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Windows Phone upgrade plans: First Tango, then cash

Leaked plans suggest Microsoft will first target low-end smartphones with an OS release called Tango, with more advanced features to follow by year-end 2012.

Microsoft plans to target inexpensive smartphones with the next release of its mobile operating system, and won't add more advanced features until a software release slated for the fourth quarter of 2012, according to a leaked Windows Phone roadmap obtained by the Web site Wmpoweruser.com.

The next iteration of the software known as Tango will be out the door in the second half of 2012, the leaked plans reportedly indicate. By Q4, Microsoft plans to roll out its next big upgrade, known as Apollo. This update will provide features such as dual-core devices, near-field communications, and HD screens. It will also focus on business-related features.

The roadmap plans are "up to date as of October 2011," which of course means that Microsoft may have changed them already. The timing of the releases is somewhat unclear. The leaked roadmap lists Mango for release in the fourth quarter of 2011--but Mango began shipping on devices in September. Also, it's believed that Microsoft partners such as Nokia will begin releasing lower end Windows Phone devices in the first half of 2012 instead of the second half.

In any case, it looks like Microsoft is targeting the most price-sensitive customers with Tango, as it tries to provide devices with "the best prices." To some degree this makes sense, given that Microsoft sees itself as the platform for people who are buying their first smartphone.

But competing at the low end is difficult, especially with Google Android already aggressively addressing this market with several devices that sell for $50 or less with a two-year contract. Android has also even managed to address the prepaid market with devices that are just over $100 without a contract. What's more, Apple offers its older iPhone 4 for $99 and the 3GS is available for free with two-year contracts.

The Apollo release will target "competitive superphones." Hopefully, for Microsoft's sake, the company won't wait until the fourth quarter to roll out this software. If it does,Windows Phone may already be too far behind the competition.

While the current version of Mango offers a ton of enhancements, the software is still missing support for devices with dual-core processors. And it also doesn't yet support 4G LTE. Meanwhile, Google has been offering 4G LTE support an dual-core phones for several months. And its devices also support bigger screens.

There are indications that Microsoft's actual timeline may not match up with the supposed leaked roadmap. Microsoft's major partner Nokia has already mentioned that it will be using less expensive chipsets in upcoming devices to address the lower-end of the market using the Windows Phone software. And a top Nokia exec has also stated that upcoming releases of the Windows Phone software will support more advanced features like NFC, which will enable mobile payments, in mid-2012.

The big question for Microsoft and its Windows Phone platform is whether it can gain enough traction to compete effectively with Apple and Google. So far, Microsoft's performance has been mediocre at best. Even though the release of the Mango software was a huge improvement over the previous version, Microsoft hasn't gained much market share.

That said, Microsoft is rapidly expanding its app store, with more than 50,000 apps in the Windows Phone Marketplace to date. Apps for Windows Phone still lag way behind those in app stores run by Apple and Google. But Microsoft is adding more new apps at a quicker pace than Android did at the same stage of development.

Microsoft is banking on Nokia and its other hardware partners to make a big splash in the U.S. in 2012. Nokia, which launched the first of its Windows Phone devices in Europe, is expected to make a slew of announcements for its Windows Phone smartphones at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. In addition, to lower-end smartphones, the company is also expected to include 4G LTE into its Windows Phone products.

Separately, Engadget reports that Microsoft may be looking to improve backup and restoration technology on Windows Phone devices. Microsoft, apparently, has posted a job opening on its Windows Phone Backup, Migrate and Restore team for someone who can help "ensure that no matter if someone loses their phone, drops their phone in a lake ... a user can quickly and seamlessly get their phone back to a good state."