Windows Mobile 6.5 Review
Part 1: The Sky is Falling

When Microsoft launched its latest smart phone operating system, Windows Mobile 6.5, last month, the reaction from reviewers was resounding and universally negative. I couldn't attend the launch event because of a prior Microsoft-related commitment in The Netherlands, but I wanted to: As many SuperSite readers know, I revealed my intention to move from Apple's elegant iPhone to Microsoft's less-beloved Windows Mobile platform several months ago. That of course didn't happen, though I did test several Windows Mobile 6.1-based phones throughout 2009. The closest I ever got was with a decent but ultimately unwieldy Palm Treo Pro, which, sadly, Palm has since abandoned.

At some point, it became obvious that waiting for Windows Mobile 6.5 made plenty of sense, and I looked forward to the October launch and the promised deluge of 30+ phones by the end of 2009. The overwhelmingly negative reaction to Windows Mobile 6.5, however, really floored me. (And it didn't help that even Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer had some pretty tepid comments to make about the new system, admitting in effect that it was, in fact, an interim release focused almost solely on stemming the exodus of customers to more innovative mobile platforms.)

Could Windows Mobile 6.5 really be that horrible?


As I write this, I'm in Redmond for a week of meetings official and otherwise with various contacts at Microsoft. Between this trip and my previous outing to New York for the Windows 7 launch, I've had a chance to unofficially sample several Windows Mobile 6.5 based phones and, more recently, sit down with an old friend who now works on the Windows Mobile team and discuss what it is that Microsoft is trying to accomplish. I will say this, right up front: Windows Mobile 6.5 is not as terrible as the gadget blogger goobers and Apple-friendly tech reviewers would have you believe. In fact, it's actually pretty good. But it also suffers from the same lack of ecosystem support that hampers Microsoft's Zune HD media player, when compared to the Apple offering. And that means that Windows Mobile 6.5, by and large, still can't compete toe-to-toe with the iPhone.

But if you're looking for a more even-keeled review of Windows Mobile 6.5, I hope to provide it. Given what I've seen written about this system so far, you haven't gotten anything even vaguely resembling the truth yet. So let's dispense with the hyperbole and find out what's really happening.

What's new in Windows Mobile 6.5?

While the version number of the latest Windows Mobile release should provide some hints about where this product sits vis-?-vis its two direct predecessors, Windows Mobile 6 and Windows Mobile 6.1, don't be fooled into believing that this was an exercise in painting the pig. Windows Mobile 6.5 isn't just about a fresh coat of paint: Instead, Microsoft has made a number of non-superficial changes to the parts of the Windows Mobile interface that users most frequently deal with. In this sense, it's somewhat similar to what Microsoft did with Windows 7, in that the company clearly decided they needed to turnaround something in a very short period of time--in this case, about 9 months--and then adjusted their expectations accordingly.

More specifically, Windows Mobile 6.5 offers the following changes when compared to other Windows Mobile 6.x versions:

Lock screen

Fittingly, I'd like to highlight the one area in which Windows Mobile 6.5 absolutely blows away the competing Apple iPhone: the lock screen. If you're an iPhone user, you know that missed phone calls, voice mails, MMS and SMS messages, and other notifications will pop-up on top of the device's lock screen, providing you with a heads-up about things that may be important to you. But you also know that the iPhone provides no way to go from that notification to the actual app that you must use to view the item in question, especially if you've received multiple notifications (like one voicemail and one SMS). Instead, you must unlock the iPhone and then manually find and navigate to the application in question.

In Windows Mobile 6.5, Microsoft provides a better way. By default, the lock screen displays the date, time, and the next meeting or other scheduled item in your calendar. But it also surfaces notifications as they arrive, and these notifications--missed calls, voicemail, text messages, and so on--appear individually on the screen, each with its own swipable unlock button. So if you'd like to unlock the screen and go right to text messages, or whatever, Windows Mobile 6.5 let's you do so. Unlike the iPhone.

Today screen

Microsoft has been evolving the Windows Mobile Today screen for some time now, and in 6.5 we see a beautiful, Zune-like Today screen that evokes the "crossbar" UI from previous Windows Mobile versions as well as related products like Zune and Windows Media Center. In fact, the Windows Mobile 6.5 Today screen is very Zune-like, with large, text-based menu items that are finger-friendly and elegant looking.

The Today screen features such items as Getting Started, Phone, Voicemail, Music, and the like, and as you scroll vertically through the list--with full gesture support and realistic physics effects--you can also stop on any item and then scroll left or right, just as you could with the Windows Mobile 6.1 Today screen. This excellent and proven UI allows you to access more and more of the functionality of your phone directly from this single interface, preventing deep dives into hard-to-find and unfamiliar locations.

For example, you can stock a Favorites menu with your most-often-needed applications. So if you scroll down to Favorites, you can then scroll left to right (or right to left) through whatever shortcuts you've placed there.

Start screen

In Windows Mobile 6.5, the old pull-down Start menu, which dated back to the original version of Windows CE from 1995, is finally gone, replaced by a full-screen Start screen that, like the new Today screen, is more finger-friendly. Actually, the new Start screen also replaces the old Explorer-based Programs view, because it provides access to literally all of the applications that are installed on your phone, plus the usual assortment of utilities and system folders (System, Connections, and so on).

By making the Start screen more finger friend--and full-screen--Microsoft has created a far more inviting environment than the old Programs view. The icons are all big and attractive, and thanks to a staggered layout (also designed to be finger friendly, as fingertips are essentially round), the onscreen real estate is used effectively.

It's also worth noting that this screen, like the new Today screen, minimizes the times you'll need to dive further into the old-fashioned interior parts of Windows Mobile, places where the UI hasn't really changed in many years. Those places still exist--and were the source of much of th self-righteous ire of the blogger goobers--but then there are also plenty of new UIs to be found within Windows Mobile 6.5 (the Communications Manager, for example).

The Start screen, like the Today screen, can also be customized with the wallpaper of your choice. For some reason, many of Microsoft's early Windows Mobile 6.5 screenshots featured ugly plaid patterns and whatnot, but these screens--like that of the Zune--look beautiful when backed by high-quality photography. You can't do that on an iPhone either, by the way.

Soft menus

Speaking of updated user interfaces, Microsoft has completely updated the look and feel of the context-sensitive "soft menus" that appear when you tap the software menu items often found on the bottom of the Windows Mobile 6.5 screen. (For example, on the Today screen, you will see soft menus for Contacts and View. If you receive a phone call notification while using the phone, you'll see View and Dismiss soft menus.)

In Windows Mobile 6.5, these menus are usually full-screen and feature large text menu items that are easily tapped with a finger. They're also attractive looking and are automatically provided to any application. So you won't see a mix of old- and new-type soft menus.

Improved web browser

Windows Mobile 6.5 features the vaunted Internet Explorer 6 for Mobile and it seems to render sites pretty comparably with the iPhone's Safari browser, though I'll need to spend some time with it to be sure. In IE's favor, Microsoft's browser supports Flash Lite--which Microsoft says allows people to complete almost 50 percent more common web tasks than with the Flash-less Safari--and it features a nice, get-out-of-they-way UI that I prefer to Safari. By default, you'll see a single, circular (finger-shaped) button in the lower right of the screen. Tap it and four menu buttons--Back, Favorites, Keyboard, and Search--appear.

IE 6 Mobile can also render sites in either their mobile (default) view or as a desktop browser would, and you can change this behavior on the fly if you run into a site that's not rendering correctly.

To its detriment, however, IE 6 Mobile isn't as good as Safari in some ways. I've yet to see a multi-touch Windows Mobile 6.5 phone, for example, so most people using this browser will have to use a hokey onscreen Zoom control instead of Safari's more natural pinch zoom functionality.

Online services

Microsoft is bolstering Windows Mobile 6.5 with a couple of key of online services. I examined the first of these, Microsoft My Phone, in a separate review, and I will look at Windows Marketplace for Mobile in a future review. But these services are an important part of the wider strategy for Windows Mobile and are, in many ways, as important as the new OS release.

A new strategy

Looking back over the past several Windows Mobile releases, the one major complaint I've always had--and this predates the iPhone by many years--is that Microsoft's reliance on wireless partners, which essentially act as middlemen between Microsoft and its customers--has harmed the ecosystem and slowed down Windows Mobile development. With Windows Mobile 6.5, Microsoft is finally trying to correct this problem, though there are still signs of lingering reluctance from its partners to do so.

First, Microsoft recognizes that it needs to respond faster to changes in the marketplace and deliver innovations more quickly. In many ways, Windows Mobile 6.5 was an experiment in how much the team could deliver on a tight schedule, and while criticisms of this release are widespread and common, I think they did a pretty great job given the amount of time they had. But delivering new Windows Mobile versions quickly isn't enough: For the platform to succeed, Microsoft's partners need to also deliver new phones quickly as well.

This explains Microsoft's decision to host a worldwide launch event last month. The idea was to rally the partner base around a single date and incent them to deliver as many solutions as possible. In the US, only a handful of devices--roughly one per wireless carrier--were available on the day of the launch. But Microsoft says over 30 Windows Mobile 6.5 devices will ship worldwide by the end of the year. That's a huge improvement over previous releases.

Microsoft is also promoting the notion of Windows Mobile being an equal peer with other Windows (and Windows-related) releases, including Windows 7 on the desktop, Windows Server on the server, Windows Azure on the cloud, and Media Center, Xbox 360 and Zune on the TV. The company calls this strategy "three screens and a cloud," by the way, and it's likely you've heard this phrase if you've attended any Microsoft events this year. The three screens refer to the PC, phone, and TV, all of which are tied to back-end, cloud-based services. In many ways, this represents a new platform, and rather than place desktop versions of Windows at the center of that platform, as we might have in the past, it's just a piece of the puzzle. Windows-based phones and TV-based solutions are considered equals to desktop Windows, as they too will consume cloud-based services.

This is more plan than reality at this point, but Microsoft is getting there, and by connecting phones with relevant back-end services, data formats, and desktop experiences, Windows Mobile could eventually become a crucial and even necessary part of the wider Windows ecosystem. Right now, it's not really there.

Continue to Part 2: Defining the Smart Phone...

--Paul Thurrott
November 6, 2009

 


Windows Mobile 6.5

Review, Part 1: The Sky is Falling
Review, Part 2: Smart Phone
Review, Part 3: Hands-On
Microsoft My Phone
Windows Phones 2009