Microsoft Mobile heads for the competition

Targeted squarely at its competitors, Microsoft's new Windows Mobile 6.5 includes features of competing platforms in move to woo users and developers.

BARCELONA--Microsoft has unveiled its new Windows Mobile 6.5 operating system, pumping in features that competing platforms have been known for, in a bid to woo consumers and developers alike.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, speaking during his keynote address here Monday, announced a set of new features accompanying the company's new mobile OS update. Among these are an update to its built-in browser, Internet Explorer (IE) 6, a mobile application marketplace and a cloud-based storage backup service.

The update to IE provides a "full-fledged" surfing experience, capable of displaying sites as rendered by a desktop browser and rich content such as Flash, said Ballmer.

"We are stitching together the PC and Web," he said.

This "full-fledged" experience is touted alongside the competition such as mobile browser Opera Mobile, which touts a similar experience, as well as the Apple iPhone and Google Android browsers.

China Mobile late last year had released IE 6 on some devices. However, this version is not the same as the update announced this week, Microsoft's Scott Horn, general manager of mobile communications business core platforms, told ZDNet Asia in an interview.

The software vendor also announced a new Web-based service called My Phone, which provides users 200MB storage space via Microsoft's "cloud", allowing them to back up data residing on the phone, such as contacts and photos.

This feature is similar to Apple's MobileMe service, launched mid-2008, which is available in several tiers of storage space. However, Apple charges US$99 per year for the service, while Microsoft's My Phone is offered free.

When queried, Horn was not able to provide details on service plans for Microsoft's mobile users wanting to upgrade their space allocations, but said this would be announced at a later date.

Making mobile apps common
Another feature that comes alongside several similar announcements in the past months is the planned Windows mobile application marketplace.

Horn said the portal is aimed at providing a way for users to access and purchase mobile apps directly from their phones, making these software tools more accessible to the common user. Typically, apps need to be downloaded from a PC and synchronized to mobile phones, posing a barrier for less tech-savvy users.

"People want to manage their lives from their mobile phones," said Horn, adding that the marketplace "will be extremely competitive on revenue sharing" with developers keen to place their apps there.

Apple's iPhone also offers its App Store to third-party developers. Google's Android Market and Research in Motion's BlackBerry Application Storefront are further examples of the momentum generated in the software market space, making such tools available to users via their devices.

Ballmer said: "There are over 20,000 apps running on the Windows Mobile OS currently. The marketplace will make for ease of distribution."

Also announced at the keynote were new devices from makers HTC and LG that support the new Microsoft platform. Taiwanese HTC is releasing two devices this year which are 6.5-ready. LG on Monday signed an agreement to produce more than 50 models of phones carrying the Windows Mobile OS by 2012.

Hewlett-Packard also released a statement Tuesday to announce plans to support Windows Mobile 6.5 in the Asia-Pacific region. Future HP smartphone models will include features such as "interactive touch experience" that includes on-screen tapping and panning movements, and various widgets, said HP.

Victoria Ho of ZDNet Asia reported from Mobile World Congress 2009 in Barcelona, Spain.