Oct 23 2007

Working With Mobile Devices in Windows Vista

Personal digital assistants and smartphones powered by Windows Mobile are common devices even in the smallest enterprise. Managing and supporting such devices can be a headache for IT departments. If you’ve ever used or supported a PDA, you’ll be familiar with ActiveSync, the standard application for synchronizing data between portable devices and desktop/notebook computers.

ActiveSync has changed little over the years, with a somewhat archaic interface and questionable reliability at the best of times. So what does Windows Vista have in store for PDA users? ActiveSync is gone and has been replaced by Windows Mobile Device Center. But what are the new utilities in Vista for working with mobile devices, and how has the experience changed from ActiveSync?

There are two main components in Vista for working with mobile devices. Windows Mobile Device Center (WMDC) — not to be confused with Windows Mobility Center — is the replacement for ActiveSync. It supports Windows Mobile-powered devices (Windows Mobile 2003 and higher), providing support for Windows Mobile 6-specific features. Although WMDC was supposed to be part of Windows Vista, it wasn’t released to manufacturing until February 2007, several months after Vista’s RTM.

Figures 1 and 2

Sync Center is a central hub where users can view all synchronization partnerships for a given machine — for instance, Offline Files, Windows Mobile devices and MP3 players (Figure 1). Sync Center itself does not provide synchronization capability for Windows Mobile devices; for this, you must use WMDC. If you want to change synchronization settings for a Windows Mobile device using Sync Center, it will redirect you to WMDC. You should note that WMDC is for Vista only, but is not installed by default; Sync Center is provided out of the box, and ActiveSync cannot be installed on Vista. Sync Center provides users and support professionals with a log of successful synchronization attempts and conflicts for troubleshooting purposes (Figure 2).

The Setup Experience

Is the combination of Sync Center and WMDC less painful than ActiveSync on Windows XP? Yes and no. The setup experience with WMDC may vary depending on the mobile device that you’re using.

Let’s start by connecting an IPAQ rx1950 (a common device) with a USB cable, powered by Windows Mobile 5, to Vista. Disconcertingly, nothing happens. Vista doesn’t even acknowledge that the device has been connected. Open Sync Center: Click the Start menu, type sync and press ENTER. This is where you can view all mobile devices that Vista has successfully recognized. No devices are listed under Set up new sync partnerships.

To install WMDC 6.1, connect the mobile device and download drvupdate-x86.exe from: www.microsoft.com/windowsmobile/devicecenter.mspx

Double-click the file and accept the license agreement. The installation process automatically creates rules for Windows Firewall (all profiles). Although there is no explicit instruction to reboot the machine after WMDC installation has completed, you should do so if you still experience any problems with Vista recognizing the mobile device. Connect the device and WMDC will open. If the device already has a PIN code set, you’ll have to enter this before you can establish a sync partnership with the device.

Working With Windows Mobile Device Center

Figures 3, 4 and 5

To create a partnership using WMDC, the device must be connected using a cable. Once the partnership has been established, it’s possible to synchronize using Bluetooth. Connect the mobile device.

  1. You’ll be presented with a registration screen where you can choose to receive free content and help from Windows Mobile and to add an icon to the desktop. Click Don’t Register.
  2. The device should now show as Connected (Figure 3), and you can select Set up your device to create a sync partnership.
  3. Select the content you want to synchronize and press Next (Figure 4).
  4. Give the mobile device a name (IPAQ 1950 in this example) and press Set Up.
  5. You’ll be taken back to the WMDC Home screen (Figure 5), and synchronization will start automatically for the first time.

WMDC can connect to a mobile device and perform certain functions (add/remove programs and browse files on the device, etc.) without establishing a partnership. This is useful for users who don’t make regular use of a PDA and don’t want to be pestered by the Sync Center. Just click Connect without setting up your device.

You can enable mobile devices to receive data connections such as SMS/MMS messages while WMDC is synchronizing data by selecting the Allow data connections on device when connected to PC option in the Connection settings dialog under Mobile Device Settings.

WMDC allows you to browse the file system, including any additional storage cards, without having to transfer files to the desktop or notebook. You can browse files by selecting File Management from the Home screen and then Browse the contents of your device. Windows Media Player 11 will also recognize mobile devices and additional storage cards, providing easy transfer of media files.


To enforce password policies for mobile devices, you’ll still need to use Exchange Server 2003 SP2 with Windows Mobile 5.0 Messaging and Security Feature Pack or Windows Mobile 6. If Exchange Server is configured to authenticate with certificates, WMDC supports certificate enrollment for Windows Mobile 5 and 6, albeit through different procedures.

If your company uses Windows Server 2003 Rights Management Services, WMDC can activate Information Rights Management (IRM) on Windows Mobile 6.0 devices. If the Windows Rights Management Client (which is installed by default on Vista) is configured, you can enable IRM support on a device by selecting Activate Information Rights Management under Mobile Device Settings. Enter your user name, password and domain, and click Activate.

Pin Lock remembers the PIN for each mobile device so users don’t have to enter their PIN code every time a mobile device is connected. To enable Pin Lock in WMDC:

  1. Select Mobile Device Settings > Connection settings.
  2. Check Allow automatic device authentication and click OK.

Unlike ActiveSync, it’s worth noting that once WMDC is installed on Vista, it can be automatically updated via Windows Update.

With Sync Center, Windows Mobile Device Center, Windows Mobility Center and the Windows Mobile 5.0 Messaging and Security Feature Pack, you could be forgiven for being a little confused about all the technologies involved in the mobile device space. The key to mobile device configuration in Vista is understanding the different purposes of Sync Center and WMDC, as it won’t be obvious to the average user that Sync Center doesn’t provide all the functionality they need to synchronize their mobile device with Vista.

Once WMDC has been successfully configured to synchronize with a device, the results are more reliable than with ActiveSync, and configuration is streamlined through the updated user interface. Unfortunately, the setup procedure for some mobile devices appears to be less reliable than with ActiveSync. Despite this, WMDC provides a more reliable and graceful experience for users and support staff alike.


CEO Takeaway

Windows Mobile Device Center (WMDC) is the replacement application for synchronizing data with mobile devices in Windows Vista. WMDC provides a better user experience than ActiveSync and supports functionality specific to Windows Mobile 6.

• WMDC 6.1 can be deployed across a network using Systems Management Server.
Password policies for mobile devices are still only supported with Exchange Server 2003 SP2.
Synchronization of HTML e-mail is supported with Windows Mobile 6 only.
WMDC only supports synchronizing Microsoft Office 2007 OpenXML documents to Windows Mobile 6.
• WMDC has to be installed in addition to Vista’s Sync Center.
• WMDC is automatically updated through Windows Update.


Russell Smith is an independent consultant based in the United Kingdom who specializes in Microsoft systems management.