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Windows Mobile gets more 'finger-friendly'

By Matt Hamblen; Nancy Gohring
February 23, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Acknowledging the iPhone's influence on smartphone design, Microsoft Corp. last week unveiled an upgrade of its Windows Mobile operating system that includes improved touch-screen and navigation tools.

Microsoft said at the GSMA Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, that Windows Mobile 6.5 should begin appearing in phones as early as July. The software vendor also announced plans to create an online application storefront similar to Apple Inc.'s App Store and said that it's updating the mobile version of Internet Explorer.

But it's the new user interface in Windows Mobile 6.5 that has the potential to put phones based on the Microsoft operating system in the same class as devices such as the iPhone, BlackBerry Storm and T-Mobile G1.

"Everything is now finger-friendly," said Scott Rockfeld, Microsoft's group product manager for Windows Mobile. Most of the items on the interface are large enough that users can activate them by touching the screen, instead of having to use a stylus or navigate through menus by pushing buttons, he said.

The honeycomb-style start-up screen also enables users to launch applications by simply dragging their icons, according to Microsoft officials. In addition, the operating system lets users return missed calls or messages with a single click.

"The cleaned-up interface in 6.5 is the most important thing [Microsoft] could have possibly done," said Philippe Winthrop, an analyst at Strategy Analytics Inc. "Is it slick like an iPhone? No. But it's not meant to be."

Windows Mobile is a practical choice for business users as well as IT departments that want to manage mobile devices in a secure way, Winthrop said. But he called the software's current user interface "kludgy."

Sean Ryan, an analyst at market research firm IDC, also gave Microsoft credit for recognizing the need to improve the user experience in Windows Mobile.

"Microsoft has always done better at understanding the needs of IT, but now it's crossing over to pay attention to the needs of the end user," Ryan said.

That may help IT managers in the end, he added -- even if Windows Mobile 6.5 doesn't steal the user buzz away from the iPhone. Ryan said the improved user interface "creates more of a situation where IT can say, 'This is what we support,' and they might not get as much pushback."

Nancy Gohring writes for the IDG News Service.

This version of the story originally appeared in Computerworld's print edition.

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