Microsoft Readies Windows Mobile 6.5 For October

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Microsoft, HTC, Sony Ericsson and LG are hoping the upcoming Windows Mobile launch will make gains in the smartphone market before Christmas

Microsoft will be launching its “Windows phone” in exactly a month’s time, and this week, mobile manufacturers HTC, Sony Ericsson and LG Electronics have all announced they will offer phones running its latest mobile operating system (OS).

The 6 October release of what Microsoft is calling its “Windows phones” will feature the software firm’s latest mobile phone software, Windows Mobile 6.5, which is said to offer users an improved, easy-to-use interface, better browsing capabilities and access to services, including features like ‘My Phone backup’ and Microsoft’s soon-to-launch mobile applications store. The hope, too, is that it will offer Microsoft greater market share in the smartphone arena.

“They really are becoming less relevant to a lot of general mobile phone users,” Ken Hyers, Technology Business Research (TBR) analyst told eWEEK, “but a lot of it is Microsoft’s own fault. I guess visibility is the big thing.”

On the Windows Mobile blog, Microsoft’s general manager for product management, Stephanie Ferguson, described the research the company had done in preparation for the new software, and wrote in a recent post: “Interestingly enough, we discovered that most people who carry a Windows phone don’t realise it’s running Windows Mobile.”

When the new phones launch early next month “You’ll see us try to simplify our branding so it’s easier for people to know when they’re carrying a Windows phone easier to find them in stores,” wrote Ferguson.

On 2 September, HTC announced that the HTC Touch 2 would feature 6.5. And Sony Ericsson said the same of its Xperia X2. The following day, LG Electronics said that three of its smartphone models set to arrive in the coming weeks will feature 6.5 and that, by the end of 2010, it would be running on 13 models. The software is also expected on smartphones from Samsung, HP and Toshiba.

The access to, and launch of, the Windows Marketplace for Mobile application store is another important way that Microsoft is trying to better compete in the smartphone space and better establish its name — a somewhat ridiculous premise, given that the company is synonymous with personal computing.

“It’s kind of…funny that Microsoft isn’t regarded as a smartphone OS, when they’re really one of the original ones,” said Hyers. “But they’re steadily losing market share and, with that, their relevancy goes away.”

Microsoft has said it will have 600 applications in its store when it launches, which is well above the handful that Palm’s application store opened with, when the Palm Pre launched, but a far cry from the 65,000-plus that Apple’s App Store offers. Although, Hyers says it’s not Apple that represents Microsoft’s real competition.

“The elephant in the room is Apple, though what they have is entertainment,” Hyers added. “Microsoft’s focus can’t just be entertainment. It really does also have to be a business and enterprise focus. Palm is one thing to look at, but RIM is the other big one to consider.”

With the Windows phones, Microsoft definitely seems to be acknowledging this work-play balance. In addition to offering quick access to Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, Windows Mobile 6.5’s Internet Explorer Mobile browser, with built-in Adobe Flash Lite support, helps with more necessary tasks such as checking a flight’s status or paying a bill. It also includes My Phone, a service for automatically backing up and syncing contacts, messages, photos and music to the Web, making it simpler to manage them and restore the data should the phone be lost or stolen.

“A Windows phone gives people a single phone that works for their whole life, keeping them connected to the people and information they care most about by harnessing the power of the PC, phone and web, stated Todd Peters, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s Mobile Marketing Group.

But, even with solid enterprise applications and a re-branded image, will the Windows Mobile 6.5 devices be a huge game changer for Microsoft?

Endpoint Technologies analyst, Roger Kay was doubtful. He points out that the existing code base dictates “to a tremendous degree” what Microsoft can do — unless, like it did with Vista, and like Apple did in the jump to OS X, it throws out most of the existing code. Kay also points out that Apple’s iPhone OS is a compact version of OS X, which creates a seamlessness between the device and the desktop and makes for a lot of cross-platform development — a thing Microsoft should be striving for.

While admitting he hasn’t yet seen the Marketplace for himself, Kay added: “What I’ve heard about it is that it’s an incremental improvement, but it’s not a game changer. And what Microsoft needs at this point is a game changer.”

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