New Windows Mobile UI represents big change

While some of the announcements Microsoft plans to make at the Mobile World Congress have already leaked out, the new user interface on Windows Mobile 6.5 may pleasantly surprise mobile users when it is unveiled at the show.

On Monday, Microsoft expects to show off its latest upgrade to Windows Mobile, version 6.5, and announce it will appear in phones in the second half of the year. It also will announce that it is working on an applications store as well as an updated version of mobile Internet Explorer, and will open up a limited beta of its My Phone mobile backup service.

But it's the new user interface that comes with Windows Mobile 6.5 that has the potential to put Microsoft in closer competition with devices like the iPhone, BlackBerry Storm and the G1.

"Everything is now finger friendly," said Scott Rockfeld, group product manager for Windows Mobile. That means that with 6.5, most items are large enough to be clicked with a finger on a touch screen rather than selected with a stylus or by pushing buttons to navigate through menus. Rockfeld demonstrated the new software on an HTC phone with a large touch screen, but said that individual manufacturers would make their own announcements about phones that will run the operating system.

The user interface clearly takes a cue from the Zune, Microsoft's music player that has struggled to take off even as it has attracted some praise for its software. The home page on Windows Mobile 6.5 is a list of words in large clean text, much like on the Zune, and directs users to applications such as the calendar, voicemail, music and photos.

The start button, rather than launching a menu in a list or a row of icons, opens up a new honeycomb design. Interlocking hexagons contain icons linking to folders and applications such as settings, help or ActiveSync. Users can swipe their fingers up, down or across to scroll through additional icons that don't fit on just one screen.

Microsoft has also developed a new way to efficiently use the home screen when it's locked. If a user gets a new voicemail, for example, a voicemail icon appears on the locked home screen. The user can then press the icon and slide it off the screen. That single move unlocks the phone, launches the voicemail application and starts dialing the voicemail box. Text messages and e-mails work similarly.

Rockfeld compares that experience to the iPhone, where users first touch the phone to wake it up, then unlock it, open the phone application, open the voicemail screen and hit the voicemail to play it.

With Windows Mobile 6.5, users will also be able to better customize their home screens. A Favorites menu item will let users list links to Web sites on the home page and add widgets so they can see at a glance a weather report or stock information, Rockfeld said.

The browser update also makes Internet Explorer Mobile, still based on IE6, "finger friendly," Rockfeld said. Touching a magnifying glass icon opens a bar on one side of the screen for zooming in or out of on an area of the Web page. Touching and dragging moves the page around the screen, with a small square at the bottom depicting where the current view is within the larger page.

That new UI will only work on Windows 6.5 phones. Future Windows Mobile 6.1 phones can use the upgraded browser, which also is designed to perform more functions of standard Web pages, but it won't display the new UI. Existing 6.1 users can't upgrade to the browser because they don't have the hardware requirements.

Combined, the new UI and the updated version of IE could make Windows Mobile phones more attractive to business users. IT administrators increasingly say that their users are asking for the iPhone and other popular models that have far more attractive UIs than the current generation of Windows Mobile phones. However, some IT managers prefer Windows Mobile because it offers a simple platform for pushing enterprise data out to mobile users.

"This should make it an easier sell," said Sean Ryan, an analyst at IDC. "I don't think it's going to necessarily replace the iPhone buzz with this, but it absolutely creates more of a situation where IT can say, 'this is what we support,' and they might not get as much push back," he said.

Microsoft is also showing off a clever new voice-search application developed by its research group and called Microsoft Recite. Users can record voice memos and save them on the phone. They can then search those voice memos using voice commands. For example, a user would launch the search mechanism in the voice memo application, speak a word, and the application searches for that same word in any of the saved voice memos.

Phones currently running Windows Mobile 6.1 are upgradeable to the new 6.5 version; however, it's up to the phone maker to allow it, Rockfeld said. Windows Mobile 6.5 may appear preloaded on existing hardware, or vendors could launch new phones for the software, he said.

At MWC, Microsoft also unveiled a new applications store and opened a limited beta for its My Phone backup offering. Rumors about both services have been circling for weeks. Conflicting rumors about whether Microsoft would introduce an upgraded operating system have also been circulating, but details of what would constitute the update have been scarce.

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