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Windows Mobile 6.5 debuts, gets slots with top three US carriers

On Tuesday, ahead of the CTIA Wireless event in San Diego, Windows Mobile was vying for attention with the Verizon-Google press conference. Microsoft unveiled the first range of phones running Windows Mobile 6.5, and the first carrying its own Windows Phone branding, its latest attempt to increase its impact on the cellphone market outside its enterprise heartland.

On Tuesday, ahead of the CTIA Wireless event in San Diego, Windows Mobile was vying for attention with the Verizon-Google press conference. Microsoft unveiled the first range of phones running Windows Mobile 6.5, and the first carrying its own Windows Phone branding, its latest attempt to increase its impact on the cellphone market outside its enterprise heartland.

Microsoft expects about 30 WinMo 6.5 handsets to launch before year end, though only a few will feature the new brand. Three US carriers and several handset makers, including HTC, ZTE and Samsung, lined up launches for the updated OS.

Most of the details of release 6.5 are already available, though Microsoft will be talking up some key differentiators, such as the enhanced browser, menus that can be navigated with fingertips as well as a stylus, and support for Flash (which will only reach Android in 2010).

Two new services will also launch – the long awaited Windows Marketplace for Mobile, and the full release of MyPhone. Of course, Windows has had a broad applications base for years (and no need for the vendor to approve programs or act as a middleman) but like many vendors and operators, the Redmond giant has felt the need to adopt a me-too model to rival Apple. However, users will still be able to buy and download WinMo apps directly from developers – which suggests Marketplace will be geared particularly to less experienced mobile web users.

The market will initially be available only for 6.5 handsets and then extended to those running releases 6.0 and 6.1. Writing on the official Windows Mobile blog, Todd Brix, director of mobile services marketing, said the second phase (by year end) would “bring the PC-based catalog and shopping experience, user generated app reviews, advanced key-based anti-piracy protection and other enhancements that expand your business opportunity and make it easier for a larger number of customers to find and buy your application.” He said the response from the Windows developer community had been “impressive”, but that the submission process had been slow.

Meanwhile, MyPhone has been in beta release for some while and now adds a ‘Find My Phone’ feature to track, lock or wipe lost handsets. This costs $5 per use, in contrast to Apple’s iPhone finder, which requires a $99 annual subscription.

Though the question of whether WinMo can survive in the medium term will only be answered with the release of the far more radical release 7.0 next year, one researcher is bucking the pessimistic trend. iSuppli said in a recent report that WinMo will triple its volume by 2013 and be a top three OS. Key disadvantages compared to iPhone need to be addressed though, especially support for capacitive touchscreens – expected with release 7.0 (though a capacitive screen is actually promised in the new HTC HD2).

The vendors supporting 6.5 especially have their sights on the US cellcos, which are far more reliant on the Microsoft system than most carriers elsewhere. So AT&T will offer the Tilt 2 – similar to the HTC Touch Pro 2, with a 3.6-inch touchscreen that can be tilted, a large Qwerty keyboard, 3.2-megapixel camera and HTC’s Straight Talk conference calling feature. AT&T also announced the HTC Pure, which has a 3.2-inch touchscreen and a 5-megapixel camera, and is available for $149.99 with a two-year contract and after a $50 mail-in rebate.

Over at Verizon Wireless, the HTC Imagio (previously codenamed Whitestone) is also looking remarkably like the Touch Pro 2, though minus the keyboard. It has a 3.6-inch WVGA touchscreen, HTC’s TouchFlo 3D interface and Microsoft Office Mobile apps. The Imagio is focused on multimedia, with a 5-mp camera and camcorder, access to V Cast video streaming and V Cast Music, and it is the first Verizon smartphone to support V Cast Mobile TV (based on MediaFLO, and at a cost of an extra $15 a month). The Imagio comes with an antenna that doubles as a kickstand for hands-free viewing and it has Wi-Fi as well as EV-DO Rev A, plus a dual-mode CDMA/GSM chipset for international roaming.

Meanwhile, Sprint’s first WinMo 6.5 offering is the Samsung Interpid, aimed at business users and supporting Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and EV-DO Rev A. Like the Imagio it has GSM roaming capabilities and comes with a SIM card to support GSM/HSPA in most main bands.

HTC was the big hitter in terms of carrier WinMo 6.5 launches, though LG is the OS’ most fervent supporter, and Motorola is sitting out the Microsoft OS until release 7.0 appears. Another new HTC smartphone with WinMo is the HD2, its first Windows smartphone with its new-look user interface, Sense. Like most WinMo vendors, HTC has created a more intuitive and simple UI to overlay that of Windows, and this will span its Android platform too. The first Sense phone is the HD2, previously known as Leo, which runs on the 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor (there will also be an Android version). The phone is physically large, with one of the largest touchscreens around, at 4.3-inches, and becomes the latest of a new wave of handsets with superfast gigahertz processors.

The HD2 boasts the first capacitive touch display on a WinMo phone, though it is not clear what performance this will deliver, as native support for capacitive screens is not promised until release 7.0 of the OS. On the software side, the phone comes pre-loaded with HTC Peep, the firm’s Twitter app, and Facebook and YouTube are also included. It also includes a variety of sensors, including a proximity sensor to prevent false screen touches and a light sensor to adjust display brightness. The camera is 5-megapixels and there is Bluetooth 2.1 (but no Wi-Fi), FM radio and headphone jack.

The phone will launch first in Europe, later this month, and then in other markets early in 2010. Initial carriers will include Vodafone Spain and possibly T-Mobile in the UK and elsewhere, and the unsubsidized price will be €649.

Despite all these products for Android and Windows, though, HTC is suffering on the results front. It has been very agile in taking early mover advantage in new platforms like Android and successive Microsoft releases, but this can be quickly lost to bigger brands and the ‘next big thing’ in the fickle mobile phone market, and HTC has posted its fifth consecutive quarter of profit decline, blaming rising competition.

Having had Android to itself for a year, HTC now faces competitive devices from Samsung, Motorola, Huawei and more specialized players like Acer, and LG is set to unveil its own first Google phone this month. These factors helped depress HTC’s third quarter net income, which fell 18% year-on-year to NT$5.76bn ($179m). The vendor was expected to post profit of NT$5.7bn, according to analyst consensus. On July 31, it forecast its first ever annual sales decline, blaming delays in the release of new products – critical for a company that has relied heavily on moving rapidly into new markets, and working closely with carriers.

Third quarter revenue fell 10% to NT$34bn, in line with HTC’s guidance, though that was 17% below analyst expectations when it was issued at the end of July.

In contrast to HTC, Samsung unveiled strong earnings guidance for the third quarter helped by growth in its mobile division, although analysts warned that performance in the current quarter could weaken as the company spends more on marketing and the Korean won continues to strengthen. Samsung forecast a record quarterly operating profit of KRW4.1 trillion ($3.5bn), up from KRW1.48 trillion in the third quarter of 2008. Consolidated sales for the third quarter 2009 are estimated at KRW36 trillion, up from KRW30.27 trillion a year earlier. The company is expected to have sold more mobile phones in the quarter, up from 52.3m units in the second quarter. Samsung will release its official quarterly earnings on October 30. The results forecast from Samsung is the first from a major consumer electronics maker for the quarter and could point to an improvement in consumer confidence.

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