Microsoft Corp. on Tuesday showed off an update to its Windows Mobile software for "smart" phones, a category where it is facing substantial competition from Research in Motion's BlackBerry and Apple's iPhone.
The new version is aimed at making the software easier to use — an area where Windows Mobile is seen as having some catching up to do, particularly since the iPhone set a new standard for usability when it debuted last June.
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Windows Mobile 6.1 also is designed to be simpler to set up, and has a new top menu modeled on that of the T-Mobile Shadow, which uses a variant of Windows Mobile modified by its manufacturer, HTC Corp. of Taiwan.
Text messages will now be displayed as "threads," or conversations, much like they are on the iPhone, instead of being shown one to a screen.
For the first time, cutting and pasting of text will now be possible on Windows Mobile phones that lack a touch screen, like the Samsung BlackJack series. This feature has long been available on BlackBerry phones.
Phones with the new software will be appearing in a few months, Microsoft said at the CTIA Wireless cell-phone industry trade show in Las Vegas. Some current phones, like the HTC Mogul sold by Sprint Nextel Corp. and the AT&T Tilt, will be upgradeable to the new version.
Later this year, Microsoft will be upgrading the Windows Mobile Web browser, again to bring the experience closer to that of the iPhone. Pages will render more like they do in the desktop version of Internet Explorer, and the user will be able to look at an entire Web page at once, or zoom into it.
While competition is tough in the space, the category as a whole is growing, as more consumers see the advantages of "smart" phones that do much more than calling and text messaging. Microsoft sold 14.3 million licenses to cell-phone manufacturers last year, a doubling since 2005, said Scott Rockfeld, product manager for Microsoft's mobile group. Four of the five largest cell-phone manufacturers make Windows Mobile phones. The holdout is the largest of them all, Nokia Corp.
"We're in a great position," Rockfeld said.
To gain scale, Microsoft is leveraging its strength in the corporate environment, where Research In Motion's BlackBerry is the main competitor and the iPhone is searching for acceptance. On Tuesday, Microsoft said it is launching Mobile Device Manager 2008, a software package designed to let information-technology departments manage a fleet of phones just like they manage desktop computers, pushing software updates and enforcing security policies.
The software package will be bundled by cell carriers into a Microsoft Mobile Service Plan that includes cell service. Verizon Wireless will be one of the carriers, Microsoft said.
The latest Windows Mobile update doesn't address what is perhaps the biggest shortcoming of the operating system in the post-iPhone era: It's designed to be used with a keyboard or stylus, not with fingers alone. The launch of Apple Inc.'s first phone last year demonstrated how easy it is to use a phone designed to be controlled almost entirely by touching the screen.
Sprint launches 'Touch'
A few months after the debut of the iPhone, Sprint Nextel Corp. launched a phone called the "Touch" that used Windows Mobile, with some additional touch-friendly software, but the phone was difficult to use without resorting to a stylus.
Sprint Nextel Corp. is eschewing Windows Mobile for a new touch-screen phone, also announced Tuesday. The carrier commissioned its own software.
Windows Mobile is getting a vote of confidence as a touch-screen platform by a Velocity Mobile, a British startup that is launching two phones at the show. However, the phones won't be pure touch-screen devices. One of the models will have a keyboard, and both will have styluses.
"It's necessary for the applications that are out today to have a stylus," said David Hayes, the company's chief executive.
Velocity will use Windows Mobile 6.1, but is modifying the software to make it even easier to use. With the standard software, "making a phone call is not just pressing a button, there are a number of steps to take," Hayes said. The iPhone is one of Velocity's inspirations.
"It's raised the bar for everyone in the space," Hayes said.
Velocity didn't announce any U.S. carrier partners, but Hayes said it is working on getting the devices into U.S. stores.