Windows Mobile phones are seldom considered by people shopping for cell phones. All the attention goes to Blackberrys and iPhones and the latest sexy proprietary devices with flashy screens for the kids. According to one research firm, in the third quarter Apple shipped more iPhones than all 56 device makers that make Windows Mobile phones combined.

Microsoft deserves much of the blame. It developed its OS for phones as a miniature version of Windows, thinking that a Start button would be such a familiar metaphor that people would be attracted to it. It didn’t really work; instead of making the phones seem familiar and friendly, it just made them awkward. The competitors took advantage of the opening to develop operating systems that were better suited for a small device with a small screen. It didn’t help that Microsoft’s best efforts were undercut by the cell phone carriers, who “customized” the phones with even worse home screens and slowed them down with unnecessary and poorly designed programs. (Sound familiar? That’s what kills your new Sony Vaio or HP laptop or other new computer.) Microsoft will eventually release a completely redesigned version of Windows Mobile 7, optimized for a touch screen, but it’s not expected until 2010.

Apple has also had tremendous success with its online store selling applications for the iPhone, giving people an easy way to discover that little tiny computers can do cool and useful things. There have been thousands of programs developed for Windows Mobile phones over the years but it’s never been easy to discover them and sort out the cruddy ones. (Many of them are cruddy. Many of the iPhone applications are pretty stupid, too, but they have that Apple coolness factor that makes people overlook that.)

Samsung OmniaHTC Touch ProThe mundane reality, though, is that Windows Mobile phones work really well with Exchange Server, the technology driving the mail system in businesses running Small Business Server. There are some advantages to syncing directly with Exchange Server even in larger companies that have invested in a separate server for Blackberry’s proprietary server software. Only a Windows Mobile phone can sync email, calendar and contacts over the air continuously with Exchange Server. (That’s not true. Apple licensed the technology from Microsoft and the iPhone can do it too.)(edit 01/21/09: well, maybe. The iPhone implementation is reportedly the teensiest bit problematic.) I can’t promise my SBS users a good experience if they get a Blackberry.

Microsoft will be working to rebuild the reputation of Windows Mobile phones in 2009, with the help of some appealing new models that make it look fresh. In the next few months, Verizon will be getting (edit 01/21/09) Verizon now offers the HTC Touch Pro, with reworked screens and a slideout keyboard, and the Samsung Omnia, with a nicely designed touchscreen. Both are getting high marks from reviewers.

Even more interesting, Microsoft is expected to unveil some new services at a mobile device conference next month, trying to getting Windows Mobile back on track. This article has some details; basically there will be a service to sync calendars and contacts for everyone, not just Outlook/Exchange users, similar to Apple’s MobileMe service, and there will finally be a store that will make it easy to find and install programs.

There may also be an update to Windows Mobile. Screen shots have appeared purporting to be Windows Mobile 6.5, with a distinctive honeycomb design that actually looks pretty functional when you think about it.

Keep Windows Mobile in mind when you go phone shopping. It’s not dead yet.

Windows Mobile 6.5 - maybe

(01/21/09: Thanks to loyal reader Richard Kenyon for the corrections above!)

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