Windows Mobile 5.0 - formerly codenamed "Magneto". and launched this week - consolidates Microsoft's strength in the mobile area, with additions that will add to its appeal for business users, consumers and software developers. The biggest omission is the lack of Blackberry-like "push" email.

A commanding player
The big picture is good - good enough for Microsoft to feel comfortable reminding us of its humble beginnings in the mobile area: "Five years ago, we had three OEMs and a low market share," said David Hooper, marketing manager for mobile and embedded devices. "Now we are shipping a million devices a quarter. We have 40 device makers, 68 operators in 48 countries, and 18,000 applications."

With Windows Mobile established on both phones and PDAs, Microsoft is sensibly following the market, and shifting its emphasis towards phones. It has, however, added features that will make better PDAs and better phones, and help developers work for both.

The first device to run it will most likely by a 3G phone with Wi-Fi, made by HTC, which features a keyboard that rotates and folds flat like a small tablet device.

New features

  • Persistent storage
    Based on Windows CE 5.0, the operating system now has persistent storage on both phones and PDAs. The fact that PDAs lose data when you switch them off has been a drawback compared with smartphones. "That's an improvement over Pocket PC [Microsoft's previous PDA OS]," said Hooper. And it has spin-off benefits: because it hasn't got to use so much power maintaining memory, devices will save 30 percent of their battery life.

    The device can also support hard disks, and USB 2.0 should make it quicker getting data on and off the local storage.

  • Better apps
    The mobile versions of Office applications like Excel and Word now display more like their desktop counterparts - and Mobile PowerPoint now joins their ranks.

  • Better synching
    Corporate users will approve of the improvements in synchronising, and in delivering new software to devices.

  • Wi-Fi enabled smartphones
    Services to use the combination of Wi-Fi and cellphones are not yet developed, but Windows Mobile now has Wi-Fi support.

  • Voice commands
    Windows Mobile devices will be able to read emails, and read out the details of next appointments. This is an optional download that costs money, but "it will be useful in the car," said Hooper.

  • Phone displays
    Perhaps the most obvious change is a display that looks more like a regular phone. A grid of icons gives access to often-used applications. Hooper points out that this can be customised by operators using XML, to stamp their personality on the phone.

What's in it for the enterprise and developers?
There were two applications that most excited Hooper and his colleagues: the ability to grab and crop photos to make Kylie wallpaper, and the power to watch Desperate Housewives on the move, and have.

Despite the inevitable consumer bells and whistles, there is plenty for IT managers to like. Those with a fleet of devices will be pleased with the ability to upgrade software across the air.

Even the consumer-oriented features could get a business edge, if developers take up new application programming interfaces (APIs) which give access to things the camera and voice functions. "With the API exposed, developers can build photos into applications, perhaps adding customers' photos to CRM applications for instance," said Hooper.

Mobile workers should find they get better "round-tripping" of documents - that is, the ability to work on documents on a handheld devices, and hand them back to colleagues in a state that is useful on a desktop. For instance, Excel Mobile can now produce charts.

Why didn't push hasn't come to shove?
The lack of "push" email is a drawback, as it leaves the company unable to compete directly with the likes of BlackBerry, Good and Visto. Unlike BlackBerry users, Windows Mobile users don't get emails instantly; they arrive when they next synchronise, either with a desktop system, or over a wireless network.

The company has plans for push email in a version of Exchange due later this year, but for now, said Hooper, "the architecture is still synchronisation."

Microsoft's delay is intriguing. It leaves a large hole that the company could surely have filled by now, but doesn't worry analysts unduly. "They're late, but I don't doubt that they'll get there, and typical of Microsoft, once they do get there, competitors probably should watch out," analyst Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies told the Seattle Post Inquirer.

Visto is capitalising on the delay with a press release that says, in effect "nice OS, shame about the push." The company praises the new features, and prommises: "Visto is already working with both mobile operators and a number of leading device manufacturers to bring to market a push email solution based on Microsoft Windows Mobileä 5.0."

Good Technology has a similar release out for its push email and application access technology, with an endorsement from Microsoft included: “Good Technology delivers additional value to enterprises using Windows Mobile with GoodLink and GoodAccess,” said Chris Hill, group product manager for mobile devices at Microsoft.

Microsoft is keen to imply that its delay will allow it to leapfrog beyond the likes of Good or Visto, but rumours suggest it may be more down to lawyers. The area is rife with patent-infringement lawsuits, particularly from Visto, and reckons that Microsoft wants to be sure its product is safe from litigation before launching it.

Without push, attention is focussing on Active Sync. It has been extended with the ability to synchronise media files, images and the like - adding images to contact files in both copies of Outlook, for instance. It also synchronises over Bluetooth.

One limitation has not been lifted: Active Sync can still only handle one connected device at a time - an issue for the surprising number of people running both a smartphone and a PDA. Active Sync works best if you leave your device cradled while you are at your desk, so it is synchronised when you leave - if you have two devices, which do you cradle?

Naming conventions
Finally, Microsoft changed its naming convention, choosing Windows Mobile 5.0, instead of Windows Mobile 2005. Hooper claimed this would in some way make things less confusing for users.

A consistent Microsoft strategy is to use the word "Mobile", instead of Pocket or Smartphone: Pocjet Word has changed into Word Mobile, for example.

Watch out, competitors
While Microsoft is still behind Symbian in smartphones, sheer volumes of Windows Mobile products shipped will close the gap. When it gets push email, its position will get even stronger.