Microsoft's latest mobile phone operating system should be the springboard for a new generation of smartphones, but "push" Email fans have to wait, reports Ken Young for The Guardian.
Last week, Bill Gates went to the Microsoft mobile developers conference in Las Vegas to announce the details of the latest version of the Windows CE 5.0 operating system for mobile phones and other devices. Such occasions are fast becoming like launches of new versions of Windows for PCs - much anticipated and invariably preceded by leaks on Internet news sites.
In the end, Windows Mobile 5.0, codenamed Magneto, is pretty much as predicted. It has improvements and additions that give more flexibility for developers and manufacturers, and some new features that users have been crying out for, such as the persistent memory storage, PowerPoint support, and multimedia options such as Windows Media Player 10 (with digital rights management).
Usability has been addressed with simplified menus, new contacts layout, and two new user-defined soft buttons that reduce the number of key presses needed to access applications. Microsoft also says the new OS works faster and responds quicker than before, and is more reliable.
For business users, there are new versions of Word and Excel with enhanced document format support as well as the first pocket version of PowerPoint. The software supports Wi-Fi and 3G networks, as well as "push-to-talk" (walkie-talkie) operations, built-in hard drives and USB 2.0.
But despite much advance speculation, Microsoft did not announce any new developments on providing the "push" Email facility much loved by RIM BlackBerry users, who get Email sent almost instantly to their PDAs.
If the announcement had been intended, it was pulled.
Instead, Microsoft announced a new version of ActiveSync, its synchronisation protocol, which will make Exchange email transfer faster and easier to use. It will also be better at resuming transmission if the connection is interrupted.
However, critics of this "pulled" form of Email argue that it is more bandwidth hungry and, if used heavily, runs down the phone's battery. For firms with large numbers of users, the increased use of bandwidth can significantly increase mobile phone bills.
In Las Vegas, Bill Gates disputed the importance that some critics give to pushed Email, saying that the key is "Email plus" - in other words, having workable business applications such as customer relationship management (CRM) programs and Microsoft Office products on mobile devices.
This argument has some credence amongst analysts. Tony Cripps, an analyst at Ovum, believes Microsoft is heeding critics with the new operating system. "It is being mindful of the competition and seems keen to listen to manufacturers, operators and end-users with these improvements," he says. "As regards push Email, I think it is more a matter of making changes to Exchange Server rather than the OS. That's why it is taking longer."
Microsoft refused to comment on what is holding up its push technology, but Hardy Poppinga, European product manager in Microsoft's mobile and embedded division, claimed: "It will be delivered this year and it will be superior to other push offerings."
Michael Riley, head of data products at Orange, said he reserved judgment on the new OS. "We will have to look at it closely. We are looking at a range of options for delivering pushed Email, and expect that in the next few months we will make it clear what our choices are. The key is that we offer customers a choice and that it is simple to use."
Orange allows large businesses to try Windows Mobile-based SPV smart phones for 60 days in an attempt to grow the business, and sells RIM BlackBerry services to enterprises.
But according to Dale Vile, service director at researchers Quocirca, mobile operators are increasingly focused on push technology. "I believe most of them will announce their support for one or more products in the next six months," he says. "Many of their customers are asking for it, and if they are heavy Microsoft users, it makes sense to them to have a solution that is device-independent and that is supported by Microsoft. The problem is, carriers are also wary of Microsoft dominating the market."
Jean Tripier, executive vice president at Visto, a push-Email vendor that has just signed a European deal with Vodafone, said many in the industry were expecting more from Microsoft. "The OS enhancements are good for the end-user and the industry, but we expected something more on push Email by now.
"We will have to continue to wait and see, but even when they bring it out, it will take time for them to work out how to sell and support it, and with whom."
According to IDC researchers, voice-enabled PDAs and smart phones are the fastest growing sector of the mobile device market. Worldwide sales grew by 55% in the first quarter of this year, and Microsoft says that 1m devices using Windows Mobile were sold during the period. Push technology or not, Windows Mobile 5.0 will give these manufacturers more flexibility in the features and form factors they offer.
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