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Microsoft mobile OS lands its biggest deal

U.S. Census Bureau contract calls for a half million handsets loaded with Windows Mobile.

Microsoft has won its biggest contract to date for the use of its Windows Mobile operating system, in a deal with the U.S. Census Bureau.

The agency has signed up for 500,000 smart phones made by handset manufacturer HTC. They will run Windows Mobile 5.0 and be used to take the 2010 census.

It is a high-tech move for the agency. The bureau had previously used paper and pen to take U.S. citizens' details, which were then digitized by data entry staff.

The Microsoft contract forms part of a wider $600 million, five-year deal with Harris, a Florida company running the data collection project, that involves the automation of field data collection. The move is aimed at cutting the time, labor costs and errors involved in manual data collection and input.

The deal is not only the largest Microsoft has ever received for mobile devices but also one of the biggest public deals for smart phones in the industry.

Between 2004 and 2005, the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant saw shipments double, from 3 million to 6 million, for devices loaded with its mobile OS. But it remains one of the smallest vendors in the sector by market share. The Symbian operating system is the sector's current heavy-hitter, with more than 60 percent market share, according to figures from research firm Gartner.

Tony Cripps, an analyst at Ovum, said that Symbian likely was beaten to the deal by Microsoft because of a difference in availability. "In America, there are very few Symbian devices on the market capable of doing this job," he said.

"It reinforces the appeal of Windows Mobile in the enterprise," Cripps added. "What this might suggest is that people do want to use their mobile devices for more than e-mail, so enterprises may need to examine their options more closely in the future."

Smart phones are becoming more popular, according to a recent report from ABI Research. The functionality-laden devices will make up 15 percent of all phones sold this year, the report said.

Jo Best of Silicon.com reported from London.