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Windows Mobile 7: Can Microsoft reinvent the mobile market?

Rumors, speculation intensify; OS expected to be unveiled in February

By , Network World
January 14, 2010 11:53 PM ET

Network World - In the aftermath of last week’s Consumer Electronics Show, Windows Mobile watchers are reading the soggy tea leaves of hints, generalities, ambiguities, off-the-cuff comments and anonymous sources to discern Microsoft’s plans for Windows Mobile 7. The bottom line? Anybody who really knows anything isn’t talking.

There are still wildly varying ideas about when the new version will be released. One recent story says it has been delayed “again” and won’t appear until 2011. That story, at BrightSide News, cites unnamed sources at “at least five” smartphone manufacturers. (Somewhat strangely, BetaNews seemed to interpret Microsoft’s refusal to comment on the report as evidence that it was true.) But another account reports that Korea’s LG Electronics let slip at CES that Windows Mobile 7 will be released in 2010, probably in the Fall.

Nonetheless, there are some more concrete bits of information that observers are pulling into their interpretive mosaic for Windows Mobile 7.

One is the continuing improvement of the Windows Mobile UI. At CES last week, Microsoft was quietly showing off the next iteration of the current Windows Mobile 6.5 release. Several news Web sites found the Microsoft demonstration of the 6.5.3 version, shown on a Toshiba TG01 smartphone and Pharos Traveler. This release is due out later in 2010, according to one report.

The changes are taken as showing that Windows Mobile 7 may move decisively away from the PC-driven assumptions that have dogged the platform for years. Currently, the smartphone platform is built on Microsoft’s Windows CE, a modular, embedded, real-time operating system that is used to power different classes of devices. It has a separate code-base from the desktop Windows OS, but makes use of the Windows APIs.

Phonescoop detailed many of the changes in 6.5.3 with photos. (Engadget has some larger format pictures.) Microsoft moved a bunch of functions from the top of the screen to new, larger, virtual buttons at the bottom, within easy reach of your thumbs. The status bar at top is redesigned: Swipe it down with your thumb and a horizontal line of larger icons drops down, for such functions as search, volume control, power management, alarm, and so on.

The virtual Qwerty keyboard can be flicked to one side or the other to bring up specialized keypads: one for numbers, the other for a more compact T9 keypad – text on nine keys. In another change, the onscreen menus are bigger, simpler and cleaner. You can see the 6.5.3 interface in action in this Phonescoop video

(The DailyiPhoneBlog found a new Sony Ericsson smartphone, dubbed Faith, also loaded with the 6.5.3 software.)

But these changes, and others in 6.5 which were criticized for being mere tweaks, may only be the surface.

Last November, Microsoft demonstrated Windows Mobile 7 to a select group of tech journalists under strict NDA. One attendee, SoloPalmari, nevertheless posted comments (in Italian and translated roughly by Google) that indicated Microsoft has no intention of merely tweaking the UI, but radically transforming it, and the mobile Windows experience.

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