Microsoft unveils Windows Mobile 6.5 operating system for cell phones

Microsoft Corp. officially announced on Monday a new mobile operating system for smart phones. Called Windows Mobile 6.5, it will be the latest version of software found on phones from a number of companies, including LG, Motorola and Samsung.

Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer unveiled the mobile operating system at a phone industry trade show in Barcelona, Spain.

I recently had a demonstration of the product with Scott Rockfeld, director of Windows Mobile, and my initial impression is that this refreshed operating system looks similar to what T-Mobile offers on the G1, the first phone based on the Google-led Android operating system.

I will reserve judgment until Windows Mobile 6.5 hits the market, expected in the fourth quarter, but I think it will please business users and consumers alike. And pleasing both groups is what Microsoft hopes, and needs, to achieve.

The first Android phone and Apple’s iPhone are miles ahead of Microsoft in terms of public interest and usability.

“We’re doing a lot of things _ some people would say catch-up _ that appeal to the person who also wants to do some work with their phone,” Rockfeld said. “We are at a big inflection point in the market right now.”

Microsoft is heading in the right direction. Here’s what I found interesting on Windows Mobile 6.5:

The software is “finger friendly,” a term Rockfeld uses to describe touch controls.

It has a new user interface so icons can be moved about the display with a finger. The home screen scrolls up and down, revealing more icons. The icons are in a honeycomb design, spaced evenly from one another. The screen looks very orderly.

The home screen in “locked” mode features only key notices _ such as time, upcoming appointments and messages missed _ but that view reminded me of the Android design.

The phone can access the new Windows marketplace for mobile _ just like Apple’s App store and the Android marketplace. This service will launch before the release of phones with Windows Mobile 6.5, so existing Mobile 6.0 and 6.1 users can access new applications.

Microsoft My Phone is a wireless service to automatically back up contacts, photos and documents _ any vital information you keep on your phone. This provides protection if your phone is lost or stolen.

The free My Phone service, which may launch sooner than Windows Mobile 6.5, can store up to 200 megabytes of data. Rockfeld said it may offer more storage, but there is a point, “like backing up 8 gigabytes of music, where we may need do some tiering” with prices.

Some of this may sound familiar to people who have been following the smart phone market. Given that there is such long lead time here, and that competitors may have fresher ideas, the version of Windows Mobile 6.5 I saw could differ greatly from what hits the market.

Indeed, Rockfeld said it isn’t even “beta” yet.

It will be compatible with Windows 7, the desktop operating system that Microsoft likely will launch later this year. Also, the software will be upgradable for people buying phones with the current Microsoft OS.

There’s no question Microsoft needs to get its mobile operating system right. It has several partners, from phonemakers to wireless carriers, that crave attractive products for our increasingly mobile society.

“We understand the changes in the market,” Rockfeld said. “When it switched from business-only to consumer and business, that happened pretty quickly.”

Microsoft still has decent market share in the mobile space, trailing Nokia’s Symbian platform and Research in Motion’s BlackBerry operating system.

Its share grew from 11 percent in 2007 to 12.3 percent in 2008, according to research firm IDC. Apple’s rose from 3 percent in 2007 to 9 percent in 2008.

(Eric Benderoff writes about technology for the Chicago Tribune. Contact him at [email protected] or at the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago IL 60611.)

(c) 2009, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.