Need to Know: Windows Phone Classic

The initial Windows Mobile 6.5 release (read my review) shipped on a handful of devices in October 2009 and Microsoft's hardware and wireless carrier partners have been busy adding new devices to the fold ever since. That first release was a direct follow-up to Windows Mobile 6.1, and while Microsoft now admits it wishes it had more time in which to develop version 6.5, the company did what it could given the short development time. (And new additions are coming in subsequent point releases, as we'll soon see.)

Where we are today

Windows Mobile 6.5 will be renamed to Windows Phone Classic when Windows Phone 7 (see my preview) hits in September 2010. It currently offers the following major changes compared to its predecessors.

Multitouch. Windows Mobile 6.5 supports touch and multitouch natively and includes a number of front-end interfaces, described below, that assume this style of interaction. (In lieu of the old-fashioned stylus-based interface that older Windows Mobile versions were based on.) However, the system's touch support is literally only skin deep. If you navigate into the UI at all, you'll quickly run into screens and interfaces that date back to the earliest days of the Pocket PC. These interfaces are not touch friendly at all.

New lock screen. The Windows Mobile 6.5 lock screen displays the date, time, and the next meeting or other scheduled item in your calendar by default. But it will also surface various types of notifications as they arrive, and these notifications--missed calls, voicemail, text messages, and so on--appear individually on the screen, each with its own swipeable unlock button. So if you'd like to unlock the screen and go right to text messages, new email, or whatever, Windows Mobile 6.5 provides a way to do so. This is a feature that is missing from the iPhone, and is actually a big usability win for Windows Mobile.


Today screen. The Windows Mobile 6.5 Today screen features an attractive and useable design that evokes the "crossbar" UI from previous Windows Mobile versions as well as related products like Zune and Windows Media Center. It features large, text-based menu items that are finger-friendly and elegant looking. These items--Getting Started, Phone, Voicemail, Music, and the like--support full touch gestures with realistic physics effects. So you can stop on any item and then scroll left or right, just as you could with the Windows Mobile 6.1 Today screen, but by using a flicking motion. 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. I like it quite a bit, and as with the Lock screen, it's a nice innovation for which Microsoft gets little credit.

Start screen. Microsoft finally retires the pull-down Start Menu in Windows Mobile 6.5 and replaces it with a full-screen Start screen that, like the new Today screen, is more finger-friendly. 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). 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 in the initial release of Windows Mobile 6.5, though that situation is improving in subsequent updates. (See below.)

Soft menus. In keeping with the touch-friendly nature of 6.5, Microsoft has also 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. The Today screen, for example, provides 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.

Improved Internet Explorer. In response to the iPhone's desktop-like Safari browser, Windows Mobile 6.5 includes a new Mobile Internet Explorer version that uses the rendering engine from IE 6 for Windows. Microsoft's browser supports Flash Lite--which the company says allows people to complete almost 50 percent more common web tasks than with the Flash-less iPhone Safari--and it features a nice, get-out-of-they-way UI that I prefer to that of 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. Let go and they fade away. IE 6 Mobile can 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.

Looking beyond version 6.5

While much of the mobile tech press is consumed about Windows Mobile 7 right now, Microsoft isn't waiting until that release to close the gap with the iPhone and deliver a version of Windows Mobile that is as exciting for users as it is functional for businesses. Before Windows Mobile 7, Microsoft will deliver two interim updates, both tied to device releases, which will complete the Windows Mobile 6.5.x series of updates and provide a more cohesive experience for users. And then, after Windows Phone 7 ships, Microsoft will continue to update Windows Phone Classic, which will largely be used in less expensive devices and in developing markets going forward.

Capacitive screen support. All of the Windows Mobile 6.5 devices that initially shipped in October 2009 and shortly thereafter came with lackluster non-capacitive screens. This means that they do not work as seamlessly and simply as, say, the screen on an iPhone or Android based device. And they force the user to push harder on the glass to scroll items, and often cause icon click misfires. Microsoft, however, has added capacitive screen support in the first post-6.5 update to Windows Mobile, and the first device to include this support, the HTC HD2, is now broadly available. The change is stunning and obvious: Those Windows Mobile devices that utilize a capacitive touch screen are much, much easier to use.

A full touch interface. As noted above, the initial Windows Mobile 6.5 release only offered elegant touch interfaces on its uppermost screens, such as the Lock, Today, and Start screens. But if you navigated more deeply into the system, you would quickly find yourself staring at older, finger-unfriendly UIs. Starting with a second generation of Windows Mobile 6.5 devices that are shipping in the first half of 2010, and most likely by the time you read this, these UIs will be completely overhauled so that they, too, are as touch-friendly as the surface UIs. Microsoft says that this change, along with capacitive screen support, would have been included in the initial 6.5 release if they had had more time in the schedule.

Unfortunately, most users with existing Windows Mobile 6.5 devices will not be able to update to newer versions of the 6.5.x software because of the complex relationship between the device makers, wireless carriers, and Microsoft. Some devices, most notably those from device maker HTC, will support OS updates, however. You'll need to check with your wireless carrier or device maker to see whether your device will support updates.

Recommendations

While the initial release of Windows Mobile 6.5 had too many functional holes to recommend it, subsequent updates put this release back on track and make it more competitive with iPhone and Android handsets. Not mentioned here, of course, are the existing business-related features that have been present in Windows Mobile for years. When you combine these features with new multitouch capabilities and a capacitive screen-based design, you've got a winner. For business users, there's no reason to wait for Windows Mobile 7: As it stands here in early 2010, Windows Mobile 6.5--soon to rebranded as Windows Phone Classic--is already up to the task.

An edited version of this article appeared in the March 2010 issue of Windows IT Pro Magazine. --Paul