Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 still faces a long catch-up game against Android OS and Apple’s iOS, but a future update code-named “Mango” with 500 new features that will give Microsoft a real chance of eventually capturing the most smartphone customers. In any case, Microsoft’s aspirations around smartphone operating systems (OS) will never be laughed at again.
Windows Phone 7, the innovative “Live Tiles”-enabled replacement for Microsoft’s stodgy Windows Mobile 6.5, already showed signs of boosting the popularity of Microsoft’s smartphone OS even two months ago.
Now, through the OS 7.1 update Mango, Microsoft’s new operating system is set to get about 500 new features for consumers and businesses, To name just a few, the additions include a state-of-the-art IE 9-based browser with HTML 5, GPS with turn-by-turn driving instructions, Visual Search, Visual Voicemail, and App Connect, for integration between Bing search and third-party apps.
A Nielsen study released in April found that Windows phone platforms accounted for only 7% of all US new smartphone sales in March — as opposed to 50% for Android OS; 25% for Apple iOS; 15% for RIM BlackBerry OS; 2% for Palm/Web OS; and 1% for Symbian OS. However, a similar report by the NPD Group for the final quarter of last year pegged Microsoft’s share at a dismally low 2%.
With lots of intriguing features already unveiled over the past two weeks, and other traits yet to be revealed, Mango is ripe to pull users away from rival smartphone platforms — although how many will make the jump remains to be seen.
Since Mango isn’t slated for release until this fall, it’s also too early to tell how well these features will actually function, or whether the phone OS might get overwhelmed by struggling to support so many of them.
Like the various releases of the Android OS, Mango qualifies as a type of “sweet treat.” Like Apple, Mango is the name of a juicy fruit. Many of Mango’s features are clearly inspired by Android and/or iOS. Yet some of them seem influenced by Microsoft’s larger Windows OS, and others are completely unique.
Here are ten main ways in which Mango will sharpen Microsoft’s competitive edge vs. other smartphone environments, sooner or later.
Mango will sport a unique approach to messaging that seems to draw on Microsoft’s heritage in “unified communications” within its mainstream OS for notebook and desktop PCs.
In Mango’s new Messaging Hub, several different messaging services will get brought together in a single thread. Users will be able to switch between Windows Live Messenger, SMS messaging, and Facebook chat within the same conversation.
Also in Mango, Microsoft will take a cue from Apple by offering its own flavor of Visual Voicemail.
In Mango, Microsoft is about to leverage its own search engine in ways that even Google might envy. Through Mango’s new App Connect feature, Microsoft’s Bing will integrate information from apps in delivering search results. For instance, if you’re searching Bing for restaurants, you might immediately hop from the search results to an Open Table app installed on your phone to make a restaurant reservation.
Also new is the GoogleGoggles-like Visual Search, along with built-in Music Search. Much like the Shazaam app that rolled out first on Android, Music Search is going to identify tunes as they get played.
Unlike either iOS or Android, Microsoft’s phone platforms haven’t supported GPS to date. That will change in Mango.
Another new search feature in Mango, Local Scout, will use GPS to figure out where you are. Local Scout will actually take a step beyond Google’s Local Search by giving you search results that combine this location information with your’ personal preferences
Moreover, right out of the starting gate, Mango will deliver integrated turn-by-turn driving directions, a capability that Apple has pursued for years on end.
4. Live Tiles User interface (UI)
Where Android’s UI is kind of a clone of the iPhone’s, Windows Phone 7 certainly is not. With Mango, Microsoft’s UI will get even more distinctive. Each of the existing hubs will gain cool new features, for instance.
Also, you’ll now be able to do a lot more personalization of Live Tiles, a set of customizable widgets containing information “pushed” out by apps. You can already use it to receive messages as well as real-time information on weather, news, movies, and a lot of other things directly on tiles on your home page, without needing to access an entire app.
In Mango, you’ll be able to create tiles for contacts, assemble those people into groups, and check out their Facebook pages all from your home page. At a press conference in New York City last week, Microsoft used “family, friends in New York, and BFFs in Seattle” as examples of groups you might create.
There’s more, too. Mango will let a single app support multiple Live Tiles representing various parts of the apps. Mango will also allow an app to support both flippable “front” and “back” images, doubling the amount of information display in a single tile.
5. Office Productivity
Android and iOS do support third-party apps like Quickoffice, which are designed for compatibility with Microsoft Office, the suite that might never stop dominating desktop and notebook PCs. With Windows Phone 7, on the other hand, you’ll get the real deal. Mango will include a new version of Office with updated editions of OneNote, PowerPoint, Excel, and so forth.
Meanwhile, business users out on the road will be able to use Office 365 to hook up to the desktop back in the office, for downloading the latest docs on to their phones.
Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 will also make progress in security, an area long the hallmark of RIM’s BlackBerry OS. Mango will add support for complex, alpha-numeric passwords which combine letters with numbers, and for hidden corporate Wi-Fi networks.
In addition, you’ll be able to protect your emails and other docs through Microsoft’s Integrated Rights Management (IRM) technology.
7. Social Networking
Mango’s People Hub will integrate Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Windows Live Messenger, and Outlook into the same space. You won’t need to go outside of the hub to connect to friends on any of these services.
Beyond that, Mango will use Live Tiles in conjunction with integrated messaging to let you engage in one-on-one or group messaging “conversations,” also directly from your phone’s home page.
Developers are voicing excitement over using Mango’s new Live Tiles, social networking, and integrated messaging features to build new kinds of games. Players might exchange Blackjack strategies while simultaneously playing multiple casino games, for example.
New games might also take advantage of Mango’s speech-text-speech technology for listening to text messages aloud and dictating text messages by voice. Underlying these capabilities is improved multi-tasking.
9. Web Browsing
Far before the advent of smartphones, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) spawned contenders that competed on the basis of better agility. Windows Phone’s predecessor, Windows Mobile, was notable for its ugly browser. Currently, WinPho’s mobile browser is better, but it’s based on IE 7. an out-if-date edition of Microsoft’s desktop browser.
Here, Microsoft has definitely learned some lessons. Mango’s browser will use the same core engine as IE 9, adding support for HTML5. Graphics acceleration will be included, too. In an attempt to prove Mango’s faster speed, Microsoft gave a demo at the New York City press event, contrasting a Mango prototype to an iPhone 4 running iOS, an Android OS-based Droid Charger, and RIM’s BlackBerry OS-enabled Torch.
Yet Microsoft should be careful that, despite the coolness of a lot of them, the 500-or-so new features in Mango don’t all add up to a mobile version of Windows bloatware.
Although Mango’s App Connect is quite innovative, it’s not quite clear how many apps will be around to run with it. Adding more apps for Windows Phone will be one challenge for Microsoft, maybe not a massive one, but still a challenge.
Not too long ago, this new operating system came to the competitive table with zero apps — none of the software that developers had created for WinMo 6.5 would work on the new OS, which uses an entirely different code base.
Even now, only 18,000 apps are available for Windows Phone, far less than either iOS, Android, or BlackBerry.
Yet Microsoft seems to keep doing a better and better job of drumming up enthusiasm among developers. Mango isn’t about to grab much interest among some open sourcers, though.
But its sweet new features for both consumers and businesses — along with the long-awaited availability of the first Windows Phone devices on Verizon and Sprint — will spark untold thousands of new apps from other developers.