Wrap-up: Windows Mobile 6.5, Windows phone and where we go from here

Windows Mobile 6.5 is out the door. Windows Marketplace for Mobile is open for business. New phones — "Windows phones" — are here, or on the way.

Now that the dust has settled, let's take a look back at the past week and evaluate what exactly we got from Microsoft, whether it met expectations, or if it's too little too late.

Join us after the break.

Windows Mobile 6.5

Any new release of a mobile operating system is a time to celebrate, and Microsoft certainly did that. We were at the Open House event in New York City, and it largely didn't disappoint. And it should not go without mention that the launch of Windows Mobile 6.5 was a global event, with the OS available not just in a country or two, but worldwide. Upgrades aren't yet available on every carrier just yet, but don't let that fool you — this is much improved from the relative dribble of excitement previous updates have received.

We'll have to wait an see how long it takes manufacturers and carriers to push out updates to Windows Mobile 6.5. Microsoft's keeping a list, and we're getting the feeling that updates will come sooner rather than later.

Now, onto the OS itself. The Windows Mobile 6.5 that we're seeing, at least initially, basically is the same build we've been seeing since it was announced way back in February — that's more than half a year ago — at Mobile World Congress. We won't say that's flat-out unacceptable, but it's certainly disappointing given that we know there are newer (and better) builds being worked on.

The bottom line

This is the best Windows Mobile iteration so far. Is that damning with faint praise? Absolutely. But we've all grown very cynical and have come to expect a revolutionary release anytime a software company or manufacturer announces a new product. Microsoft delivered (for better or worse) pretty much exactly what it showed us at Mobile World Congress. We expect the newer builds of Windows Mobile 6.5 to see an official release at some point.

But, really, how much more work do we want Microsoft pouring into this operating system? We need to see a radical departure, and it needs to happen with Windows Mobile 7.

The phones

Along with the launch of Windows Mobile 6.5, we've seen the launch of a number of new phones — again, worldwide. The Windows Mobile ecosystem is unlike any other mobile platform (BlackBerry is the closest) in that it runs on so many different devices.

New in the U.S. at launch were the AT&T Pure (Touch Diamond 2) and Tilt 2 (Touch Pro 2). The Sprint Intrepid (Samsung Epix follow-up) was announced. The Verizon Imagio's on the way. (Hands-on wrap-up here.) These are all solid phones, but they're evolutionary. Same ol' Qualcomm processors (we're not taking for granted the higher clock speeds), for the most part. The Samsung Omnia II brings an 800MHz processor and AMOLED screen to the table, but it's launching with Windows Mobile 6.1 (though you can hardly tell, it's been so heavily skinned).

Now it gets weird. (And we'll refer you to the Engadget Podcast for more great discussion on this, and we'll certainly have our own on the WMExperts Podcast).

HTC, easily Microsoft's top partner these days when it comes to Windows Mobile, announces the HD2 in Europe. It's got a 1GHz Snapdragon processor. A capacitive touchscreen. And it's getting HTC Sense instead of TouchFLO 3D. This is a next-generation Windows phone.

And Microsoft had no part in its announcement.

And no sooner than we finish our usual "It's coming to Europe, not the U.S." post, then HTC CEO Peter Chou says, "Oh, it'll be in the U.S. in the first quarter of 2010." On a carrier? Unlocked? We don't know. Doesn't exactly make you want to run out and buy an AT&T Pure or Verizon Imagio right now, does it?

Oh, and remember that these are all "Windows phones." We're behind the branding. But with such little mind share, it feels a little forced. (See Exhibit A: RadioShack becomes "The Shack," though "Windows phone" isn't anywhere near as lame a rebranding.)

The bottom line

We've got some solid Windows phones available now. Chances are if you're reading this you're well aware that bigger and better things are on the way. But you're in the minority when it comes to mobile consumers, and there are plenty of sexy phones to be had today.

Windows Marketplace for Mobile

Finally, the thousands and thousands and thousands of Windows Mobile applications have a place to call home, easily accessible directly from Windows Mobile 6.5 (and eventually 6.0/6.1 — or now, if you don't mind a little trickery). Thing is, there still are other app stores (for want of a better term) that do the exact thing. Mobihand's been around for a long time and is now available on devices (as well is within Kinoma Play, which was an interesting move). There's Handango. Hell, even carriers and manufacturers are opening their own app stores. Plus, you still can sideload apps (as in, just copy a CAB file onto your phone and install it) without any problem.

So we're not exactly talking one store to rule them all here. We've said it before: The Windows Mobile ecosystem is so large and diverse it'd be almost impossible to bring it together under one roof. But Microsoft should be commended for at least attempting to do so.

That said ... this feels like a launch that's only partly off the ground.

On the Windows phone, the Marketplace experience is great. You browse the Marketplace, choose and app, and it installs (and uninstalls) seamlessly. There are a couple hundred applications currently available, ranging from free to $20, $30 or more, same as when we bought them outside the Marketplace. (And kudos to the established developers who haven't passed on Microsoft's 30 percent take to the consumer.)

But there have been hiccups. English-only apps haven't necessarily been available in traditionally non-English speaking countries, but that supposedly is changing. Of bigger note to us is that there's no desktop portal to the Marketplace. Browsing from the phone is fine, and Microsoft's done a fine job of it. But the experience feels incomplete. Web access to browse and purchase apps was promised, and Microsoft says it's coming. But it should have been available from the get-go.

The bottom line

The Marketplace is a long-awaited, long-overdue addition to Windows Mobile. The phone app feels a bit tired, and there's no Web access. We're getting a little tired of saying this, but we'll do it again anyway: It's not pretty, but it's functional. And we'll expect more come Windows Mobile 7.

Wrapping it up

Microsoft takes longer than others to learn lessons, and that's the way it is. Look ahead for the next 12 months or so: We're hoping for Windows Mobile 7 to be announced in the spring. We're hoping it will take Windows phones in a new direction, with next-generation hardware. In the meantime, we've got solid hardware, an upgraded operating system, and a consolidated app store with the weight and might of Microsoft behind it.

Will any of this lure consumers to the platform? Not by leaps and bounds. But it should keep things afloat in the meantime.

Now Microsoft must deliver on the future.

Phil Nickinson

Phil is the father of two beautiful girls and is the Dad behind Modern Dad. Before that he spent seven years at the helm of Android Central. Before that he spent a decade in a newsroom of a two-time Pulitzer Prize-finalist newspaper. Before that — well, we don't talk much about those days. Subscribe to the Modern Dad newsletter!