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Windows Mobile 7: Can Microsoft reinvent the mobile market?

In the aftermath of last week’s Consumer Electronics Show, Windows Mobile watchers are reading the soggy tea leaves of hints, generalities, ambiguities, off-the-cuff comments and anonymous sources to discern Microsoft’s plans for Windows Mobile 7. The bottom line? Anybody who really knows anything isn’t talking.

There are still wildly varying ideas about when the new version will be released. One recent story says it has been delayed “again” and won’t appear until 2011. That story, at BrightSide News, cites unnamed sources at “at least five” smartphone manufacturers. (Somewhat strangely, BetaNews seemed to interpret Microsoft’s refusal to comment on the report as evidence that it was true.) But another account reports that Korea’s LG Electronics let slip at CES that Windows Mobile 7 will be released in 2010, probably in the Fall.

Nonetheless, there are some more concrete bits of information that observers are pulling into their interpretive mosaic for Windows Mobile 7.

One is the continuing improvement of the Windows Mobile UI. At CES last week, Microsoft was quietly showing off the next iteration of the current Windows Mobile 6.5 release. Several news Web sites found the Microsoft demonstration of the 6.5.3 version, shown on a Toshiba TG01 smartphone and Pharos Traveler. This release is due out later in 2010, according to one report.

The changes are taken as showing that Windows Mobile 7 may move decisively away from the PC-driven assumptions that have dogged the platform for years. Currently, the smartphone platform is built on Microsoft’s Windows CE, a modular, embedded, real-time operating system that is used to power different classes of devices. It has a separate code-base from the desktop Windows OS, but makes use of the Windows APIs.

Phonescoop detailed many of the changes in 6.5.3 with photos. (Engadget has some larger format pictures.) Microsoft moved a bunch of functions from the top of the screen to new, larger, virtual buttons at the bottom, within easy reach of your thumbs. The status bar at top is redesigned: Swipe it down with your thumb and a horizontal line of larger icons drops down, for such functions as search, volume control, power management, alarm, and so on.

The virtual Qwerty keyboard can be flicked to one side or the other to bring up specialized keypads: one for numbers, the other for a more compact T9 keypad – text on nine keys. In another change, the onscreen menus are bigger, simpler and cleaner. You can see the 6.5.3 interface in action in this Phonescoop video.

But these changes, and others in 6.5 which were criticized for being mere tweaks, may only be the surface.

Last November, Microsoft demonstrated Windows Mobile 7 to a select group of tech journalists under strict NDA. One attendee, SoloPalmari, nevertheless posted comments (in Italian and translated roughly by Google) that indicated Microsoft has no intention of merely tweaking the UI, but radically transforming it, and the mobile Windows experience.

“We are faced with an upheaval of the logic of interaction and not just a substantial revision of the interface,” he wrote. “The concept of ‘applications,’ as the programs continue to live their important identities, will bend to the principle of ‘user experience.’” This principle demands a new level of interactive performance: “Finally the performance, the fluidity in the display of screens, images and icons becomes a priority. As powerful and versatile Windows Mobile will be next, will never submit to slowdowns and delays in the response…. developers say Microsoft is certain: the experience of use to forget the “old” Windows Mobile.”

At CES this year, Microsoft’s mobile chief, Robbie Bach, echoed those ideas, telling a group of financial analysts, “I am certainly confident that we are going to see [Windows Mobile 7] as something that is differentiated and sets the bar forward, not in an evolutionary way from where we are today, but something that looks, feels and acts and performs completely different.”

Microsoft has certainly invested the money and talent to achieve that. Over the past two years, Microsoft has revamped the entire mobile effort, appointing a new top exec for the Mobile Communications Business, Andrew Lees, who grew Microsoft's server products into a multi-billion-dollar franchise; recruiting a host of new marketing talent from its consumer businesses; and pulling in new engineering talent, among them nearly 20% of all Microsoft “Distinguished Engineers,” a top distinction at the company.

Coupled with some broad hints from Microsoft, many observers are now convinced the company will use the February Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, to formally unveil Windows Mobile 7. Australian student, blogger and programmer Long Zhen posted part of a personal invitation he received from Microsoft for the event:

“Microsoft will be making several exciting announcements during the show. You will learn:

• How the company plans to align its consumer vision and grow opportunities for the mobile industry as a whole.

• How it will tackle challenging times ahead, in the face of economic uncertainty and stiffening competition.”

“If that doesn’t sound like Windows Mobile 7, then I don’t know what does,” he writes in his blog.

Similarly broad and vague promises were cited in a BetaNews story which quoted Microsoft’s Greg Sullivan, senior marketing manager, Windows Phone.

Sullivan’s comments suggest that Windows Mobile 7 will enable hardware partners, carriers and developers to coalesce around fewer basic platform configurations. “Our fragmentation issue is primarily around screen resolutions and assuming a minimum CPU and storage,” Sullivan is quoted in the story. “We're going to continue the horizontal market, but work very closely with our hardware partners to provide more guidance on the platform so we don't have nine different display sizes that independent software vendors have to target maybe just two.”

BetaNews’ Tim Conneally concludes that “when we see Windows Mobile 7 finally come to market, it will be on fewer devices, which are designed in close collaboration with manufacturers, and thankfully, the legacy OS architecture looks like it will be retired.”

Yet Microsoft’s goal is to broaden the appeal and reach of Windows Mobile, to make it more easily available on more devices, to make it a mass market platform. The Windows Mobile UI changes to date do reflect Microsoft’s response to the iPhone’s consumerist success, and to the threat posed by the fast rising Android mobile OS.

But last November, the company announced it was turning over global licensing for Windows Mobile to Bellevue, Washington-based Bsquare, which until then had been the key worldwide distribution partner for Windows Mobile, offering engineering services for applications and platform development to OEMs licensing the OS.

In an interview then, Bsquare’s Scott Caldwell, director of sales for third party products, said Microsoft wants to get Windows Mobile into the hands of far more than a handful of top-tier OEMs. The intent is to make it easier for many more, smaller OEMs to license Windows Mobile, get engineering and other help from Bsquare, customize the OS for their target vertical and consumer markets and quickly bring to market new varieties of affordable mobile devices.

“You can imagine that markets like China and India will support a high number of differentiated [mobile] devices,” Caldwell said. “I find it hard to believe that the Apples and RIMs are going to get there. It’s hard to compete with the OEMs born and bred in those markets.”

The danger is that such an approach will continue or even increase the fragmentation that exists in the Windows Mobile market for developers. While Windows Mobile offers a wealth of APIs to access phone functions, the APIs are often sketchy, weak, or dated, according to some developers. OEMs compensate with highly customized Windows Mobile implementations, which in turn force developers to do extensive testing and hacking of their code to work with different Windows Mobile devices. Solving that issues points to the possibility of major changes at Windows Mobile core and better development tools, coupled with the radical new GUI layer.

A final critical element, emphasized by Microsoft’s Robbie Bach at the CES meeting, is the role of integrated online services. “The service delivery is going to be critical [and] that is why I keep talking about cloud delivery, what we are doing with Widows Live, what we are doing with Xbox Live, why Azure is so important to us because it really will enable us to reach all of those different screens [PCs and laptops, TVs, and mobile devices],” he said.

Microsoft is not the first to see this. Palm with its innovative webOS for the Palm Pre and Palm Pixi smartphones demonstrated how Web technologies can create a very easy development for sophisticated native apps, and for tight integration with Web-based applications and services. Google is attempting something simpler but taking a narrower view with its focus on Google-based services.

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