The minimum requirements for smartphone operating systems have a tendency to climb with each release, but for its next update to Windows Phone, Microsoft is putting its mobile OS on a diet.
"Tango", the refresh to Windows Phone 7 due some time this spring, has been given the clumsy title of "Windows Phone 7.5 Refresh," since it follows Windows Phone 7.5, a.k.a. "Mango." Microsoft has confirmed that new phones are coming from Nokia and ZTE in the second quarter. Now the company is documenting the limitations for these low-end phones.
Unlike other smartphone OS upgrades that require more and more hardware, Microsoft is slimming Windows Phone down a little, making it work on lower-end hardware and enabling a class of smartphones under $99. Of course, don't think you're getting the same phone and performance as found in the more expensive models. You get what you pay for, after all.
Tango vs. Apollo
The Tango update to Windows Phone 7.5 should not be confused with Apollo, a major update that will apparently ship as Windows Phone 8. Apollo will reportedly significantly raise the hardware requirements for smartphones running this operating system.
Apollo will be used in high-end phones to be released in the U.S., W. Europe, and other more affluent regions. Tango, on the other hand, has been designed for very inexpensive models crated for emerging markets like China and India.
Bring on the Refresh
Whereas the current version of Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango) is designed for a phone with 512MB of memory, the 7.5 Refresh is targeting phones with just 256MB of RAM. That means that certain apps on the Windows Phone Marketplace will be unavailable, since they have specific memory requirements.
Podcast and video podcasts subscriptions will also be locked out because of the low memory available. Bing Local Scout, Microsoft's local discovery service, will also be disabled. SkyDrive automatic photo uploading is disabled, but users will be able to upload to SkyDrive manually.
HD video playback is also disabled on 256MB devices, again, because there is not enough memory for certain codecs. Microsoft has also removed background agents, and multitasking is going to be limited. The fast app switching, introduced with 7.5, won't be disabled, any application that requires more than 90MB of RAM will be shut down immediately upon exit.
It's not all hack and slash for the 7.5 Refresh. MMS messaging has been improved to handle video and multiple images, you can take voice notes of up to one minute in length, SIM contact management is improved and the location awareness services have a new alert icon.
Going for the Bottom
Microsoft is between a rock and a hard place, on the one hand trying to compete with premium smartphone operating systems like iOS and Android, while at the same time it needs to be competitive on price. So it doesn't have a choice but to be in a lower end phone, argues Jack Gold, president of J.Gold Associates, who follows the mobile market.
That said, what does a low-end phone mean in terms of functionality? "If the devices don't perform well like low end PCs, then it will hurt them. It's the netbook thing all over again. If it performs well then it helps them because it dramatically expands the marketplace and it gets them into emerging markets that are very price sensitive," said Gold.
"There isn't much room to cut and memory is dirt cheap these days, but a reduction from 512MB to 256MB can make a difference," Gold noted. If you can cut $4 or $5 from the bill of materials, that translates into $40 to $50 in real user cost savings, which is significant. But we won't know what kinds of phones that will yield until they ship in the second quarter.
Nokia unveiled the Lumia 610, its first smartphone to run Windows Phone 7.5 (Tango), at the Mobile World Congress tradeshow in February. This will have a 3.7-inch, 800 x 480 WVGA LCD and and 8GB of built-in, non-expandable storage.
Microsoft plans to have a "coming out" party for Tango in Beijing on March 21. At this point, it's not clear how many additional smartphones with this new OS version will be announced at this event, if any.
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