Windows Mobile's name pretty much sums up this operating system: it's the mobile version of Microsoft's desktop platform. That's good, as it will feel familiar for the many people who use Windows on a computer. But it's also bad, as Windows Mobile feels overstuffed and not fine-tuned for use on a mobile device.
Microsoft has taken some steps to alleviate these issues in the latest version of Windows Mobile, 6.5. The interface was revamped slightly from earlier versions to work better on touch-screen phones. Microsoft does plan a much-needed complete overhaul of the OS, which will be launched in late 2010. The new software will get a new name, Windows Phone 7 Series, and a completely new look. Until Windows Phone 7 arrives, though, Windows Mobile 6.5 is Microsoft's flagship mobile OS.
The good news is that Windows Mobile is available on a wide range of smartphones. Every major U.S. carrier offers a Windows Mobile smartphone, and most offer a choice of handsets. Most of the phones have touch screens, and many have full hardware QWERTY keyboards, too. The chances are good that you'll find a Windows Mobile-based handset that you like from the carrier of your choosing.
The chances also are good that Windows Mobile will look and feel a lot like the version of Windows you're used to using on your desktop computer. But that's not such a good thing: picture a tiny version of your Windows start menu, and a tiny version of your system tray. Yes, you're likely in for a lot of squinting.
The slightly revamped interface that Microsoft unveiled with version 6.5 of Windows Mobile does help slightly. It features a neatly organized honeycomb layout that's much easier on the eyes and the touch screen. But the overall look of Windows Mobile lacks the elegance and simplicity of rivals like Apple's iPhone OS or Palm's webOS.
Navigating through the OS itself can be tricky, too, as the apps and icons you need aren't always where you'd expect to find them -- especially if you're looking for the same folder structure you use on your desktop computer.
But you do get many of the same apps you know and (maybe) love, such as mobile versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. You also get the mobile version of the Internet Explorer browser, which will be familiar to many users, certainly, but the experience of using it can't compete with today's best mobile browsers. Luckily, you can install an alternative browser like Opera Mobile on most Windows Mobile phones -- and some of them even come with the browser pre-installed.
Apps, Apps, and More Apps
The availability of Opera Mobile highlights one of Windows Mobile's greatest strengths: thevast array of third-party software available for Windows Mobile devices. Long before Apple invented its App Store, third-party developers were creating applications for Windows Mobile phones. But getting that software isn't as easy as it should be, as not all of the titles have made their way to Microsoft's recently-launched Windows Marketplace for Mobile. While the application storefront is neatly organized and easy to use, it lacks the wide selection of titles that rivals like Apple's App Store. Still, the Marketplace is relatively new, so more titles should be added soon.
Windows Mobile 6.5 may be Microsoft's most recent mobile OS, but it feels old already. It lacks the slick interface and ease of use that today's best mobile platforms offer. It will appeal to business users who need the tight integration it offers with Microsoft's desktop software, but everyone else is likely better off waiting for Windows Phone 7 Series, coming later this year.