Imagine the austere nature of the setting: About two weeks ago, sitting under the harsh glare of a spotlight that was pointed at an animated fish, nearby a talking moose which, curiously, appeared to have actor John Goodman's voice, I learned all about Windows Mobile 6, the next version of Microsoft's OS for smart phones and PDAs. Yes, we were at "Bugaboo Creek," which is a family-friendly Canadian steak house chain.

So what does this have to do with Windows Mobile 6? Not much. And let's be honest: It wasn't even the weirdest place I'd ever had a Microsoft briefing. (The weirdest place I'd ever had a Microsoft briefing was a Sopranos-like affair that happened in the back of a black limousine because the Microsofties I was meeting with thought the coffee shop we were going to visit was too small. And yes, I did twitch a little bit when the doors auto-locked, but I escaped unscathed.)

Introducing Windows Mobile 6

Anyway, Windows Mobile 6 will begin appearing in smart phones, primarily, from a variety of service providers and hardware makers, beginning next quarter and throughout 2007. Unfairly characterized in some online reports as "Windows Mobile Vista," Windows Mobile 6 does feature a default theme that is indeed more akin to Vista's Aero UI than it is previous Windows Mobile versions. But Windows Mobile 6 doesn't honestly have anything to do with Vista beyond this surface sheen. Instead, it's a logical and desirable upgrade to what was already arguably the smartest smart phone platform around.

That said, Windows Mobile 6 isn't just for smart phones. It will ship in three versions on devices, including Windows Mobile 6 Classic (for PDAs), Windows Mobile 6 Standard (for smart phones) and Windows Mobile 6 Professional (for smart phones with touch-screen displays, similar to the previous Pocket PC Phone Edition). In the future, these versions may simply disappear as Microsoft is working towards a single code base for all Windows Mobile devices.

Office Mobile

So what's changed aside from some UI niceties? For the first time, all versions of Windows Mobile will get the Office Mobile (previously called Pocket Office) applications--Word, Excel, Outlook, and PowerPoint-- and each of these applications is significantly updated this time around.

Outlook Mobile Email now better supports HTML email, including pictures, tables, and formatting. This includes email from Web-based services like Gmail and Hotmail as well as corporate email sent via Exchange Server. Email has been further simplified with nine new one-click options such as "Reply to All" and other common tasks.

One of the biggest changes is email filtering. Now, you can quickly filter down your Inbox and find what you're looking for. If you're using Exchange 2007 on the back-end, this feature will let you search as far back as you want off the server as well as the local store, which is generally limited to just the past few days. And if you're looking to triage email--a great use for email-equipped smart phones, the Delete option is a single click.

Outlook Mobile's email, calendar, tasks, and contacts modules all support Direct Push now, so that you can automatically and wirelessly synchronize data with Exchange Server. And Outlook Mobile Calendar includes a new "Calendar Ribbon" that helps you tell at a glance when you're free and busy. If you're using Exchange 2007 on the backend, you can use this Calendar Ribbon to see who is attending meetings, and forward and reply to meeting requests. The Mobile version of Contacts attaches Call History to each contact card.

The Mobile versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint are now more intelligent about round-tripping--where you take a desktop-based document, edit it on the device, and then copy it back to the PC--preserving the formatting and styles. These applications also feature more PC-like features for the first time, thanks to improvements in the power and flexibility of the hardware running underneath Windows Mobile-based devices.

Other improvements

Windows Mobile 6 will also include a variety of Windows Live applications and services, some of which I've been testing on my Windows Mobile 5-based Motorola Q since mid-December. Included are mobile versions of Live Messenger (instant messaging), Windows Live Search, Windows Live Contacts, and Windows Live Spaces. The Windows Live Search functionality includes the Local service so you can easily find restaurants, hotels, and other nearby locations.

Finally, Windows Mobile 6 will integrate with Windows Vista using the new Windows Mobile Device Center, a vast improvement over the sorry and unlamented ActiveSync application. I've been using WMDC with my Moto Q since late last year and it's a wonderful and simple application. In addition to the expected Outlook integration, it also lets you synchronize with documents and multimedia files. An upcoming version of WMDC will support extensibility so that phone makers can change the default device image in the application to support the look and feel of their phones. And operators will be able to add custom content to WMDC as well.

From a security standpoint, Windows Mobile 6-based devices can be remotely wiped if stolen (from Outlook Web Access, OWA, if you're using Exchange). And there's a new API so developers who create custom corporate applications can have those applications be removed as part of remote wipe as well. The platform also supports encrypted removable storage cards and Information Rights Management (IRM), Microsoft's corporate-oriented DRM scheme. And while previous versions of Windows Mobile required third party applications to connect to high-speed Internet connections, Windows Mobile 6 includes this capability out of the box.

John Starkweather, a product manager in the Mobile & Embedded Devices division at Microsoft, also showed me some upcoming hardware devices. Part of the evolution of Windows Mobile is apparently due to the rise in popularity of devices like the Motorola Q and Palm Treo 750, which feature small but useable and always-available keyboards. Previously, the smart phone market was divided between small keyboard-less devices that resemble phones and larger keyboard-enabled devices.

With this new type of Windows Mobile-based smart phone (which, frankly, is most likely based on the original Blackberry), the market has exploded, and device makers are responding. You'll see entries from all the standard players, but also companies like HP and Toshiba, which haven't historically fielded smart phones. These devices will appear from all major cell phone carriers in the US throughout 2007. T-Mobile will likely be out first with devices in late March or early April. Cingular, Sprint, and Verizon will follow suit shortly thereafter, I was told.

Final thoughts

Windows Mobile 6 looks like a strong update, and while I still have my reservations about the schedule--where phone makers and operators often take months to start selling devices based on the new system--I'm looking forward to upgrading. I'll provide an actual review of Windows Mobile 6 once I can get my hands on some next-generation hardware and can use the new version out in the wild.