Microsoft has come under fire from the tech press and blogging community for its lackluster Windows Mobile 6.5 release. But this smartphone OS is a work in progress, and subsequent updates that should ship with new devices by the time you read this should close the functional gap with industry darlings like the iPhone and Google Android. (Windows Mobile already offers decent competition for RIM's BlackBerry systems, in my opinion.)

Here's what you need to know about Windows Mobile 6.5 and 6.5.x (as of press time, the version number hadn’t been finalized, but I'm hearing it might simply be called 6.5.3) and why I don't think it's time to write off Microsoft in the mobile space quite yet.

A Functional New Front End
Windows Mobile 6.5 shipped on a handful of devices in October 2009. The 6.5 release was a direct follow-up to Windows Mobile 6.1, and although Microsoft now admits it wishes it had had more time in which to develop 6.5, the company did what it could given the short development time. Windows Mobile 6.5 offers the following major changes.

Multi-touch. Windows Mobile 6.5 supports touch and multi-touch natively and includes several front-end interfaces, described below, that assume this style of interaction (in lieu of the old-fashioned stylus-based interface that older Windows Mobile versions were based on). However, its touch support is literally only skin deep. If you navigate into the UI, you run into screens and interfaces that date back to the earliest days of the Pocket PC and aren’t touch friendly at all.

New lock screen. The Windows Mobile 6.5 lock screen by default displays the date, time, and the next meeting or other scheduled item in your calendar. But it also surfaces various types of notifications as they arrive, and these notifications—missed calls, voicemail, text messages, and so on—appear individually on the screen, each with its own swipe-able unlock button.

So if you'd like to unlock the screen and go right to text messages, new email, or whatever, Windows Mobile 6.5 provides a way to do so. This feature is missing from the iPhone and is actually a big usability win for Windows Mobile.

Today screen. The Windows Mobile 6.5 Today screen features an attractive and useable design that evokes the "crossbar" UI from previous Windows Mobile versions as well as related products such as Zune and Windows Media Center.

It features large, text-based menu items that are finger friendly and elegant. These items—Getting Started, Phone, Voicemail, Music, and the like—support full touch gestures with realistic onscreen effects such as menus that slide and bump when they stop moving. So you can stop on any item, then scroll left or right, just as you could with the Windows Mobile 6.1 Today screen, but by using a flicking motion.

This excellent and proven UI lets you access more of the functionality of your phone directly from this single interface, preventing deep dives into hard-to-find and unfamiliar locations. I like it, and as with the Lock screen, it's a nice innovation for which Microsoft gets little credit.

Start screen. In Windows Mobile 6.5, Microsoft finally retires the pulldown Start Menu and replaces it with a full-screen Start screen that, like the new Today screen, is more finger friendly. It provides access to all of the applications installed on your phone, plus the usual assortment of utilities and system folders, and it minimizes the need to dive into the interior of Windows Mobile, where the UI hasn't changed.

Soft menus. In keeping with the touch-friendly nature of 6.5, Microsoft has also updated the look and feel of the context-sensitive soft menus. The Today screen, for example, provides soft menus for Contacts and View. If you receive a phone call notification while using the phone, you'll see the View and Dismiss soft menus.

Improved Internet Explorer. In response to the iPhone's desktop-like Safari browser, Windows Mobile 6.5 includes a new Mobile IE version that uses the rendering engine from IE 6 for Windows. It supports Flash Lite, which the company says lets you complete almost 50 percent more web tasks than with the Flash-less iPhone Safari, and it features a nice, get-out-of-the-way UI.

By default, you'll see a single, circular (finger-shaped) button in the lower right of the screen. Tap it and four menu buttons—Back, Favorites, Keyboard, and Search—appear. Let go and they fade away. IE 6 Mobile can render sites in either their mobile (default) view or as a desktop browser would, and you can change this behavior on the fly if you run into a site that's not rendering correctly.

Looking Beyond 6.5 to 6.5.x
Before it delivers Windows Mobile 7, Microsoft will deliver two interim updates, both tied to device releases, which will complete the Windows Mobile 6.5.x series of updates and provide a more cohesive experience for users.

Capacitive screen support. Windows Mobile 6.5 devices that shipped in October 2009 and shortly thereafter came with lackluster non-capacitive screens. They force the user to push harder on the glass to scroll items, and often cause icon click misfires. Microsoft added capacitive screen support in the first post–6.5 update, and the first device to include this support, the HTC HD2, is available. The change is stunning: Windows Mobile devices that utilize a capacitive touch screen are much easier to use.

Full touch interface. Windows Mobile 6.5 offered elegant touch interfaces only on surface screens. Starting with the second generation of 6.5 devices shipping in the first half of 2010, more UIs will be as touch friendly as the surface UIs.

Unfortunately, most users with existing Windows Mobile 6.5 devices will not be able to update to newer versions of the 6.5.x software because of the complex relationship between the device makers, wireless carriers, and Microsoft. Check with your wireless carrier or device maker to see whether your device will support updates.

Recommendations
Windows Mobile 6.5 had too many functional holes to recommend it, but subsequent updates make this release more competitive with iPhone and Android handsets, not to mention existing business-related features already present in Windows Mobile. When you combine these features with new multi-touch capabilities and a capacitive screen-based design, you've got a winner.

There's no reason to wait for Windows Mobile 7: Windows Mobile 6.5 is already up to the task, assuming you get a device with the latest software. But I'd skip the first-generation software from late 2009, unless you prefer non–touch-screen devices.