But that was four years ago, and honestly, not much has changed, at least not what most people would notice. Yes, push mail has been vastly improved since then, threaded SMS is here, Office 2007 file formats are supported and there are a host of other features that make life easier for the IT department when it comes to configuring and securing the device.
From a user interface standpoint though, you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between the four year old WinMo 5 device and a fresh WinMo 6.1 device. Well, actually, it might be pretty easy because many of Microsoft's partners have stopped waiting on MS to freshen the OS and have added their own UI. HTC is the most notable with their TouchFlo interface that is finger-friendly. You'd be forgiven if you didn't even realize you were using Windows Mobile.
The Wall Street Journal had an article yesterday going over some of the key issues Microsoft has to deal with. According to the article, RIM commands 48% market share with its Blackberry family of devices and the phone upstart Apple has 19% share with its single phone model, the iPhone. Windows Mobile is hanging tough with 15% share in third place. Third place in the smartphone market is nothing to sneeze at, but it isn't where Microsoft is used to sitting, and it hasn't done itself any favors by allowing WinMo to appear to stagnate these last few years.
The competitive situation is getting worse too. Google's Android and Palm's WebOS are new to the scene and will take share from Microsoft if the software behemoth cannot reverse the trend. A point the article makes that I thought was interesting was that Palm's WebOS is expected to have 8% share in five years. That number is lower than what I would have expected. Can a company survive on that when it is 100% of the business?
Microsoft hasn't been sitting still these last few months. WinMo 7 has been discussed for over a year, but it is taking longer than originally expected. Much longer. WinMo 6.5 is being released to tide people over. I am not sure how much of the inner workings of the OS have been changed, and not sure how much needs to. WinMo is a stable and secure platform, though it can be a bit sluggish on some devices where a manufacturer has skimped on RAM or processor speeds. What it has done is totally revamped the user interface. The start menu is more finger friendly and the home screen looks nothing likes its predecessor, especially with some of the themes available for it.
Microsoft is also launching the Windows Marketplace for Mobile application store hoping to repeat the success Apple has had with the Apple App Store though it continues to mystify me as to why existing WinMo 6.0 and 6.1 devices won't be allowed to shop there.
Of course, WinMo 6.5 is viewed as a stop-gap measure until WinMo 7 ships, which is supposed to be in 2010. WinMo 7 is supposed to be where all of the fun begins with finger friendliness throughout the UI for touch screen devices, and device updating should be more like upgrading an iPhone instead of the situation most users are in today with a WinMo device, which is, what you bought is what you get and upgrades generally aren't made available from the carrier.
The WSJ article suggests that much more is at stake for Microsoft than just mobile phone share. This isn't a separate platform isolated from its Windows desktop platform. It is inextricably linked to it. Smartphone sales will soon outstrip PC sales now that Apple has set the bar really low with a $99 entry point for an iPhone. People that have never owned a personal computer will likely own a smartphone in the next few years if they don't already. Instead of losing to Linux or OSX (not likely in the PC world), Microsoft may lose its Windows dominance to the iPhone, RIM and Android.
Microsoft's partners aren't making it any easier. The WSJ article points out that partners like Motorola and Palm are looking in other directions besides Windows Mobile.
Not all is bleak for Microsoft. WinMo 6.5 devices should start shipping soon and the platform has generally received good reviews. It won't be enough to materially affect Apple's share numbers, but it should inject "Windows Mobile" back into the smartphone conversations in the media. HTC remains a stalwart partner, even though they are dabbling with Android handsets. WinMo 7 will ship in the near future, though maybe not before yet another revision of the iPhone comes out, something that has become a summer event. We'll likely see a few new Android devices between now and then and it is likely the Palm Pre or other device running WebOS will be on other carriers besides Sprint.
MS is pouring a ton of resources into Windows Mobile, yet it still has to reverse its momentum in the market while its competitors seem to be firing on all 8 cylinders already.