Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 (WP7) OS garnered good reviews upon introduction, but thus far, WP7 phones made by HTC, Samsung, LG, and Dell haven’t sold very well. Some speculate that’s because of poor marketing and/or lack of enthusiasm on the part of the wireless carriers. Others think potential buyers are waiting for the first WP7 phones from Nokia, which has committed to making Windows Phone its principal platform. While these are undoubtedly factors, many of us have held back on adopting WP7 because of all the features, considered standard on Android, iPhone, and other platforms (and even on its own predecessor, Windows Mobile) that are missing in action in WP7 v1.
Recently the company unveiled its first major update, code-named Mango. Which of these critical deficiencies will it fix? Will it be enough to pep up sales? And which important shortcomings does it fail to address?
What Mango brings to the table
Mango is still in the testing stages and won’t be available on phones for at least a few more months. A launch date hasn’t been announced but most industry pundits are predicting an autumn release date to compete with the iPhone 5 (expected to be out in September) and Android holiday offerings. According to Steve Ballmer, Mango includes more than 500 new features. But how many of those really matter to users?
The user interface
The distinguishing feature of the WP7 interface — which is being carried over to the next version of the Windows desktop operating system — is Live Tiles. These are more useful than icons because they can provide updated information about the apps they represent. Tiles have been improved in Mango, with tile notifications now supporting two-sided application and secondary tiles. Tiles pinned to the start screen flip periodically, making them more animated and more informative, and an app can have more than one tile pinned to the start screen (for example, if you want a tiles for weather information in two locations).
Multitasking at last
Mango does address one of the most often criticized shortcomings of WP7 by adding multitasking support. Multitasking, along with the ability to copy and paste, were two basic “missing” features that Microsoft absolutely had to include as quickly as possible in order to be competitive. (Copy and paste was added to WP7 via its first minor update, “NoDo,” released in March).
Even though the first version of the iPhone didn’t multitask, either, WP7 came out of the gate competing with iOS 4, which supports multitasking. Android users already had the feature, and perhaps more important, those coming to WP7 from Windows Mobile were used to having it. And even though some would argue that multitasking doesn’t matter on a handheld device, and even that it causes more trouble than it’s worth, it was important for Windows phones to be able to check off that box in a features comparison list of the major phone platforms. The challenge was to be able to implement multitasking without draining the battery and using up all the memory. Here’s a video that explains how multitasking works in Mango.
What does it mean to the user? You can now run audio apps in the background, with music continuing to play when you launch other apps, or start a file download that continues after you navigate away to a different app.
In my opinion, the email client was already one of the most impressive things about WP7. Its version of Mobile Outlook is clean and easy to read and navigate. I like the one-line preview of the message below the subject line, the large font used for the sender’s name, and the ease with which you can switch from all contents of the Inbox to unread, flagged, or urgent messages. The WP7 mail client is shown in Figure A on the left, in comparison with the HTC Droid Incredible’s email client on the right.
Mango makes WP7’s already good email client even better.
Mango adds several improvements to the email experience:
- The Inbox shows mail from multiple accounts on one page (universal Inbox).
- You can view conversation threads, like you do in Outlook 2010, and expand or collapse them.
- You can view all communications between you and a particular contact, including not just email but also SMS, Windows Live, and Facebook communications.
- Text-to-speech feature that reads incoming messages and speech-to-text for composing or replying to messages.
- You can set up two tiles, one for your work email account and one for your personal account.
All of these features will make it much easier for on-the-go professionals to use email more quickly and effectively. I’m excited about the speech recognition integration, which helps solve the problems that arise from the small size of the keyboard and screen on a phone.
A better browsing experience
WP7 shipped with the mobile version of Internet Explorer 7. Mango adds IE 9, which will offer some of the same benefits as the desktop version of IE 9, including HTML5 and CSS 3 support, as well as hardware acceleration for graphics that will enhance performance. In fact, tests have shown Mango’s IE 9 outperforming Safari in iOS 4 and possibly iOS 5 as well. It reportedly doesn’t have Flash and Silverlight support (at least, at this time).
Mango changes the look of the browser, moving the address box from the top of the page to the bottom. The three soft buttons that were at the bottom of the browser window (Add Favorite, Favorites, and Tabs) are gone, giving you more room for the display of the web page. The address box no longer disappears when you switch to landscape orientation, so you can still enter addresses when you’re in landscape mode.
Brian Klug over on AnandTech put the mobile IE 9 browser through its paces and shares the results of performance and standards compliance testing in this article. His conclusion: IE 9 makes big improvements to the web browsing experience.
Developers, developers, developers
The added features and functionality discussed above are aimed at enhancing the user experience, but the success of Windows Phone will ultimately be closely tied to the apps available for the platform, and that means Microsoft has to woo developers. No matter how much users want a particular app, developers can’t deliver it without the necessary APIs. Mango adds new APIs that will allow for development of additional types of apps:
- VoIP and video chat apps that need direct access to the network.
- Apps that need local SQL CE databases.
- Apps that need direct access to the camera or gyro.
- Apps that need (read-only) access to contacts and calendar information.
The Windows Phone 7.1 Developer Tools provide for a great deal of new functionality. Apps will be able to use TCP and UDP protocols to communicate over sockets, enabling two-way communications with cloud services or multi-player gaming. Developers can also use Silverlight and XNA in a single app instead of choosing one or the other, and Visual Basic is available for both Silverlight and XNA Framework apps. Cryptography APIs allow apps to store login credentials in encrypted form so that users don’t have to log in every time they use the app.
Developers will also be happy to know that apps that work on Windows Phone 7.0 will continue to work on Windows Phone 7.1 devices.
How to make it even better
We all have our own priorities and private wish lists for features we’d like to see added to Mango (or the following update). Even though I’m impressed with some of the improvements, I’m disappointed that a couple of deal-breaking problems still haven’t been addressed. Before I can commit to a Windows Phone as my primary handheld device, it must have:
- Tethering capability. This is vital. When I travel — or on the rare occasions that my home Internet connection goes down — I need to be able to connect my laptop and/or tablet to the Internet using my phone’s data connection. There’s no compromising on this one.
- Access to the full file system from my computer. I hate the requirement to use Zune to transfer files between phone and PC, just as the requirement to iTunes was a deal-killer for me when I considered an iPhone. I can plug my Android phone into the computer via USB and access its files in Windows Explorer. I could do it with my old WinMo device, too. That’s what I want — no, that’s what I require — from a Windows phone.
There are other features that would be very nice to have, but those are the biggies. Once we get that out of the way, we can focus on making a pretty and usable interface even more so. Many of the things I’d like to see wouldn’t be difficult at all to do. Why do we have so few (and such ugly) color choices for the tiles? Why in the world can’t we set a background picture behind the tiles? Heck, some folks would even like to see the Aero UI on Windows phone, and a couple of things I really miss a lot when going from a Droid to a Windows phone are the notification bar at the top and the all-important fourth button (the menu button). Take a look at how one creative high school student envisions a more attractive look for Windows phone.
Microsoft has a reputation for not really getting any product right until the third try: Windows 3.x, IE 3, and many more. Progress is made incrementally, but it’s not until that magical v3 that things really come together. In one sense, Mango is v2 of Windows Phone (as opposed to Windows Mobile). It’s the first major update to the completely redesigned OS. It goes a long way toward making Windows Phone more competitive with iPhone and Android, but it doesn’t go quite far enough to win me (and many other Windows fan) over. I’m hoping the third time will be a charm, and the next major update — running on slick new Nokia hardware — will have all my “musts” and more so I can finally say I’m “all in” with Windows Phone.
Do you think Mango will put Microsoft back in the smartphone game? Post your thoughts in the discussion.