With Mango, can Windows Phone 7.5 compete?

The Windows Phone OS update is only part of the equation. It'll go nowhere without killer hardware, carrier support, and piqued developer interest.

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As of this morning, Microsoft and its partner carriers have begun pushing the 7.5 Mango OS update (review) to the first wave of Windows Phones .

The question on everyone's lips isn't so much if the more than 500 changes to Windows Phone OS will satisfy current Mango users; they will. It's a good release, on one that proves Windows Phone is maturing, however gradually. With it, Microsoft will continue to keep its current customers. After all, that set is already committed to the platform, at least for another year or so until their contracts expire.

The more crucial point is whether Microsoft's new and improved OS has charm enough to draw new takers, especially those from the legions of Android who may be curiously casting sidelong looks at Windows Phone . In that we're much less certain.

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Operating System
We said it in our hands-on review : Mango is a good update. It adds many new, useful features and expands upon others that are already there. Besides that, Windows Phone itself has a certain elan. The Metro UI, as the brightly colored, pleasantly blocky interface is known, is clean and straightforward. The way information is organized liberates us from the clone-y sameness of tiny icons in grid formation.

Microsoft thought out of the box when creating a few new features and did a good job integrating others directly into the OS, like barcode scanning, song ID, and automated playlist creation in the music library. Not all of these are of Microsoft's own invention, but not all of them need to be. Most importantly, they need to make the Windows Phone experience satisfying and full.

However, there are specific problems with the way some features were implemented, and still others are lacking. Voice-to-text isn't always reliable, for instance, and the Start screen is still not supported in landscape mode. Microsoft bought Skype , but an integrated VoIP app is still missing.

While simplicity can be a virtue for navigating around, it can also be a drawback. Microsoft's lock on OS customization means it loses people who want to heavily personalize their phones. There's no rooting the OS to install a third-party ROM, an activity that has attracted a faithful Android following. It doesn't have native support for many popular Google services, some of which (maps) compete with Microsoft's own properties. The visual design is its most important and best feature; besides that, there's no real ace-in-the-hole to set it apart.

Apps
Apps are crucial to the platform's success , and right now, they're just not there. Yes, Microsoft has had an uphill battle starting from scratch with Windows Phone. Yes, they've grown to 30,000 apps in just a year. Yes, Microsoft assiduously checks the top iOS and Android apps for Windows Phone parity. They'll need to continue seeking out top corporate developers (like Electronic Arts and Yahoo) while winning over independent developers who have little time and few resources to devote to developing.

Yes, they'll get there. But they may always battle the perception that they're behind, and at the cash register, perception is 90 percent of the sale.

Hardware
On top of software is the issue of hardware. Windows Phone OS has yet to power a killer phone, and it's hard to lust after a handset that hovers in the middle of the pack.

Only two that have been announced will run on a "4G" HSPA+ network ( Samsung Focus S , HTC Radar 4G ). None has a dual-core processor. Only a handful have front-facing cameras (like the Omnia W and HTC Radar 4G, both unveiled this week).

True, there's still Microsoft's Nokia alliance, and we've imagined the kind of stellar hardware a Nokia Windows Phone would contribute. But as we've said before elsewhere, Microsoft needs a steady stream of strong hardware choices to complement its mass market handsets. It works for Android, which is just as synonymous with super premium models as it is with the basics.

CNET's concept of the 'Sea Ray' Nokia-made Windows Phone
Josh Long/CNET

What does it need? High build quality. Two cameras. A fast dual-core processor. 4G. Respectable battery life. Without at least a few high-end phones to bear its name, Windows Phone will never be perceived as a platform capable of prestige.

What about tablets?
Beyond the smartphone, Microsoft needs tablet success to grow Windows Phone. Windows 8 has already taken steps toward a more unified system with its optional Metro UI, and it's too soon to say if this will succeed as a unifier or confuse people who don't understand why their desktop and phones should or could have such different operating systems.

Every other major mobile OS maker has attempted a tablet, and that tablet has--for better or for worse--bridged the mobile ecosystem across devices. Microsoft will not only have to partner with a manufacturer capable of creating a sellable tablet, it will also have to boost its OS enough to make its app store, music, and other features operate equally well on both devices. What's more, they'll need to collaborate across systems to make the whole OS greater than the sum of its parts.

Carriers
Here's another problem: getting that flagship phone (or tablet) is easier said than done. Winning over the carriers will take time, since operators want assurance the platform will sell before buying a bulk phones for which they're then liable. AT&T and T-Mobile have the most phones. Sprint and Verizon have one Windows Phone apiece, as does U.S. Cellular. The CDMA-versus-GSM technology is a contributing factor, surely, and Microsoft has so far favored the more globally accepted GSM. But in order to get carrier and manufacturers to negotiate the range of prices that will lure curious shoppers, Microsoft will need carrier ubiquity, and the carriers' dollars in subsidizing costs.

On the other hand, carriers appreciate hardware and software diversity in their lineups, so they're cautiously open to Windows Phone (even Android was slow to start). Microsoft needs to continue courting them. Where there's carrier demand, manufacturers will follow, and even try to influence hardware design.

Advertising
Since the beginning, Microsoft could have done more to sell Windows Phone , a truth that various people working on the project have admitted to CNET. The previous ads don't often explain the platform's strengths or make a case for why consumers should buy into it, and TV product placements feel cheesy and overstated. Microsoft needs to spend more time investing in the OS with consumer events and ads, and get its carrier and manufacturer partners to join them. Motorola and Verizon's excellent Motorola Droid campaign did a standout job differentiating Android from iPhone. Microsoft needs that, too.

HTC Titan
HTC Titan HTC

Who can it beat?
Windows Phone won't topple Android or weaken iPhone anytime soon. Android is currently enjoying a healthy chunk of the U.S. market share , and a long summer of pent-up iPhone 5 lust will turn into cash register love once Apple unveils a shiny new iPhone 5 on October 4 and whips up iPhone fervor once again. In the meantime, new Android devices emerge almost daily, and folks already anticipate the next flagship phone .

It's the role of the third player that's still there for the taking, if Microsoft makes the right moves. RIM's BlackBerry is stagnant and troubled, Palm--no, HP's-- WebOS is as good as dead , and Nokia has axed Symbian to hop into bed with Windows Phone, a point in Microsoft's favor.

A WebOS failure and BlackBerry obsolescence bode well for Redmond's momentum, but not for the platform itself. To gain ground, Microsoft must win customers who are switching from feature phones to smartphones, or who aren't completely enamored with their current platforms. Because of Apple's closed ecosystem, Windows Phone won't win any iPhone followers who use Macs at home. Microsoft must carve a slice from Android's pie.

Microsoft's next step
With Mango, Windows Phone is one step closer to market maturity. The update makes Windows Phone a more powerful OS, but not a commanding one. The hardware and software currently limit what you can do, which makes the OS best suited for people who aren't interested in much more beyond the usual on their phones. That's absolutely fine. Smartphones should first and foremost be a utility, but that attitude alone locks Microsoft into competing with mid-tier Android phones, and it's better than only that.

We've pointed out Microsoft's weaknesses, of which the company is no doubt already painfully aware. With the next installation, Windows Phone will have to prove itself as strong as Android; in some places, stronger.

It won't be easy, especially since through it all, Windows Phone must maintain its own identity. The pinnable and widgety live tiles and blocky throwback look are a great start. Now add to it other fresh, out-of-the box ideas, and simple but strong connections to other Microsoft properties--like new ways to use a phone with Xbox and Kinect, or neat home or tablet networking, and you're cooking with gas.

What's absolutely certain is that the grace period is over. Microsoft's next step after Mango will be its most crucial yet.

 

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