What changes Windows Mobile into a Windows phone?

The tarnished reputation of Windows Mobile needs more than a shiny new name, but calling the new 6.5 models Windows phones isn't just Microsoft taking advantage of the Windows 7 glow.
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor and  Mary Branscombe, Contributor

The tarnished reputation of Windows Mobile needs more than a shiny new name, but calling the new 6.5 models Windows phones isn't just Microsoft taking advantage of the Windows 7 glow.

Windows phones don’t run the same version of Windows you have on your PC. But they do have a subset of the programming interfaces that applications use in Windows. Microsoft’s view is that they’re part of the broader Windows platform along with Windows Servers, Windows Live services and Xbox (which began life as a custom version of the Windows kernel).

Putting everything in the cloud takes it down to the lowest common denominator and Microsoft's bright but often misunderstood idea of 'software plus services' just means software that gets extra features when you go online. If you can do IM on a Windows PC and from a Windows Live Web page and from a Windows phone and a (kind of Windows) Xbox, then Windows is the whole experience. You can back up a Windows phone with Microsoft My Phone and see your text messages and phone pictures on your PC courtesy of a service running on Windows servers in the Windows cloud (we're not making any Sidekick jokes here, not least because that system still runs on Linux servers).

It makes more sense than assuming users can't tell the difference between phones and PC - but it would make a whole lot more sense if Microsoft got more of the pieces together and you could, say, synchronise a Windows Live calendar to a Windows phone.

Also. If you've taken a look at a Windows Mobile 6.5 phone and wondered why it's not that different from the demos of the beta back in February - and what Microsoft has been doing since then - the answer is that Windows Mobile was finished back in April. April 22nd, to be precise. How does hanging on five months achieve one of Microsoft's key goals for this release? ("We needed to improve our delivery of new features," Windows Mobile senior product manager Greg Sullivan told us this week.)

There are some useful new features in 6.5 - the new interface and handy tools like recording phone calls - but that wasn't going to be enough to get much attention, even in April. As Sullivan puts it, "yes , this a a .5 release following a .1, it's not any kind of grand reset but what we really did was take a new approach to how we think about this space."

In the past, Microsoft would have handed the code over to the phone manufacturers to tinker with (a process that ends up with multiple different versions of changes that are impossible to integrate back into the main code, which is why Windows Mobile 7 might only run on one hardware platform). Some months later, probably about now, phones with the new OS on would have trickled out one by one and a handful of updates would have arrived. By setting a street date and hanging on another five months, Microsoft gets much more impact from the launch, and better value from the advertising it's running.

Just as Apple used advertising to train people to use the iPhone long before they ever touched it, Microsoft wants to push the idea that there are phones with the Microsoft operating system on - and yes, Windows is the brand people recognise - and that they run apps and services just like Windows PCs. After umpteen years of making and selling phones, and selling maybe 40 million devices, apparently it's still a well-kept secret - though Sullivan grins and says "I'd rather have the perception problem than the market share problem; we can solve the perception problem."

Upgrades are out much faster too; we already have a Toshiba TG01 and an HTC Touch Pro 2 upgraded to 6.5. The TG01 gets a new Orange Today screen with four rather cute gestures you can draw; a circle to open the Web browser, a heart to dial your favourite person, a squiggle to switch into vibrate mode… Worryingly (I say worryingly because it worries me when the results are this counter-intuitive) if you switch the phone from the supplied custom profile to full performance, the digitiser no longer recognises gestures. You can tell, because the orange line you're drawing goes red and includes vertical lines you'd dislocate your finger drawing. The new Zune-like Today screen is very jumpy on the TG01 too, although it's pretty smooth on the Touch Pro 2.

I'm still going to have to switch back to the HTC Touch FLO interface though; with that I can see the first few lines of the most recent email, whereas the Today screen only gives me the sender and title - and then only if I only have one new email message.

Like that ever happens...


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