New Windows Mobile phones due in October

Phones running Microsoft's newest software will hit shelves on Oct. 6, but don't expect the big lines and excitement that have characterized other iconic smartphone launches in recent years.

In North America, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, Telus and Bell Mobility will sell phones with the updated Windows Mobile 6.5 software, Microsoft planned to announce on Tuesday. Phone makers including HP, HTC, LG Electronics, Samsung and Toshiba will offer devices. Some manufacturers will deliver new hardware, while others will simply offer existing models running the new software, said Stephanie Ferguson, general manager in Microsoft's mobile communications group.

Operators in other regions around the world have also promised to sell the phones.

Windows Mobile has struggled to retain a foothold in the mobile-phone market in the midst of new competition, namely from the iPhone and the many challengers that have emerged since its launch. Windows Mobile has lost market share this year, a company executive recently admitted.

But Windows Mobile 6.5 is unlikely to turn around that trend. AT&T, one operator that plans to sell new phones running the software, doesn't expect the devices to attract new kinds of users. "This will be a welcome improvement from a usability standpoint and maybe from a battery usage standpoint, but I think people will view it incrementally. I don't think it's revolutionary," said Jeff Bradley, senior vice president for marketing in AT&T's devices group.

Users of the new phones will get some improvements and new features. AT&T customers who buy the phones will be able to use them to access the operator's more than 20,000 hotspots, Bradley said. While other AT&T smartphone users have had that benefit, Windows Mobile users haven't, he said.

The new phones will be the first to feature the Windows Marketplace, a centralized online store where people can download applications directly to their phones. Microsoft commonly boasts having 20,000 applications available to Windows Mobile users. Those applications have historically been available from a scattered array of stores and individual developers. However, it's unclear how many of those applications will be available from the new store when it launches. Ferguson declined to say how many applications will be in the store.

People shopping for the new phones will also find that the devices have a slightly new name. Earlier this year, when Microsoft first announced the next version of the software, it said it would start marketing the devices as Windows phones. However, confusingly, it also said the Windows Mobile brand wouldn't disappear. It has been unclear exactly how the new branding would coexist with the old.

Now Microsoft says all customer-facing marketing will use the simpler Windows brand while "Windows Mobile 6.5" will be used with handset makers and operators for clarity about the exact release version, said Ferguson.

Some analysts have said that the Windows Mobile 6.5 update, despite its renewed user interface and improved browsing capabilities, may not be dramatic enough to attract new followers. Microsoft would do well to make an acquisition to quickly improve its standing, Matt Rosoff, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, recently said.

Another analyst suggested a more dramatic move. "Microsoft would do better to focus on enhanced connectivity to its collaboration systems from all device types ... and abandon its desire to control the mobile OS -- a battle it cannot win," said Jack Gold of J. Gold Associates. "We expect Microsoft to ... exit the mobile OS space in the next one to two years."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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