Windows Mobile: Alive and well — and suitable for business

Having discussed the progress of the iPhone in the enterprise last month, I thought that this month I would take a look at a longtime player, Windows Mobile, and see how it stacks up against the competition these days. And next month, I hope to have some comments on the new Palm Pre and how it fares for business use.

It was a long time coming, but Microsoft (Nasdaq: MFST) finally unveiled the update to Windows Mobile, called Windows Mobile 6.5, at Mobile World Congress. It’s a nice update of the core user interface. Windows Mobile already was able to compete from a technical perspective, but now it has a UI to match. The question remains, though: Is this release too little and too late for Microsoft?

Windows Mobile started life in 1996 as Windows CE and first appeared on a clamshell device from Casio. Over time, it has become a stable platform that appeals to both enterprises and consumers, who are able to choose among devices from several vendors and carriers around the world. Some 20 million devices running Windows Mobile were sold last year, and yet there’s still a lot of negative buzz about the platform. Bloggers, analysts and journalists have all questioned its future (with many of them continuing to call for that mythical creature, a Microsoft-created phone). But Version 6.5 addresses many of the concerns, and the platform retains strong support from OEMs, factors that will help drive business adoption further over the next 18 months.

Make no mistake, the Windows Mobile UI is not as flashy or fluid as the iPhone’s, but it certainly stacks up well against offerings from other vendors. The latest UI enhancements, in tandem with hardware innovation from licensees HTC, Sony Ericsson and LG, puts a little chrome on the UI. It’s not perfect, but the core of the product works quite well, and nothing can beat it for synchronization with Exchange — it’s not only a cinch; it’s also cost-effective, as pointed out in study after study looking at total cost of ownership.

Microsoft is touting a richer browsing experience with 6.5, which is true enough, but let’s not get too caught up on that. Most Web sites simply aren’t designed to be read on the small screen, and miniature renditions of sites like The New York Times make for great demos but lousy usability. E-mail, the main mobile activity for smartphone business users, works just fine, though, and not just in conjunction with Exchange; it also works well with multiple e-mail accounts supporting IMAP and POP.

The platform is relatively strong in the media and entertainment areas, which admittedly aren’t big business priorities. But while IT managers may not care about such things, their end users do a great deal, and it would be a mistake to ignore what devices are capable of in this regard. Certainly, Microsoft would be wise to add a Zune software client. (Interestingly, Zune subscription content already plays just fine on Windows Mobile, but it’s hard to set up.) No word on that as part of 6.5, but I expect that it’s coming soon.

Reports of Windows Mobile’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Yes, there’s room for improvement, and Microsoft has to keep working on it to bring it in line with the features available on other platforms, but Windows Mobile is a strategic initiative for Microsoft that’s not going to be abandoned anytime soon. A lot of factors go into business users’ decisions on mobile platforms, but there’s no doubt that Windows Mobile is going to remain on virtually every short list.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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