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Microsoft launches Windows Mobile 6

Improved search, security and integration with Windows Live are in the update to the cell phone OS, set for a spring release.

With its latest operating system, Microsoft is promising improved search, better security and tighter integration with Windows Live services.

But the operating system isn't Vista--it's Windows Mobile 6, the latest iteration of Redmond's software for powering mobile phones.

Microsoft on Monday officially announced Windows Mobile 6, formerly code-named Crossbow, at the 3GSM trade show in Barcelona. The first devices using the software aren't expected until spring, however, with the bulk of products using the new operating system likely to come in the second half of the year.

Among the most visible changes is the ability to type in a few letters of a song, contact or e-mail subject and have the phone automatically show only matching results. The software also supports HTML e-mail. But for Exchange messages to be viewable in that form, a company also has to have Exchange 2007, the new version of Microsoft's e-mail server software.

Windows Mobile 6 also builds in support for Windows Live instant messaging and e-mail, which enables users to see whether a contact is online and to get their Hotmail or Windows Live Mail messages pushed down automatically.

After years of struggling to make inroads in the phone business, Microsoft is starting to find its way. Its software is now on many of Palm's Treo devices and also on new, slim phones like Samsung's BlackJack and T-Mobile's Dash. The company sold 3 million licenses of Windows Mobile last quarter, up 90 percent from a year earlier.

Because it uses the same core--Windows CE 5--the new mobile operating system is expected to work with nearly all the existing Windows Mobile 5 applications.

"We hope to be 100 percent compatible," said John O'Rourke, a general manager in Microsoft's Mobile and Embedded devices unit. "If an application works in Windows Mobile 5, it should work on Windows Mobile 6."

Safe and sound
On the security front, the new Windows Mobile allows individuals and businesses to better protect their data. The phone can now protect not only data stored on the device, but also encrypt information stored on a removable memory card. Businesses can also set policies requiring passwords to be changed regularly and also demand that they be made more complicated than "111111" or "123456."

As with past versions, the operating system comes in both touch screen and non-touch screen versions, with software makers still likely to need to write separate versions of their applications.

In addition, Microsoft has changed the names of the two types this go-around. Pocket PC Phone Edition, for touch screens, becomes Windows Mobile Professional, while Smartphone edition, for non touch screens, becomes Windows Mobile Standard. A third version, Windows Mobile Classic, is designed for PDAs without phone capabilities, an increasingly small slice of the market.

Support for a variety of devices is an important feature of Windows Mobile, O'Rourke said, noting that the operating system supports devices that have keyboards and those that don't, as well as candy bar, sliders and flip phones. "It's not a one-size-fits-all form of device," he said.

And while in the past Windows Mobile devices without touch screens were far more limited, the gap narrows this time around. In Windows Mobile 6, non-touch screen devices can, like their touch screen counterparts, access mobile versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

However, neither Windows Mobile Professional nor Standard initially supports Office 2007's new file formats. That support is due to come in the summer, with a test version due out in the spring.

One of the changes that is under the hood in Windows Mobile 6, but not expected to be visible to consumers, is support for Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, calling. Microsoft isn't including software to let individuals make such calls, but has added the internal plumbing to allow carriers and device makers to add VoIP support if they wish. "It's an investment we are making for something that today isn't as predominant," O'Rourke said. "I wouldn't be surprised if in the next 12 months we saw some partner announcements" around VoIP.

In the longer term, Microsoft will still try to unify its historically separate Pocket PC and Smartphone code bases. The next version of Windows Mobile, expected to be based on Windows CE 6, aims to create a common code base, potentially simplifying the process for application developers.