About two weeks ago, sitting under the harsh glare of a spotlight that was pointed at an animated fish, nearby a talking moose which, curiously, appeared to have actor John Goodman's voice, I learned all about Windows Mobile 6, the next version of Microsoft's OS for smart phones and PDAs. Yes, we were at "Bugaboo Creek," which is a family-friendly Canadian steak house chain. So what does this have to do with Windows Mobile 6? Not much. And let's be honest: It wasn't even the weirdest place I'd ever had a Microsoft briefing.

Anyway, Windows Mobile 6 will begin appearing in smart phones, primarily, from a variety of service providers and hardware makers, beginning next quarter and throughout 2007. Unfairly characterized in some online reports as "Windows Vista Mobile," Windows Mobile 6 does feature a default theme that's indeed more akin to Vista's Aero UI than it is to earlier Windows Mobile versions. But Windows Mobile 6 doesn't have anything to do with Vista. Instead, it's a logical and desirable upgrade to what was already arguably the smartest smart phone platform around.

That said, Windows Mobile 6 isn't just for smart phones. It will ship on devices in three versions, including Windows Mobile 6 Classic (for PDAs), Windows Mobile 6 Standard (for smart phones) and Windows Mobile 6 Professional (for smart phones with touch-screen displays, similar to the previous Pocket PC Phone Edition). In the future, these versions may simply disappear as Microsoft is working toward one code base for all Windows Mobile devices.

So what's changed aside from some UI niceties? All versions of Windows Mobile 6 get the Microsoft Pocket Office applications--Word, Excel, Outlook, and PowerPoint--for the first time, and each of these applications is significantly updated this time around. For example, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint are more intelligent about round-tripping--where you take a desktop-based document, edit it on the device, then copy it back to the PC--preserving the formatting and styles. These applications also feature more PC-like features for the first time. And Pocket Outlook's email, calendar, tasks, and contacts modules all support Direct Push, so that you can automatically and wirelessly synchronize data with Microsoft Exchange Server. Pocket Outlook also supports HTML email, while the calendar module includes a new Calendar Ribbon that helps you tell at a glance when you're free and busy.

John Starkweather, a product manager in Microsoft's Mobile & Embedded Devices division, also showed me some upcoming hardware devices. Part of the evolution of Windows Mobile is apparently due to the rise in popularity of devices like the Motorola Q and Palm Treo 750, which feature small but useable and always-available keyboards. Previously, the smart phone market was divided between small keyboard-less devices that resemble phones and larger keyboard-enabled devices. With this new type of Windows Mobile-based smart phone (which, frankly, is most likely based on the original RIM Blackberry), the market has exploded, and device makers are responding. You'll see entries from all the standard players, but also companies like HP and Toshiba, which haven't historically fielded smart phones.

Well, I'm out of space as usual, but I'll expand on this commentary with more Windows Mobile 6 features in a showcase on the SuperSite for Windows (http://www.winsupersite.com ) later this week. There's a lot going on in this release, and I want to give it the attention it deserves.

Oh, and if you're wondering, the weirdest place I've ever had a Microsoft briefing was a Sopranos-like affair that happened in the back of a black limousine because the Microsofties I was meeting with thought the coffee shop we were going to visit was too small. And yes, I did twitch a little bit when the doors auto-locked, but I escaped unscathed. See you next week.