Microsoft released Windows Mobile 6.1, the latest version of its smart phone OS, back in April, but only now are we beginning to see the first generation of truly interesting 6.1-based devices. As I opined back in October (see Windows Mobile: What Went Wrong?), Microsoft has some interesting issues on its hands in getting consumers and business customers energized about its lagging mobile platform. To understand the state of Windows Mobile then, I've been using a Windows Mobile 6.1 smart phone for the past few months and, last week, I met with the Windows Mobile team again in Redmond.

To frame this discussion, I'd like to first point to some of the more obvious problems that Windows Mobile faces in a rapidly changing industry. First, there are exciting and interesting newcomers like the best-selling iPhone--already outselling all Windows Mobile devices combined in North America, by the way--and Google's Android platform. Second, there are entrenched rivals, like RIM, whose Blackberry products seem to be running away with the business end of the market. And third, there is the almost surreal slow pace of Windows Mobile development: Microsoft says that the next major revision to this OS won't ship until late 2009 at the earliest. That's over a year too late, in my opinion.

Microsoft and Windows Mobile

That said, the Windows Mobile team cites progress in both the consumer and business markets. There will be over 25 Windows Mobile 6.1 phones in the marketplace by the end of 2008, I was told, and I can see for myself that many of them are quite nice looking. Many include innovative UIs, the only common denominator there being that they are all seeking to hide Windows Mobile's ancient looking UI as much as possible. It's pretty clear that device makers and service providers are racing to overcome the limitations of Windows Mobile while they wait for Microsoft to deliver the long-awaited 7.0 release.

There's good ecosystem support too. The recent release of Microsoft Online Services (MOS), which includes a hosted Microsoft Exchange service that Windows Mobile devices support by default, could also help the platform. Yes, it's possible for enterprises to offer Blackberry support for Exchange, and many hosted Exchange solutions do so as well, but that requires an expensive and complex additional server. Microsoft, not surprisingly, only offers native Windows Mobile access. And this is functionality that should appeal to businesses of all sizes. Small businesses that go the SBS 2008 route, and mid-sized businesses that opt for EBS 2008, will get the latest Exchange version as well, and that comes with integrated Windows Mobile support of course. Too, enterprises should at least look at Mobile Device Manager 2008, which lets you manage Windows Mobile devices as you do PCs, setting and controlling policies via Active Directory.

Looking beyond Microsoft, there are over 19,000 Windows Mobile applications out in the wild. But because the software giant doesn't offer a centralized application store, as does Apple and Google, customers must rely on second rate third party services like Handango. That's better than nothing, but clearly this is an area for improvement as well. Microsoft does offer a Total Access service, however, that appears to be a first step in this direction.

Windows Mobile versions

Microsoft currently offers three discrete versions of Windows Mobile, each aimed at a certain market. There is a Classic version for vertical (i.e. non-phone) devices, a Standard edition for smart phones that lack touch screens, and a Professional edition for those that do have touch screens. Hopefully these will be consolidated into a single product going forward, but the up side to this situation is that there is a wide range of Windows Mobile devices to choose from, all with different form factor types and even software interfaces. Apple, by contrast, offers a single form factor, and you can buy it only from a single service provider.

[There is a downside to the proliferation of slightly different Windows Mobile devices, of course. Some ship with Wi-Fi, but some don't. Some offer superior cameras, while most offer inferior photographic options. It goes on and on.]

A closer look at Windows Mobile 6.1

Looking specifically at Windows Mobile 6.1, I see some interesting improvements over previous versions, but I also see some curiously ancient bits as well. The basic Windows Mobile UI hasn't actually changed a bit since the original version of Windows CE shipped over a decade ago; there's a Start Menu with application shortcuts and the same icon-based view styles I recall from that early mobile product. The UI has been adapted for the small size of today's phones, of course, and augmented with touch capabilities and other recent features were appropriate. However, Windows Mobile lacks the cohesiveness of the iPhone, which, for all its faults, still remains the device to beat in this market.

The best feature of Windows Mobile 6.1, curiously, is available only devices based on the mid-level Standard edition of the software. It allows you to change the Home Screen from the default view to a new UI called, simply enough, Sliding Panel. This UI is actually quite nice, and while it can't touch (ahem) the iPhone for simplicity and ease of use, it's certainly a huge improvement over the stock Windows Mobile Home Screen. Microsoft really, really needs to get this UI working on Windows Mobile Professional devices. It's a natural for touch.

Functionally, the Sliding Panel UI is very similar to the UIs for Windows Media Center and Zune, if you're familiar with those solutions. You can scroll up and down to select major options--time, communications, appointments, getting started (which can be removed when you're ready), and settings. As you select each major option, you can also scroll left or right within those options to see related choices. For example, the communications option includes choices like missed calls, voice mails, text messages, email (with multiple accounts), and, if you've installed Windows Live, Hotmail. Settings includes such things as profile (sound and vibration settings), wireless manager, ringtone, background image, and task manager.

This UI is logical and easy to use, and you'll be up and running quickly. The only downside, of course, is that it's just a thin veneer over the otherwise ancient Windows Mobile OS. Select most of the aforementioned items, and you'll be brought to an old-school text menu or grid of icons that looks like it was last updated 10 years ago. This is a problem with the proprietary new UIs that Microsoft's partners are creating on top of Windows Mobile as well, and it's a reminder that what lies underneath isn't nearly as sophisticated as that top layer.

Another niggling issue with Windows Mobile is that not all phones are created equal from a software perspective. Some come with Mobile Office, including Word, Excel, OneNote, and PowerPoint, and some don't. Some come with Windows Live Messenger, while others, like the AT&T BlackJack II I've been using, do not. (And you can't download it alongside the other Windows Live applications and services for some reason, which is maddening; AT&T provides a reasonably comparable and Live compatible IM application instead. Bah.)

The version of Internet Explorer that currently ships with Windows Mobile is particularly bad. Microsoft is updating this sorry excuse for a browser with a new IE 6 product that should be available soon. However, this product will only ship with new devices: You cannot download and install it on any existing devices, which severely limits its usefulness. In any event, the difference between the iPhone's Safari browser and the current version of IE for Windows Mobile is barely worth discussing; it's like the difference between a full-fledged modern application and a text-based application for CP/M. Suffice to say, you'll stick to mobile-optimized sites only and those will load slowly and look horrible. The mobile Web is simply broken on Windows Mobile today. It's embarrassing.

There are a number of other software applications that round out the Windows Mobile experience. These include a simple photo management package for camera-equipped phones (which is the rule these days), which is unexceptional but can be integrated with Windows Live Photos online if you're so inclined. There's the ever-present Solitaire, which might just be the most-often used Windows Mobile application of all time. And a decent version of Windows Media Player, which can take advantage of Windows Mobile's PC sync capabilities to play whatever meager collection of music and other content you can fit on such a device.

Final thoughts

If we could imagine a world in which the iPhone never existed, Windows Mobile fares pretty well. But in reality, Microsoft's mobile solution is lagging far behind the innovative and fun iPhone, and in so many areas that it's almost tedious to even list them out. I should point at a few obvious issues, however, including the slow pace of improvement, the inability to update most existing devices to newer software versions, and the lackluster Web browsing experience, which is unacceptable in this day and age. All that said, Windows Mobile is perfectly serviceable, as are most Windows Mobile devices, including the AT&T BlackJack II I'm testing. The email, IM, and SMS experiences are decent, and work well. Outlook, Exchange, and Hotmail integration, in particular, is excellent. (That said, you cannot sync Windows Live Calendar to a Windows Mobile device, which is a very curious omission.) To use a tired analogy, the iPhone is to phones as a BMW coupe is to cars: Sleek, innovative, and superior. Meanwhile, the Windows Mobile device I'm using is more like a Ford Escort: Yes, it will get you there, but not in style.

My guess is that any Windows Mobile 6.1 device would be at least acceptable to most users, while some of the more interesting Windows Mobile-based phones are even desirable. The problem is that none of them, at least not yet, approach the levels of sophistication and integration that are present in Apple's iPhone. And that's something Microsoft needs to fix sooner rather than later.