Microsoft Wages Mobile War


Microsoft this week stormed the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona with a host of new offerings in a bid to take a piece of the smartphone pie away from the now-iconic Apple iPhone and Research In Motion's popular BlackBerry line.

With CEO Steve Ballmer taking the stage, Microsoft lifted the curtain on its its mobile blitzkrieg launching an updated Windows Mobile operating system, a mobile application store and a mobile data synchronization service.

Microsoft also showcased new Windows Mobile devices from key mobile partners like HTC, LG and Orange. Microsoft did not, however, unveil a smartphone of its own. Leading up to the event, some industry analysts said Microsoft was prepping a branded smartphone, although Microsoft quickly shot down the rumors.

Microsoft has been looking for more traction in the smartphone space, a market that research firm Strategy Analytics predicts will grow 31 percent this year.

To recap from the introductions from the event: First up, Microsoft unveiled its latest mobile operating system update, Windows Mobile 6.5. Taking some cues from Apple's iPhone, the new software, Microsoft said, offers a home screen offering a dashboardlike experience, with up-to-date information like new e-mails, text messages, missed calls and calendar appointments. Microsoft said the updated operating system also features an improved touch-screen interface that makes "it easy to take action with a finger;" and the latest version of the Internet Explorer Mobile browser.

According to Microsoft, Windows Mobile 6.5 will be featured on several new devices, including the new smartphones from HTC, LG and Orange. LG is expected to offer the Windows Mobile 6.5-based LG-GM7300, a smartphone that offers one-click e-mail setup. HTC has two 6.5 devices in the pipeline: the Touch Diamond 2 and the Touch Pro 2, which can be upgradable to 6.5 to feature new contact integration and Internet capabilities. The devices are expected to be available in the second half of the year.

Along with the Windows Mobile updates, Microsoft at Mobile World Congress also confirmed its own mobile application store, in a similar vein to the AppStore for the Apple iPhone, the Android Market for Google Android handsets and the BlackBerry Store Front, RIM's own application store. The Windows Marketplace for mobile lets users search, browse and buy mobile applications from their Windows smartphones or from a PC using a Windows Live ID. The Marketplace will be included with Windows Mobile 6.5 devices. Microsoft said developers have already built more than 20,000 Windows Mobile applications. Developers can offer their applications in the Marketplace after a security and compatibility check from Microsoft.

And for Windows Mobile users looking for a cloud-based syncing service, Microsoft also revealed its free My Phone service, a stab at Apple, which has a similar syncing service in its MobileMe offering. Microsoft's My Phone lets users access, manage and back up their personal information on a smartphone to a password-protected Web-based service. Users can store their contacts, appointments, text messages and other information, which can be uploaded to a device if their smartphone is lost or stolen. They can also upload photos and video from their smartphones to the My Phone service to preserve data. According to Microsoft, My Phone is currently available in a limited invitation-only beta, despite the fact that two weeks ago there was a public Web site offering the service. That site, however, was promptly taken down.

In addition, Microsoft used Mobile World Congress to unveil Microsoft Recite, a voice search technology for Windows Mobile phones running version 6.0 or later. The software lets users capture, search and retrieve spoken notes and reminders using their voice without navigating through menus or typing text.