Microsoft pulled the veil off it's impressive Windows Phone 7 OS yesterday. But the new mobile operating system is not due to appear in phones for awhile. And it casts a long shadow over a whole line of upcoming devices that will use Windows Mobile 6.5, an older operating system that now looks extremely jaded.
Just two weeks ago news leaked out that Sony Ericsson's Aspen phone would the the first to carry Windows Mobile 6.5.3—the latest reworking of Microsoft's venerable smartphone OS, and the first that was tweaked especially to support capacitive touchscreens, for multitouch. And there is a sizable list of other smartphones this year that are supposed to carry 6.5 as well, including smartphones like HTC's HD mini, and the long-awaited Garmin-Asus collaboration Nuviphone M10. WinMo 6.5.3 has a number of improvements in addition to the features in the Aspen, such as a change to the tabs system, a simplified initial setup, drag and drop homescreen icons, a faster and better mobile IE browser, and so on. These are essentially the last in a long list of tweaks, performance adjustments, UI enhancements and improved code that add the final layer of polish to Windows Mobile 6, which was based on WinMo 5, which was based on version 4 and on down the slippery slope of Microsoft legacy software code.
But here's the rub: Windows Mobile 6.5.x, and pretty much all the other earlier versions of WinMo have just been pronounced dead on arrival. Well, not exactly dead as such—but the threat of Windows Phone 7 is hanging over them like a particularly sharp and heavy Damoclean sword. Because WinPhone7 is a paradigm shift of huge proportions for MS, disposing of the years of code that went into Windows Mobile, and starting fresh, with a new software code base, what seems to be limited compatibility with older WinMo apps, a radical new UI, tighter control over the specs of phones that'll be running it—everything, in fact. It's exactly what Microsoft needed to do to compete with the genre-defining iPhone and the slew of new Android devices, in an era when Windows Mobile of old was looking more and more like a dinosaur.
Yet Windows Mobile 6.x.x is going to live on—it has to, there is too much money already invested in that platform for it to go away. It may be rebranded Windows Phone 6 Series, according to an MS spokespersons. It needs to do so, in fact, as we won't be seeing Windows 7 smartphones until later in the year (around Holiday season, in fact). But who in their right mind would buy a WinMo 6 device now? It's clearly an inferior system to the one MS has just revealed, and it's not exactly going to hurt anyone's bank account or phone usage habits to hang on just a few months to buy a Win7 phone, with its infinitely better UI and greater future-proofness. Win7 phones probably won't even cost a whole bunch more, and even if they do, prospective buyers have got a few extra months to save up the cash.
Until then there will be thousands of WinMo 6 phones on sale, from a gaggle of phone makers, sitting on the shelves. Assuming the customer is a smart cookie and has done some Net research on phones to buy, they will sit un-purchased. And those devices will be looking more and more tired too, not just because WinMo phones are very much typical of devices from the pre-iPhone era, but because more new, sleek Android phones will be turning up on a weekly basis. And sometime around June we can expect the next iPhone iteration to occur, bringing a host of new features to Apple's rip-snortingly successful gizmo (we're guessing a faster processor, possibly Apple-made, improved screen tech, better battery life, smarter camera tech, maybe a front-facing Webcam, and more). This device will capture heaps of consumer mindshare, just as the earlier iPhones did, and they'll outsell WinMo 6 devices. MS can take this financial hit, of course, but it'll anger MS's smartphone-making partners, and it'll leave less mental space in the consumer's head for Windows Phone 7 to occupy when it finally launches.
Despite the clear promise of the new smartphone OS, Microsoft is going to have to do a lot of strategic maneuvering in order to placate device makers who will now have to re-think their entire handset roadmap—which right now still relies heavily on Windows Mobile 6.