There's still no date for Windows Mobile 7, but Microsoft has finally unveiled Windows Mobile 6.5 – and it's dropped the Mobile bit. From this point on, what you're buying is a Windows Phone; look for the Windows logo to appear on handsets.
Windows Mobile 6.5 is an update to 6.1 with a new user interface and a more touch-friendly set of applications – as well as Internet Explorer Mobile 6. It's very clearly an attempt to match the user interfaces of the iPhone and Android; even the BlackBerry Storm and Bold have a better browser than current Windows Mobile phones.
A single interface
But it's more than just a new look and feel because instead of Standard and Professional versions with a different way of working, there's now only one version with one interface.
Alfredo Patron, Microsoft's Director of EMEA Mobility Marketing admits the separate Windows Mobile brands "were not consumer appealing, not a sticky brand". As well as avoiding some of the confusion, he says Windows Mobile 6.5 will "merge two worlds, bringing business space and consumer space in one" and the next release (whenever it arrives) "will take that to the next level".
He hopes the Windows Phone brand will allow stores to display devices together, although it will also put the Windows logo on devices that have very different user experiences, like Sony Ericsson's Xperia or HTC's TouchFlo.
Handset manufacturers will still skin Windows Mobile, but the built-in interface takes a huge step forward too. Turn on a Windows Mobile 6.5 device and you're presented with a very Zune-like experience (with hints of the Media Centre interface in Windows 7).
Clean text replaces the old icon-driven home screen. You navigate through the menus using flick gestures, and like the bubble panes in Windows Mobile 6.1 Standard you can see more details – like your next appointment – or scroll left and right. Choose photographs and you can scroll through thumbnails (again like Media Centre); pick the browser and you get thumbnail favourites.
New Start menu
The new Start menu (nicknamed 'the honeycomb') is a hexagonal display of the applications installed on your Windows Phone (again, more like Standard than the drop-down Start menu of Windows Mobile Professional).
You can scroll up and down the honeycomb to see all your applications, something that's a lot more touch friendly than either style of Start menu. The bundled applications have also had a rework, with the email and messaging client now supporting touch gestures for scrolling through messages, and with a larger, clearer view of message headers.
Attempts by third parties to improve the look-and-feel with a touch interface have always felt bolted on because sooner or later you end up in email or the browser, and that used to mean struggling with a stylus. Not any more.
A better browser
Internet Explorer Mobile 6 is a big step forward from Microsoft's earlier mobile browsers, and (thanks to the built-in Flash components and improved Ajax) can handle most modern websites with relative ease. Zooming in and out is quick and easy (there's no multi-touch but you can double-tap or use the zoom scroll bar), while touch gestures simplify navigation.
The browser controls are finger-sized buttons but you can easily hide them for full-screen browsing. Microsoft says it's been benchmarking its browser against others, and that it's found that more users complete tasks like choosing seats for a flight in Internet Explorer Mobile than in other mobile browsers.
Windows Mobile 6.5 needs fairly powerful hardware, although Microsoft hasn't released the full specification. Upgrades will certainly be possible on suitable devices if manufacturers and operators choose to offer them. We saw a beta version on a Sony Ericsson Xperia and several of the handset manufacturers announcing Windows Mobile 6.1 devices at Mobile World Congress are promising upgrades - including HTC with its new handsets.
And while you won't be able to get Internet Explorer Mobile 6 for earlier versions of Windows Mobile, you will get it with an upgrade to 6.5. "You cannot remove Internet Explorer Mobile 6 from 6.5," promises Patron.