Microsoft this week will unveil the next version of its mobile operating system (OS) Windows Mobile 6, which it says comes with HTML e-mail support and improved security, among other benefits.
Speaking to ZDNet Asia in a phone interview, Scott Horn, general manager for Microsoft's mobile and embedded devices, said there are about 10,000 feature improvements in Windows Mobile 6 over earlier versions of the OS. Key enhancements include support for HTML e-mail messages, enhanced security and access to mobile versions of Microsoft's Word, Excel and PowerPoint applications on non-touch screen devices.
Horn said: "If you think about e-mail on the desktop, it's a very rich experience with fonts, formatting and the ability to add pictures and SharePoint links. But today, almost all that is lost when you switch to the mobile phone."
He pointed out that Windows Mobile 6, scheduled for launch this week at the 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, is the first mobile platform to support HTML e-mail messages--complete with pictures, formatting options and hyperlinks.
While HTML e-mail messages from Windows Live Mail, POP3 (Post Office Protocol) and IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) e-mail servers are supported, businesses with Exchange 2003 will not be able to provide HTML e-mail support for employees using Windows Mobile 6 devices, a feature that is expected to be available only in the second quarter of this year.
Because of changes Microsoft made to the existing Exchange mail exchange protocol on both server and client platforms, Horn explained that HTML e-mail support on Windows Mobile 6 will require businesses to run Exchange 2007, which was released last November.
In September 2006, analyst company Gartner noted that Exchange 2007 could set the future of e-mail with features such as unified communications, but said that volume migration to the new e-mail platform will only "begin in earnest in 2008".
Horn said the adoption rate of Exchange 2007 has been "very healthy". He said when Microsoft introduced push e-mail in 2005, skeptics questioned if Exchange Server 2003 with push e-mail capability would take off. "But Exchange Server 2003 has seen the fastest adoption in the history of Exchange," he said.
According to Aloysius Choong, IDC's senior market analyst for personal systems research, requiring Exchange customers to move to Exchange 2007 in order to view HTML e-mail on Windows Mobile 6, may "limit" the addressable market for Microsoft's direct push technology.
Choong said: "Rivals often accuse Microsoft of being 'all about leverage'. Rather than address this issue, Windows Mobile 6 goes even farther along this road.
"How many additional Exchange servers can Microsoft sell by limiting cross-platform support on its mobile devices?" he questioned. "Except in rare occasions, mobile device support is not topmost on IT managers' mind when it comes to an e-mail server."
Touching non touch-screen devices
Microsoft's Horn said that for the first time, the ability to read and edit documents in mobile versions of Office will be extended to non-touch screen devices. Previously, this feature was mostly restricted to devices equipped with touch screens.
Calendaring and contact management have also been significantly enhanced with Windows Mobile 6, he said. For instance, the calendar comes with a bar that indicates the time when the user is available, while the contact list now includes call history for every contact.
"We're really improving business professionals' mobility," Horn said. "The business market is a fast-growing one on a global basis, and in Asia."
"There have been studies about how enterprise mobility in Asia is a very powerful phenomenon, and we think it's going to be a very big business driver," he added.
According to IDC, the enterprise mobility market in the Asia-Pacific region, excluding Japan, will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.5 percent to hit US$33.5 billion by 2010.
IDC's Choong noted that e-mail, calendaring and device management enhancements in Windows Mobile 6 appear to be aimed directly at Research In Motion's BlackBerry devices.
He told ZDNet Asia: "Ultimately, while the 6.0 release strengthens Microsoft's position in the enterprise space, it feels like a prelude to something more important."
"The new Professional, Standard and Classic brands, which play down the differences between the various editions, point to more efforts at combining the Smartphone and Pocket PC code base," he added.
With the launch of Windows Mobile 6, Microsoft will change the names of its offerings in this product line. Pocket PC Phone Edition, for touch screens, is now called Windows Mobile Professional. Smartphone edition, for non-touch screens, becomes Windows Mobile Standard, and Windows Mobile Classic is for deployment in PDAs.
While businesses realize the benefits of having a mobile workforce, their efforts in securing and managing mobile devices remain inadequate, according to Gartner, a technology research company. Furthermore, enforcement is complicated when employees bring their own personal devices to work.
Horn said Microsoft has improved the way businesses manage and secure Windows Mobile 6 devices. "We've done quite a lot of work there, including [introducing] additional new policies for things like requiring users to have strong passwords," he said.
For the first time, he added, Microsoft is also touting encryption for external storage cards used in Windows Mobile devices, which can be easily managed through security policies.
In Windows Mobile 6, providing support for older applications written for earlier versions of Window Mobile is expected to be a cinch, Horn said. He noted that Microsoft has done extensive compatibility testing on its own, as well as worked with developers who received pre-release versions of the OS to run tests on their applications.
And with the popularity of Internet telephony among businesses, and consumers alike, Microsoft has included VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) support in Windows Mobile 6. Horn revealed that partners offering VoIP services over Window Mobile 6 devices will also be announced this week at the 3GSM World Congress.