It’s hard to miss the news: Microsoft is releasing a “major” update to its still-infant Windows Phone 7 operating system in the fall of this year. Everyone with a Windows Phone 7 will get the new software for free. The update is indeed major by any measure…Microsoft claims there are over 500 new features. While the vast majority of these 500 are small, a big handful of them aren’t so small. For a recap, take a look at what’s hot with Windows Phone 7 Mango.
Yesterday, Adam and I got some hands-on time with Mango. We had a look at the neat UI for multi-tasking which takes a WebOS-like approach to flipping through your open programs, we got a preview of the improved browsing performance in IE9 (which has the possibility to reign superior in terms of speed over any other mobile browser), we dove into the many redesigned hubs, we marveled at how the updated Bing app could intelligently scrape the web for data with an array of different queries, we saw the innovative Threads feature which solved the problem of communication overload with IMs, texts, and picture messages in various places. But even with such a robust new feature set, there’s still a big problem. I’ll get to that later.
Windows Phone 7 is an impressive operating system. I remember the first time I saw a screenshot: it was back at Mobile World Congress in 2010. Those of you who follow the smartphone industry closely might remember that a banner was unsheathed, and beneath it was a picture of a phone running an operating system with a strange, blocky homescreen. We had expected something different from Microsoft, but not something THAT different.
And being different is what Microsoft needed to do in mobile. The paradigms of Windows Phone 7 are refreshingly consistent: information at your fingertips on the start screen; “hubs” can centralize information and stop the “hunt and peck” for apps that characterizes most other smartphone experiences; menu systems don’t get in the way; Microsoft’s key assets like Office, Xbox, and Zune are deeply integrated. Microsoft has remained true to these paradigms.
We’re also very excited for Microsoft’s plans with Skype’s integration into Windows Phone. Imagine Skype becoming a true open standard for video chat. FaceTime was supposed to be open, but Apple never followed through on its promise. What we now have are devices that can’t talk to one another with video chat.
In addition to software, the hardware story could get very interesting for Windows Phone 7 come fall, which is also quite exciting. We’re going to see a fresh wave of devices from all the brands you know and love. Don’t expect multi-core chips just yet, though, as Microsoft is likely to re-tool the OS to take the most advantage of multiple cores in the future. We’re likely to see faster-clocking CPUs, more RAM, front-facing cameras, and better displays with the new wave of WP7 hardware in the coming months. Oh, and don’t forget Nokia.
But gosh darnit, there’s a big flaw with Windows Phone 7. It’s the same exact flaw that killed Windows Mobile 7 Photon: timing. Think about it. If Mango were released today, it would bring Windows Phone 7 up to speed with other smartphone options, and them some. When Mango gets released in the fall (and the many delays with pre-NoDo and NoDo don’t leave us feeling confident about Microsoft’s ability to release updates on time), we’ll have not only a new version of iOS from Apple(5), but also Android from Google (Ice Cream Sandwhich), both of which are likely to have dramatic improvements over the previous generations. And once again, Microsoft will have to play catch up in their next release of Windows Phone, which, sticking with a one-year cycle of major releases, takes us all the way to fall 2012. Ouch. The smartphone industry is the fastest evolving segment of consumer technology. Microsoft is an extremely large company with a thick hierarchy of divisions, workers, and systems, so it’s no wonder they have trouble keeping up and being agile.
At the end of the day, Microsoft might not be selling that many Windows Phone 7s, and their timing might be off by a good six months (which has the potential to severely damage adoption of Windows Phone 7 going forward), but they’re sticking with the platform for the long term, just as promised. They’re making meaningful iterations to a product that is truly different in a sea of sameness (apps, apps, apps). They’re on the right track, but they need to speed things up.
What do you think?