Microsoft's efforts to regain lost ground in the mobile-phone market will see the company offering two different versions of its operating system next year.
The company will sell Windows Mobile 6.5 to a large variety of handset makers, while simultaneously working more closely with several others to sell devices built on a new version of Windows Mobile that has been several years in the making. So says a source familiar with the company's plans.
While Windows Mobile 6.5 is a fairly interim update to Microsoft's mobile operating system, the company has also been making more radical efforts to overhaul the operating system. Both its plans for Windows Mobile 7 and its long-running 'Pink' project aim to match the kinds of user experiences offered by the iPhone and Android devices, using more advanced voice and touch interfaces and higher-end hardware.
Microsoft needs to do something serious if it hopes to live up to its mobile ambitions. For years now, the company has made only rather modest updates to the Windows Mobile operating system, which dates back to the days of code-powered PDAs and other organisers that were neither phones nor, in some cases, connected to the Internet.
In that same time, Palm has gone back to the drawing board and reinvented itself with the webOS-based Pre, while the iPhone and Android have entered the market. Even BlackBerry maker RIM has arguably done more to capture consumer interest than Microsoft.
Microsoft has been working on Windows Mobile 7 for what now seems like an eternity, especially in the mobile world. The product was supposed to be in phone makers' hands by early this year, but has suffered a number of delays. Officially, the company will discuss only Windows Mobile 6.5 and its plan to start using the 'Windows Phone' brand.
But, in a discussion with reporters earlier this year, the president of Microsoft's entertainment unit, Robbie Bach, stressed the importance of relatively new user interfaces, such as touch and voice.
"Independent of specific plans for any specific product, you should just assume over time that that's going to become part of the products that we produce," Bach said, according to an account in The Seattle Times. "Specific timing and all those things I'll leave aside, but it is a huge trend. And, once you have something like touch or voice to interact with, you wonder why you did it the old way."
Although Microsoft has denied it's looking to enter the handset business itself, it has said it thinks it needs to partner more closely with a few companies in order to produce more competitive devices.
"To date, we haven't done as good a job as I would like in building the relationships and getting the right level of integration," Bach said at the company's financial analyst meeting last month. "Obviously, phones take time to develop, so that won't happen overnight, but you're going to see a dramatic improvement in the integration between what we do in the software and what our hardware partners do on the hardware side."
In a July interview with CNET UK sister site CNET News, Bach acknowledged that Microsoft also just needs to pick up the pace.
"If your point is we haven't advanced Windows Mobile as fast as we'd like, I think the answer is: that's true," Bach said. "You are going to see that change."
Bach didn't, however, say much more about where Microsoft is headed, other than pointing out that the company has made numerous changes to the team working on the product over the last year.
"My view on these topics is: talk is cheap," he said. "The next thing we are going to show people is Windows Mobile 6.5. There's plenty of innovation in the pipeline."