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Stinger phone finally surfaces

The first commercial device to run on Microsoft’s cellular phone operating system is being unveiled Tuesday. MSNBC’s Gary Krakow takes a first look at the device.
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I’m a big fan of the new breed of cellular phones available today. I love my Handspring Treo 270, my Motorola/Nextel i95cl and my T-Mobile Sidekick — they do a lot more than just make cell calls. But for the last two years I’ve seen prototypes of devices (code named “Stinger”) that would be in a league of their own — if they ever hit the marketplace. Today that dream has become a reality.

InsertArt(1669844)UNFORTUNATELY THOUGH, not here in the United States. Not yet, anyway. Today in London, cellular carrier Orange SA hosted a big ceremony to unveil its SPV handset, the first commercial device to run on Microsoft’s cellular phone operating system, dubbed Smartphone.

(MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

Orange’s SPV is a tri-band GSM world phone (900, 1,800 and 1,900 MHz) for use across Europe and in the United States with GPRS class 8, PBCCH and MMS support. It runs on a 120 MHz Texas Instruments OMAP ARM processor with 32 MB flash ROM and 16 MB SDRAM in a handset built by HTC, the makers of the Compaq iPAQ.

The screen is a 2.2” TFT LCD display (176x220 pixels with 64kb colors). There’s also an expansion slot for SD or MMC storage cards, a Lithium-ion battery giving 3 hours solid talk time and 100 hours standby. There’s also an infrared port (serial interface) and an earphone jack. Please note that says “earphone jack,” as in a music/video earphone. Stereo headphones actually come with the phone, as do a clip-on camera for photo messaging and a USB cradle for desktop use and stereo headphones.

Many of the built-in features are similar to those on my favorite devices but I’ll let the Orange people tell you what they think is so special about their SPV:

A simple user interface, including Pocket Outlook with e-mail, calendar, contacts and tasks in a familiar Windows environment

A “home” key that always takes you back to your personal start-up screen and a “back” key that takes you back to the last screen you were on.

One inbox for all your messages (text, photo message, e-mail and voice mail)

The ability to record a call or make voice notes

A speakerphone

Full integrated HTML and WAP color Web browsing

Orange Backup and over-the-air update (enabling customers to back-up their data onto the Orange network)

Compatible with Orange Wirefree Server (Microsoft Mobile Information Server), allowing corporate users access to their e-mail and calendar

IMPRESSIVE MULTIMEDIA Last week I was privileged to be able to play with a SPV and give it a very quick run through. I was highly impressed. Basically, it is a Pocket PC built inside a cellular telephone handset. In addition to Pocket Outlook being able to deal with my e-mail, address book and calendar, the SPV was able to handle Word and Excel attachments. There’s even a third-party solution for picture slide shows and PowerPoint presentations. The screen turns 90 degrees for a landscape view and you can actually read the pages!

I was really wowed by the SPV’s multimedia prowess. As a Pocket PC, the SPV has a working version of Windows Media Player and I watched an actual video play on the screen. Movement was pretty good, especially for reproduction on a cellular handset. Audio quality (via the headset) was pretty good too. Audio and video files can be streamed over the GPRS network or can be stored on a SD/MMC card.

The only question I have is about the built-in browser. Early Windows CE versions of Pocket Internet Explorer were able to wrap words properly to fit on the screen, but modern Pocket PCs seem to have problems with handling that. Other pocket browsers (such as Handspring’s Blazer and Opera) have no such problems. It’s a small annoying flaw in an otherwise great device.

The SPV will sell in Britain for £179 (roughly US$278) in addition to a 12-month minimum term contract with Orange. That’s a really low price for what’s being offered inside: a Pocket PC, MP3 player and cellular phone all in one. Orange is subsidizing a large part of the actual SPV price to get people to use their cellular services. So, the GSM SIM chip is locked; the phone will work only with an Orange SIM chip.

The SPV will be available in France, Denmark and Switzerland in the coming weeks but U.S. cellular phone users will have to wait a little while longer. Microsoft is hoping to make some key announcements early next year. I’ve seen some prototypes for other Stinger GSM phones as well as a non-GSM version, which means when they finally arrive on these shores, we should have a bunch of choices.

The new Microsoft Smartphone technology jumps out of the gate into third place in Europe — behind phones that run on the Symbian (formerly Psion) and Palm operating systems. Just this week, Symbian announced that Samsung would be producing phones with their OS, joining Nokia and Sony Ericsson. Hardware manufacturers building Microsoft Smartphone-based handsets include Samsung (hedging all bets), Sendo Ltd., Compal Electronics Inc. and HTC Corp.

I’m planning on a trip to London next month and I’m hoping the people at Orange will allow me to try a SPV phone while I’m there. I’m planning on writing up my results in early December.