Microsoft is trying to reignite excitement around its mobile business with a string of announcements today at Mobile World Congress, in Barcelona, Spain. Microsoft is set to announce a new version of its mobile operating system, Windows Mobile 6.5. The company also officially confirmed already public developments including a new version of Internet Explorer 6; My Phone — a backup and recovery service for contacts, photos and other data stored on a mobile device; and a forthcoming Microsoft mobile application store.
Windows Mobile 6.5 features a new user interface and “honeycomb” start screen with hexagonal tiles for each program that are designed to be easier to use on touch-screen phones.
The start menu can be customized with rich Internet applications, such as weather or stock reports, that are automatically updated. “Like if you go to the iPhone, you can go to the weather application, but you have to go into to actually make it update,” said Scott Rockfeld, a director in Microsoft’s Windows Mobile group.
The whole user interface is designed to be more “finger friendly,” in recognition of the touch controls of many mobile phones running Windows Mobile, Rockfeld said. A new home screen looks “very similar to a Zune, which may be where from the rumors came from about the Zune phone, but ultimately we found from the Zune experience that this actually works for people,” he said.
Another new feature of Windows Mobile 6.5 allows people to go directly to waiting voice mail, text messages or other information when unlocking their phones. “I should be able to take action immediately,” Rockfeld said. “All I have to do is select an icon and it takes me right to the application and right to the action.”
“Just compare this to the iPhone. You go to an iPhone and check a voice mail, first you bring it to life, then you unlock the phone, then you go to the phone application, then you hit voice mail,” he said.
The new version of Internet Explorer Mobile is built on Microsoft’s older PC Web browser, Internet Explorer 6. (The company is now finalizing IE8 for the PC.) The updated mobile browser will allow people to finish more online transactions, Rockfeld said.
Microsoft My Phone, announced earlier this month after news reports and speculation, is designed to back up contacts, photos, calendar events and other information stored on a phone to a password-protected Web site. The free service, which will start out in a limited, invite-only test form, competes with Apple’s MobileMe and Google’s Sync, among other emerging services for mobile devices. My Phone will also be available for phones running Windows Mobile 6.0 and 6.1.
Windows Marketplace for Mobile, Microsoft’s competitor to the successful Apple iPhone App Store, will provide a centralized place to buy increasingly popular mobile applications. Currently, consumers buy apps for Windows Mobile phones through carriers or on sites like Handango. The marketplace will allow people to download applications straight to their phones, Rockfeld said. Some of the details are still to be worked out. “Because of what Windows stands for, we’re really looking at how mobile operators play, whether it’s the revenue sharing, whether as a customer you’ll be able to do mobile operator billing — those types of things are in conversations today,” he said.
Microsoft will make sure the applications work and have the relationship with the customer, he said.
Another new offering, Microsoft Recite, came out of the company’s research group. This software, also in an early test version, allows people to record voice notes or other audio files on Windows Mobile phones and then search for keywords using their voice.
Microsoft is also announcing a four-year contract with LG stating that Windows Mobile will be the manufacturer’s number one smart phone platform. LG will launch 50 Windows Mobile devices over that time.