Microsoft upgrades Windows for handhelds

The next version of Microsoft's flagship desktop operating system won't see release for at least another 14 months, but a new edition of the Windows Mobile OS for handhelds and smart phones is much closer to arriving. Windows Mobile 2005 (previously known by its code name, Magneto) should make its debut around September, both in new devices and in for-pay upgrades to at least some existing Windows Mobile 2003 models.

The first major upgrade in almost two years, Windows Mobile 2005 offers improvements ranging from support for flash memory (which won't lose data when your handheld loses power) to more capable versions of Microsoft Office apps and a Windows Media Player upgrade. For enterprise customers with Exchange Server 2003, Microsoft has also announced an upgrade pack with instant messaging, synchronization, and security features.

We'll know more when we test devices running the OS (Dell and HP have said they will offer the upgrade to owners of certain Windows Mobile 2003 devices sometime this summer, but have not said how much it will cost). But on paper at least, the upgrade seems promising.

The Office changes should please people who've been frustrated by the rather haphazard formatting support for Excel and Word in their Pocket Office counterparts in earlier incarnations of Windows Mobile. Now known as Excel Mobile and Word Mobile, the new versions will allow you to create, edit, and view Excel spreadsheets, and to edit Word documents with graphics without disturbing the formatting of the original desktop documents.

Outlook Mobile makes it easy for you to add a photo to a contact and then sync it to a desktop copy of Outlook (which has supported contact photos for a couple of years). A new PowerPoint Mobile application lets you view and rehearse (but not edit or create) PowerPoint presentations.

Windows Mobile 2005 ships with Windows Media Player 10, which includes Microsoft's Janus digital rights management technology for playing copy-protected content from music and video services such as Musicmatch, Napster, and TiVoToGo.

In addition to supporting flash memory, Windows Mobile 2005 supports landscape displays on smart phones and improved one-handed navigation on handhelds -- reflections of Microsoft's commitment to making the phone and PDA versions of the OS more consistent. Also new: support for 3G networks and Wi-Fi on smart phones, plus the ability to easily enable technologies such as push-to-talk and videoconferencing. The OS also enhances support for Bluetooth (you can use it for stereo headsets, for example), USB 2.0, and integrated hard drives -- items that will appeal to people who want to transfer lots of digital music files from PCs to their handhelds.

Finally, Microsoft says it has improved security, including making Active Sync more hacker-resistant, supporting more-secure remote access features, and allowing users to limit Web access to secure sites. If it all works, Windows Mobile 2005 should be an upgrade worth getting.

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