Lots of tweaks coming in the autumn - but can Microsoft tweak mobile users' interest in WP7?
A Microsoft employee demos the forthcoming Mango update to its Windows Phone 7 mobile platformPhoto: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com
Microsoft has shown off some of the new features it will be adding to its Windows Phone 7 (WP7) mobile operating system this autumn.
The update, codenamed Mango and described by Microsoft as a "major release", brings more than 500 new features to WP7, focused on three areas: communications, apps and web.
Microsoft said Mango will arrive on new WP7 devices starting this autumn, while existing WP7 users will be able to get the update for free.
Microsoft also announced three new mobile makers will be bringing out WP7 devices: Acer, Fujitsu and ZTE join Microsoft's existing mobile partners HTC, LG, Nokia and Samsung. Microsoft confirmed there won't be any Nokia WP7 handsets until at least this autumn - saying only that the Finnish mobile giant will be bringing Mango devices to market.
Among the changes Mango will bring to WP7 is the addition of LinkedIn and Twitter to the top-tier roster of web services allowed the deepest integration in the platform, along with existing services such as Facebook and Windows Live. Other social tweaks include a feature called Threads that enables WP7 users to switch between different communication methods - such as text message, IM and email - within a single conversation view, and a Groups feature that allows contacts to be grouped and messaged en masse.
The platform's Office productivity hub will offer document editing as well as viewing. For certain cloud services - such as Office 365 and Windows Live SkyDrive - any changes made will be automatically and "instantly" synced between PCs and WP7 smartphones. "You edit a document or spreadsheet on your PC and it instantly updates on your phone and you see the result on your PC," a Microsoft spokesman said.
IE9 will also be added to the platform with Mango, with some mobile-specific tweaks including a location search feature called Local Scout.
On the apps front, Microsoft showed off a beta version of a British Airways app for Windows Phone 7 - due to launch on 1 June. The beta app makes use of Microsoft Silverlight and XNA to enable a 3D view of an airplane's interior to power a seat-choosing feature, pictured below. The app also plugs into WP7's Live Tiles feature to push relevant info such as boarding gate information and the digital ticket itself out to a tile on the homescreen.
The beta version of British Airways' forthcoming WP7 app includes a 3D seat-choosing featurePhoto: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com
Microsoft said there are now more than 18,000 apps available for WP7. A Skype app will be coming to WP7 after the Mango update has arrived, the company confirmed. Microsoft is in the process of acquiring the VoIP telephony giant.
WP7 remains the new kid on the smartphone block - launched just last autumn, it has so far failed to make significant gains in market share.
Commenting on the Mango update, Ovum analyst Tony Cripps suggested the bundle of new features would do little to help Microsoft with its biggest hurdle: effectively marketing the platform to mobile users.
"It looks like an important update but possibly a difficult one to sell to consumers," Cripps told silicon.com. He said focusing on deeper levels of integration between things is no bad thing. "But nonetheless it's not as straightforward as just saying this phone does Facebook or Twitter or whatever," he said.
Analyst house Gartner described WP7's sales of 1.6 million units in the first quarter of this year as "modest", noting that consumers and operators continued to focus on Google's Android platform.
Ovum analyst Nick Dillon said there are many updates in Mango. "Some of them are quite significant but there's nothing that really stands out. The bigger picture is how they push Windows Phone on the marketing front," he said.
"The first [WP7] build that they brought out was very solid and competent and a delightful user experience. Their issue has been in selling it and really getting that across to customers and explaining to them why they should really buy a Windows Phone over an iPhone or an Android and I don't think they've really been able to distil that down into a simple message... For that reason people have sidelined it, largely," Dillon added.
When it comes to business users, Microsoft also has work to do to make an impact, according to the analysts.
"It's not a front that Microsoft has really pushed very hard even though the first version [of WP7] was quite strong in that area - it had really good integration with Outlook and calendar and contacts. They pushed mainly on the consumer front," said Dillon. "There's still more to do with instant messenger and real-time communications with Microsoft communicator."
Cripps said collaboration via smartphones at the moment is an unproven use case. "So again, there's a sales job to be done here," he said.