Windows Mobile 6.5 takes center stage for now

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After months of leaked screenshots and rumors, Microsoft officially opened the curtain and lit the stage for Windows Mobile 6.5 (aka Windows phone) today. While the new operating system is supposedly just a stop-gap until Windows Mobile 7 comes out next year, there are some welcome improvements and changes that show Microsoft is not ceding the mobile market to Google and Apple just yet.

Along with some new devices that were launched concurrently with WinMo 6.5, the battle in the smartphone arena is really starting to get interesting, and the line that separates these handsets from MIDs continues to blur even further.

While there has been a ton of coverage across the internet on WinMo 6.5, I will briefly list a few of the changes that I noticed on the HTC Pure ($149.99 after $50 rebate and 2-year contract) from AT&T, which I was able to test drive the other night upon its early release. Of course, many of these changes are merely cosmetic in order to make the OS more competitive with Android, iPhone, WebOS, and even BlackBerry.

  • Icons are much nicer looking, almost desktop-like, and arranged in a staggered layout that makes them easier to spot at a glance.
  • “Start” menu and “Programs” screen have now been combined into one area, with “Settings” having its own icon now. I really prefer the new layout; it is much more like Android or iPhone, plus the flick-scrolling works as well as can be expected on the resistive screens.
  • New version of Internet Explorer with some new features and much better page rendering. However, it is still fairly slow and not as capable as Opera Mobile, which is also included on many of the new phones, including the Pure.
  • Much improved on-screen keyboard, which works in portrait or landscape mode and features larger keys. Anyone who used to peck away at the tiny keys with their stylus on previous versions will love this one, but it still isn’t as smooth as the iPhone keyboard. A capacitive screen would help here, for sure.
  • New Today screen borrows heavily from the Zune HD and looks much nicer but still not as smooth as HTC’s TouchFLO 3D interface, which overrides the default Today screen. There is an option to turn it on and off.
  • Monochromatic status bar across the top simplifies things a bit, but it’s still difficult to access without a stylus.
  • Windows Marketplace gets Microsoft into the lucrative mobile app business, but it still needs some work and more content, which will come with time.

Under the hood, there really are not many changes. We’re looking at the same registry-based Windows Mobile we have come to love and loathe, and while performance seemed fairly brisk on the Pure during the few minutes I used it, I’m sure there will be those out there who can’t wait to do their favorite tweaks. Remember, the true overhaul of the OS code will not come until next year with Windows Mobile 7.

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Now looking at the new devices that came out, there are a few gems in the bunch, including the HTC Imagio ($199 with 2-year contract) from Verizon. Based on the Touch Diamond2, just like the Pure, the Imagio brings a few more tricks to the show, including a slightly larger screen and a 3.5mm headset jack, not to mention a better overall style. One other nifty feature sure to be a hit with the SlingPlayer crowd is the inclusion of a FLO TV tuner that works with the VCAST TV service.

Joining the Pure in the AT&T lineup within a few weeks will be the HTC Tilt2 ($299.99 after $50 rebate and 2-year contract), which is the same as the Touch Pro2 that Sprint and T-Mobile have already had for a short while. Sporting a slide-and-tilt keyboard, the Tilt2 features a larger screen than the Pure and will better fit the needs of users doing heavy texting and emailing.

Besides the new devices, owners of certain current smartphones will be able to upgrade to WinMo 6.5 although that timetable is unclear due to delays caused by carrier customizations and approval. Microsoft has created a page here that explains the upgrade path and which phones will be supported.

Overall, I’m glad to see Microsoft renew their commitment with WinMo 6.5, and I like the changes, even though they are minor. While there seems to be a few too many smartphone platforms right now, when we used to just have Windows Mobile and Palm OS, this competition is good for the consumer since it forces everyone to raise their game.

What does everyone think? Has Windows Mobile remained relevant, or are its best days behind it as Android and iPhone gobble up marketshare and the attention of software developers?

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Chris King

Chris King is a former contributing editor at Pocketables.