars. She also points out that the Menlo project team now apparently includes a couple of user-interface specialists and sensor researchers.

Conclusion

So what is Microsoft developing here? A glorified GPS system, or an actual consumer-focused mobile operating system?

Foley speculated in an earlier blog posting that Menlo could have something to do with Microsoft and ARM’s recent architecture licensing agreement, which could see Microsoft using ARM’s technology offerings to build tablets or smartphones.

To make matters even more confusing, last week eWEEK Europe reported that Microsoft’s hardware division had just published a number of images of a mystery product. Some felt could be Microsoft’s long-rumoured tablet device. But those images could equally be a mobile handset of some sorts.

Whatever Menlo turns out to be, it is hard to imagine Microsoft diverting its attention away from the development and launch of Windows Phone 7.

Microsoft has a very short window (forgive the pun) of opportunity left in the mobile space. Android and all the other mobile operating systems are surging ahead, and for Microsoft, it is now crunch time if it ever hopes to prove that it is a viable competitor in this sector.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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