"So, what do you think?" asked Microsoft spokesperson Greg Sullivan after Tuesday's event concluded. Before I could answer, he said, "I know. Ship it, right?"
Microsoft first introduced Windows Phone 7 in February 2010. The platform launched officially with actual devices in October 2010, six months later. Microsoft has given itself another six months to ship Windows Phone 7 Mango--which it says will be available on devices starting this fall. That will put WP7 on a yearly schedule for major updates.
Microsoft's WP7 platform, solid as it is, lags the competition by a mile. Microsoft has done a commendable job of building an ecosystem behind the platform, with support from a growing number of hardware makers, network operators, and developers. Microsoft announced on Tuesday that Acer, Fujitsu, and ZTE have all committed to building WP7 smartphones, and the platform will become available in dozens more countries from a wider range of carriers.
Perhaps most impressive, the Marketplace for Windows Phone reached 18,000 applications recently. Its growth rate has been nothing short of astonishing, outpacing Research In Motion and HP/Palm's mobile app stores by a wide margin. It still, however, falls far short of the 500,000 applications in Apple's iPhone App Store and 200,000+ in Google's Android Market.
While RIM and webOS have flagged a bit in recent quarters, Android and iOS are cementing their leadership position both in terms of hardware and software. Both platforms are available on highly capable devices that are appealing to the smartphone masses. Both iOS and Android have had two significant updates since Microsoft first announced WP7, with more updates planned in the coming months.
So why, then, did Microsoft announce Mango six months before it will be available? Momentum and mindshare.
Microsoft had already announced a number of features in the Mango update. It previewed multitasking, IE9, SkyDrive, and other features for journalists during Mobile World Congress in February, and again during its MIX developer conference. There was no real reason for Microsoft to get up on stage a third time and provide yet another song and dance about upcoming features.
The underlying reason for Tuesday's event was the availability of the Windows Phone 7.1 SDK. The 7.1 SDK was made available to developers on Tuesday, allowing them to tap into the 500 new features that Microsoft claims Mango has stuffed inside. By whooping it up at an event in New York City's TriBeCa neighborhood, Microsoft gave itself an opportunity to remind the mobile industry that it matters, that it is there, that it isn't giving up.
Since Mango won't ship for months at the earliest, it is safe to assume that Microsoft and its hardware partners won't be announcing any new devices until Mango is available. With barely a dozen handsets running WP7--most of them aging already--Microsoft badly needs to keep everyone (not just John Q. Public) excited about WP7. To be sure, the new features in Mango are great and will go a long way toward making the platform as complete and feature rich as its competitors.
But the mobile landscape changes daily. Both Google and Apple will have introduced new platform updates by the time Mango comes out, and even RIM's BlackBerry 7 will have made its debut.
Despite all that WP7 has going for it, Microsoft's road to recovery is still a long, steep climb.
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