Microsoft hits redial in cell phone battle

Company is trying to take on Nokia and others with its latest Windows Mobile release and scores of carrier deals. Photo: Going Windows Mobile

After years of playing runner-up in the cell phone market, Microsoft hopes it has finally found a winning entry.

The software maker will announce Tuesday that it has wrapped up development of Windows Mobile 5.0, its latest operating system for cell phones and handhelds. As previously reported, Microsoft is hoping to boost its fortunes--and grab some market share from archrival Nokia--by creating software that can more easily be customized by device makers and wireless carriers.

"A lot of their requests about customization used to take us a lot of handwork to do what they wanted," Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates told CNET "With Windows Mobile 5.0, we've taken a lot of the customization and made it really trivial for them to do it."

Gates, who will announce the new version at a mobile developer conference in Las Vegas, noted that Microsoft has already convinced 68 carriers in more than 40 countries to offer phones using its products.

"Two years ago, we basically had Orange, in Europe, shipping our devices," Gates said. "If you go back three years ago, we had nobody shipping any phones from us of any kind."

The company's mobile effort is led by Ya-Qin Zhang--who previously headed Microsoft's Beijing research lab. The mobile effort has focused for some time on an overhaul of the OS that would allow it to run on a broader array of devices.

Microsoft points to a number of features it said will help in that regard, including support for software-based buttons that will make it easier to operate devices with one hand and without using a stylus.

The new version, which has been code-named Magneto, also offers features such as improved mobile versions of Word and Excel, a viewer for PowerPoint spreadsheets, and a mobile version of Windows Media 10 that supports subscription music and viewing of recorded TV shows.

"We're increasingly hearing from our carrier partners that they want to run music and media download services," said Scott Horn, senior director of marketing for Microsoft's mobile and embedded device unit.

Sweating the details
In many cases, however, it's the little things that Microsoft worked on this time around, such as making sure that cell phone operators can customize the color scheme on a device so it matches their logo and not that of a competitor. For years, all of the links on a Microsoft mobile device were colored blue. The company said its early experiences have helped it this go-around.

"It's getting educated on those things," Horn said.

Devices running the new operating system will begin coming to market over the next several months, Horn said. A few products, such as T-Mobile's MDA IV and Samsung's hard drive-based SGH-i300, have already been announced. Others will be announced next week, he said.

Meanwhile, both Hewlett-Packard and Dell said they plan to let some existing customers upgrade their handhelds to run the new operating system. Neither is immediately announcing plans for new devices based on Windows Mobile 5.0 nor saying when the OS will

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