Talking with Microsoft about its mobile future

With 2009 looming on the horizon, the biggest question mark in mobile software is Microsoft. With competitive pressures mounting and rivals like Apple, Google and Nokia generating the lion's share of attention and buzz, it seems everyone has an opinion on what Microsoft is or isn't doing, what it should do instead and why. The biggest questions facing Microsoft in the year ahead: Where is Windows Mobile 7? When will the company introduce a virtual storefront to market and distribute WinMo apps? And how can it more effectively leverage its scale and experience to reassert its position in the mobile marketplace?

On Monday FierceDeveloper spoke with Jay Roxe, group product manager for Windows Mobile, who played his cards frustratingly close to the vest. "We're not announcing any roadmaps or future products," Roxe said in response to my question about the status of WinMo 7. "We have a lot of engineers working to innovate in the Windows Mobile space. We continue to innovate on the platform and the tools themselves, but we're not making any announcements at this time." Likewise, Roxe was mum on the rumored mobile applications store, reiterating that Windows Mobile apps remain available to consumers via retail partners including Handango and Motricity, as well as some wireless operators.

So what could Roxe talk about? Last week, Microsoft announced the availability of emulators and documentation for its new Internet Explorer Mobile 6 browser, promising a mobile web experience that more closely resembles conventional desktop browsing. Highlights of IE Mobile 6 include enhanced Script and AJAX support via JavaScript v5.7 engine, an improved multimedia experience thanks to the addition of Adobe Flash Lite 3.1, deeper integration with search tools, touch and gesture support, and multiple zoom levels. "We're giving the customer access to a very rich browsing experience on the phone," Roxe said. "Even in cases where there is no mobile optimized site, people can still surf the vast majority of the Internet and get a rich experience because we licensed Flash Lite." Microsoft has released the Internet Explorer Mobile 6 Emulator for developer download; Roxe said the browser will appear on Windows Mobile devices before the end of the year.

Roxe also stressed the opportunities that Windows Mobile presents for Microsoft's developer partners who've previously focused their efforts on other platforms. "A lot of developers are Visual Studio users, and we're looking to be able to take their Windows and web skill sets to help them develop for mobile devices," he said. "We're in uncertain economic times, and the idea of leveraging your existing staff and resources is coming across very well." Towards that end, Microsoft recently revamped its Windows Mobile Developer Network resource portal. "It's important for developers to have a single point of contact for all the announcements we make, like new technologies and mobile technologies launched by different divisions of the company," Roxe said. "All of Microsoft's major product teams are looking at what the mobile space holds--you can expect to see a number of announcements in that area." The Windows Mobile Developer Network portal will also connect visitors to best practices documents, developer conference information and related resources.

For everything about Microsoft's mobile outlook that remains hazy, Roxe made it clear that the company's relationship with the development community is central to its plans. "It's important to remember that given our market share and our experience with the programming environment, there are a lot of developers with skills applicable to Windows Mobile, and we're looking at what we can do to nurture those relationships," Roxe said. "We will continue to do innovation in this space--we've become very engaged in the mobile space. In the year ahead we're going to see tremendous growth from Windows Mobile." -Jason