Like the Office Web Apps, Microsoft's just-released Office Mobile 2010 suite of applications for Windows Mobile 6.5 is free, and positioned as a companion to the full, PC-based Office suites and applications. Here, however, the usage scenario is mobile rather than cloud-based: Since people tend to bring their smart phones around with them at all time, the mobile version of Office provides an always at-the-ready set of limited but still useful apps. What we're talking about, mostly, is viewing and (very) light editing. But the addition of an updated mobile version of OneNote could provide hugely beneficial to mobile users, be them students or anyone else who needs to take quick notes on the go.

Office Mobile 2010 can also connect to SharePoint 2010-based document libraries, can access Office documents stored on Windows Live SkyDrive, and can interface with documents that are shared via email. It's a decent set of functionality marred only by it being limited to Windows Mobile 6.5, the very latest version of a justifiably derided smart phone OS that few people willingly choose. (An updated version will ship with Windows Phone 7-based devices later this year.) One can't help but wonder how popular and useful an iPhone- and/or Android-based version of this suite would be. Microsoft offers up only a repetitive "no comment" to such questions, however.

Basic Office functionality

Office Mobile, of course, has been around for a while--since the first version of Windows CE in 1996, in fact--but it didn't really become a semi-cohesive suite of applications until the 2000 release of the Pocket PC OS for PDAs. Then called Pocket Office, it consisted of very basic versions of Outlook (broken into separate Email, Calendar, and Contacts components), Word, and Excel applications. Over time, PowerPoint and then OneNote were added as well.

Until the current version of Office Mobile, the primary interaction method was via stylus and hardware keyboard and most people used the apps as simple document viewers. Light editing capabilities have always been the suite's biggest selling point, but I have a hard time believing that many people--especially the mobile workers that Windows Mobile targeted--ever did such a thing. And even those that did would have found disappointing formatting issues moving between desktop and mobile versions of the apps. (This problem has been somewhat mitigated over time.)

Over time, Office Mobile got better, but the bar was pretty low, and the basic usage model didn't really change. So the apps displayed Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations more like their desktop counterparts, but your mileage would vary depending on the complexity of those files. As it turns out, that's still true today.

What's new in Office Mobile 2010

Microsoft offers a number of improvements with the latest version of its Windows Mobile-based office productivity suite. It (sort-of) requires a touch-compatible device, common in Windows Mobile 6.5 world, and provides enhanced support for touch gestures. (Microsoft says it supports non-touch Windows Mobile 6.5 devices, but with reduced functionality. I'm amused to think such devices even exist.)

This time around, OneNote is up front and center, and that trend will continue into Windows Phone 7, where OneNote will get the primest real estate on the Office hub. The reasoning here is simple: While few are probably all that interested in working on Word, Excel, or PowerPoint documents on the go, many people--especially students--could utilize OneNote's note-taking capabilities, especially if they're out and about and the phone is the only device they have with them. That it can capture pictures using the device's built-in camera and work with voice clips is, of course, just the icing on the cake.

Office Mobile 2010 Review
OneNote Mobile 2010.

The addition of SharePoint Workspace is also a big deal: Now Windows Mobile users can access their SharePoint (2010)-based sites, document libraries, and lists on the go. Office documents that are stored in these document libraries can be opened on the device, edited, and then saved back to the server. This can be slow, but if you're going to access certain documents regularly, you can also keep a local copy on the phone.

Office Mobile 2010 Review
SharePoint Mobile 2010.

Word and Excel Mobile trudge along with much the same basic functionality as before. But PowerPoint Mobile picks up some interesting functionality that should prove useful to the Windows Mobile-carting road warrior: You can now use the mobile app as a remote of sorts for your PC-based presentations. This setup won't come cheaply, however: You'll need to connect the phone to the PC via Bluetooth for it to work.

Office Mobile 2010 Review
PowerPoint Mobile 2010.

Finally, there's Outlook Mobile, which as before is split into multiple applications and isn't available from the Office Mobile folder, but is instead afforded a much higher position in the Windows Mobile UI hierarchy. You can access Outlook's various components through E-mail (Messaging), the Phone application's contacts list, and separately through Contacts), and Calendar, and Tasks. It remains a mixed bag, but if you're using a Windows Mobile phone in tandem with Exchange Server 2010, there are a few nice upgrades, including support for Conversation View. (It doesn't appear to support multiple Exchange accounts, however. Apparently, we won't get that functionality until Windows Phone 7.)

Office Mobile 2010 Review
Outlook Mobile 2010.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, Office Mobile 2010 is an evolutionary update to what has always been a fairly lackluster set of mobile-based companions to Microsoft Office. That said, much bigger changes are coming later this year in Windows Phone 7, and while that could potentially change the way we look at mobile productivity, the reality is that the device form factors simply limit what's possible. Office Mobile 2010 is a decent upgrade, especially if you're in a Microsoft-oriented shop with Exchange and SharePoint back-ends. And the price, certainly is right, assuming you have the right kind of hardware.