Video: Windows Mobile (the phone OS) takes evolutionary step in Version 6

Go ahead and Google my name and Motorola Q and you'll see that, despite the fact that I still use the device as my smartphone, I've got a lot to say about it; most of it not very good. There's the one about how it eats batteries alive.

Go ahead and Google my name and Motorola Q and you'll see that, despite the fact that I still use the device as my smartphone, I've got a lot to say about it; most of it not very good. There's the one about how it eats batteries alive. Then there's the one about how, reminiscent of PCs, it required reboots a little too often (reboot a smartphone? eek!). And then, it's not until you live with a smartphone for a while that you begin to discover how much the details count.

Unlike with the stylus-enabled Treo, the Q doesn't have a touchscreen. Going back to my experiences with a variety of BlackBerry's, that's probably a step forward. It's inevitable that stylus-enabled smarthphones will go the way of the dinosaur. But when the Q eschewed the stylus and its corresponding touch screen, it also ditched the "soft keypad"; the software version of the phone's numeric keypad that users could see on its display. The soft keypad came in handy if you had to spell out a phone number like 1-800-ROADSIDE since the "hard keys" on the Q (and the Treo and most other smartphones) are too small to show you what letters go with what numeric keys. The Q offered no software substitute so now some third parties do.

  See our interviews of Microsoft's Windows Mobile group product Manager John Starkweather on video: We have a two part video for you. The first shows the new Windows Mobile 6 operating system in action. The second shows all the new smartphones that Windows Mobile 6 is launching on (globally).   Image Gallery of the Windows Mobile 6 operating system: In addition to our two part video (see left), ZDNet's Mobile Gadgeteer Matthew Miller has prepared a gallery of 42 Windows Mobile 6 screen shots that show many of the operating systems new features as well as its new Vista-like look and feel.  

Smartphones are complicated devices to get right. Not only do designers face the simple laws of physics when it comes to displays, processing power, memory, buttons, battery-life, and radio-strength (not to mention the number of radios; 3G, WiFi, Bluetooth, etc.) just to name a few, some offerings like those based on Microsoft's Windows Mobile operating system must balance the sometimes competing interests of the four major parties associated with every device: the phone manufacturer (eg: Motorola), the operating system company (eg: Microsoft), the wireless carrier (eg: Verizon Wireless) and, finally, the end-user.

For example, end-users may want to use their own music as a ringtone. But even though the song sounds pretty good on a smartphone like the Q with its built-in stereo speakers and even though the Windows Mobile OS makes using a song as a ringtone possible, the carrier may prefer that end-users buy ringtones at $2.99 a pop rather than have the flexibility to load their own. The next thing you know, a part of the OS or the phone ends up being disabled. In most smartphone cases, the interests of the wireless carrier wins because it's the one that sells them to customers and the phone must work on its network.

Even though smartphones represent so many competing interests, it has still been relatively easy to pick out the faulty party when it comes to certain problems. For example, in my opinion, there's no one to blame for the inability of the smartphone edition of the Windows Mobile OS to work with Microsoft Office documents but Microsoft. Or, the fact that the phone's built-in Web browser didn't support Javascript. Especially today when so many Web sites  use Javascript (eg: the flight status checkers on airline Web sites -- exactly the sort of Web page one might access with their smartphone). Although there's undoubtedly still plenty of room for improvement, Microsoft has addressed those and other problems in the newest version of the Windows Mobile OS -- Windows Mobile 6 -- which is being launched today in a substantial number of new smartphones, some of which are available here in the US and others of which are only available in other parts of the world.

According to Microsoft's Windows Mobile group product manager John Starkweather whom I interviewed prior to the launch (the video is available below in two parts -- one that focuses on the OS, the other on the devices), Windows Mobile 6 represnets approximately 10,000 individual improvements over Windows Mobile 5. Among them, inclusion of the Windows Mobile versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, and Powerpoint is now standard. As you'll see in the video, the applications are far more like their PC counterparts than they ever have been. For example, Excel Mobile makes it possible to do things you couldn't do before like resize columns.

In fact, based on what Starkweather told me in the interview, Microsoft clearly had two major goals in mind. The first of these was closing the gap even further between smartphone functionality and PC functionality. The second of these was besting other solutions in the marketplace like RIM's BlackBerries. Starkweather keeps a big chart with him that shows closeup screenshots of how other solutions handle certain tasks (eg: working with MS Office documents), and how Windows Mobile 6 handles the same tasks. Windows Mobile's user interface was also redesigned to be more consistent with the newest version of the PC version of Windows -- Windows Vista. 

Whereas Windows Mobile 5 was particularly weak in the area of HTML support for e-mail, that has been corrected in Windows Mobile 6 which supports HTML across most server types including Microsoft's Exchange as well as standard POP3 accounts like those found on popular email services like Yahoo, AOL, and Google. Setting up e-mail on Windows Mobile has been a daunting task. I can personally attest to this because of how I'm dreading the idea of re-establishing connectivity between my Q and one of my e-mail services after I last reloaded the Q with a new version of Windows Mobile 5 (a process that completely wiped out all of my e-mail settings). 

In Windows Mobile 6, Microsoft has also pre-programmed "Outlook Mobile" (Microsoft has ditched names like "Pocket Outlook" and "Pocket Word") with what could best be described as e-mail configuration wizards for most of the popular e-mail services. The result (although I haven't tested it yet) is supposed to be a greatly simplified, easy-to-use user interface when it comes to connecting Outlook Mobile with one of those services.

Other improvements that users are certain to notice are the ability to do what once took lots of extra clicks (eg: deleting an email) with one click, the ability to set up user defined "single-click" shortcuts, an e-mail searching feature where the server will do all the heavy lifting of searching through your folders for your (unfortunately requires Microsoft's Exchange Server and it doesn't work in an off-line serial fashion), automatic encryption of data that's saved on storage cards (see screen shot, above left), much deeper desktop-like integration between e-mail and calendaring and a much improved instant messenging client that support emoticons, multi-party chart and the easy inclusion of voice objects.

Obviously, with any gadgets like smartphones, it's easy to get swept off your feet by demonstrations. But it's in their long term and intimate usage where you really get to know a new smartphone's advantages and limitations. Now that the devices are out, I'll be looking to upgrade soon and you can check back here on TestBed to see what my findings are on an ongoing basis. Here are the videos: