Windows Mobile 6.5: “There’s No Excuse for This”

Before the iPhone, we were content with stylus-based interfaces that worked well – mostly – for what you needed to do. Then came the iPhone. From a pure feature perspective, it was (and is) lacking, but it more than makes up for it by being a polished product that’s easy to use. The iPhone shook the entire industry up, and while newcomers have done relatively well (webOS, Android) Windows Mobile is now so far left behind you can barely see it any more. Windows Mobile 6.5 is supposed to be the first step towards modernising Windows Mobile – but it fails miserably.

Windows Mobile 6.0 was released in February of 2007. Between then and now, Apple has released three versions of theiPhone OS, Android has entered the scene, and the webOS has begun doing its thing too. The BlackBerry OS has been updated too, and RIM shipped a touch phone.

What does Microsoft have to show for itself? Windows Mobile 6.1, with a slightly updated homescreen and some performance enhancements. And now we have version 6.5, which will be put out there to compete head-on with the iPhone, Android, and webOS. Seeing the reviews on the web, I actually kind of feel sad for the poor thing. It’s going to be torn to shreds.

Windows Mobile 6.5 improves the mobile operating system in four key areas: a new Start screen, a new Today home screen, a new lock screen, and an updated version of mobile Internet Explorer. The new lock and Today screens receive positive responses, but the other two improvements do not.

The new Start screen organises your applications in a honeycomb layout, but this creates odd icon and caption placing (even on the screenshots it looks weird). Worse yet, the implementation feels like a proof-of-concept, as it lacks any method of organising the icons other than a “Move to Top” command. There’s no alphabetical sorting, no drag and drop, nothing. In addition, there’s no way to delete applications straight from the Start screen.

The new home screen gets a more positive reception, and vaguely resembles that of the Zune user interface. The items in the Today screen are presented as a text menu, but also deliver some basic preview functionality; you can flip through photos from the Pictures item, or play/pause music from the Music item. The scrolling is smooth and has that inertia effect.

Mobile Internet Explorer 6 is the IE7 of the mobile world; it’s improved compared to MIE5, but it’s still generations behind the competition (i.e., WebKit). While it adds smooth panning and zooming as well as better CSS/JS support, it’s also a lot slower than other browsers, rendering is far choppier, and it sometimes formats pages oddly.

The new lock screen is actually kind of nice. Instead of providing just some basic information and an unlock slider, it will also create specific unlock sliders after certain events. For instance, if you received a text message, there will be an unlock slider that will take you directly to that message. A nice feature.

The big, big problem with Windows Mobile 6.5 is that all the improvements are literally just skin deep. The above four areas are really all there is to it; the rest of the operating system is still horribly outdated and stylus-based. Context menus are now more finger-friendly, but everything else still requires you to take out your stylus. It’s the same old mess that we’ve been using for ages now.

There’s also Windows Marketplace and My Phone, but those are not 6.5-specific features; you can get them on 6.1 phones as well. If you put all this information together, and take into account that handset makers have been making better Windows Mobile user interfaces for ages, you’ll realise that there is no reason whatsoever to upgrade to 6.5. It presents nothing that handset makers haven’t already done already – and have done so in a better way.

I think Microsoft should’ve just skipped 6.5 altogether and went straight to 7. It’s better to release something good late, than something crappy. The worse thing of all, though, is that even after the release of Windows Mobile 7, 6.5 will live on. Microsoft plans on shipping both versions side-by-side.


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