Battle of the mobile OSs – can Windows Phone ‘Mango’ do it?

20 Oct 2011

Playing with the HTC Radar today

It’s been a heady week or so for mobile operating systems – first Apple’s iOS 5 rolls out, then BlackBerry’s BBX OS is unveiled, followed by Google’s Android 4.0, ‘Ice Cream Sandwich’. But the one with the biggest battle ahead of it – Windows Phone 7.5 ‘Mango’ – has some (better) explaining to do.

I briefly toyed with one of the first Windows Phone 7.5 devices today, called the HTC Radar. It was smooth, fast and elegant and I had to say I admire the tiled design of Windows Phone’s OS. It has character and some great potential in terms of what you can do with those live tiles.

For months now, I’ve been following the blogs about Windows Phone ‘Mango’ and I was delighted when Nokia today seemed to have recovered some of its fire, with Stephen Elop saying the first batch of Nokia Windows Phones would be unveiled “end of quarter”, which is corporate speak for the devices will be launched at Nokia World in London next week.

Over the last 24 hours, the Windows Phone 7.5 update has been weaving its way around the world, updating phones “over the air.” I wanted to discover what will be the winning features of Windows Phone 7.5 that will knock it out of the park in terms of technology and of course allow Microsoft to bring meaningful competition to the iOS and Android ecosystems.

OS roundup – the latest operating systems:

Apple: iOS 5

BlackBerry: BBX OS

Google: Android 4.0, ‘Ice Cream Sandwich’

Microsoft: Windows Phone 7.5, ‘Mango’

Knock-it-out-of-the-park moments for the Apple iOS 5 include the Siri voice assistant that comes on the iPhone 4S, its new Notification Centre and the onset of iCloud. Google’s Android 4.0 includes nifty new features, such as face unlock and an NFC sharing technology called Beam. BlackBerry BBX will have the new BlackBerry Cascades UI Framework for advanced graphics, “Super App” deep integration between apps, always-on Push services and the BBM Social Platform.

Today, the first Microsoft Windows Phone 7.5 devices based on the HTC Titan and Radar smartphones were launched. Clearly, Microsoft is going after the whole consumer picture via the ‘be fashionable’ route, but technologically speaking, what will make Windows Phone 7.5 compelling to today’s discerning mobile buyer?

For example, if you ask me, Apple’s iPhone is winning because it realised early on that the lines are blurring between consumers and businesses – people will live digital lives that transcend both business and pleasure. That is the key.

So to discover what are the ‘knock-it-out-of-the-park’ features of the new Windows Phone OS to enable it to compete with these other established operating systems, I got on the blower to Microsoft’s Windows Phone man in Ireland David Fitzgerald, who did a decent job remaining calm (he was in a taxi) while I vented.

What’s different about Windows Phone 7.5?

“I think Dynamics (Microsoft’s CRM technology) will land on 7.5 in a strong integrated way,” he said. “And it will complement SharePoint (content management for websites) very well. Office 365 (Office in the cloud) will live and breathe and it will be very easy to use for people who are not tech savvy. A key difference will be the existence of an entire copy of Office (Word, Excel, etc) on these devices.

“Another key has been how we deal with hardware vendors. For us, the minimum processor has to be 1GHz, so it’s all about that consistent user experience.”

In a world where most new smartphone devices come with processors of 1GHz to 1.5GHz and higher, what does that mean really?

“Multitasking! For us this means freezing the last five things you have been doing as background live agents. This means you never stop using the apps. In fact, there are 30 different apps that can pull on the CPU for 15 seconds every 15 minutes. The apps therefore are always on but are not eating into the CPU, which we think is one of the challenges facing Android.”

OK, I’m warming to Microsoft again. That does sound like a knock-it-out-of-the-park technology.

“This means developers can write apps sure in the knowledge of managed multi-tasking. Software like Linc on the device remains active.

“Another feature is that it is self-managing. If an app has been dormant for 30 days, the software kills it.” Sounds kind of Darwinian, but we’re on a roll here.

The next steep hill

I ask him how many apps have been created for the Windows Phone ecosystem so far. “So far, around 50,000 globally, including 160 from local developers in Ireland. The content challenge is the big one.”

Fitzgerald isn’t joking. Rising from 50,000 apps to compete with Apple’s 500,000 apps (and counting) will be no mean feat. But with the onset of Microsoft’s next desktop/notebook/tablet Windows 8, I suspect Microsoft is working to a strategy to address that, if CEO Steve Ballmer’s vision of a golden age for developers is anything to go by.

In addition, if we are really talking about getting consumers to embrace the new Windows Phone 7.5 OS, I think Microsoft should focus on not on fashion as a route to consumer’s hearts but the ace it already has up its sleeve: Xbox 360 and digital media integration.

At the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, I doorstepped executives on the Microsoft stand to get some perspective on the ‘three screens’ vision – phone, PC, TV – and when you consider opportunities with HDMI and wireless – the software giant could knock it out of the park here with its large Xbox customer base. It just needs to join things up faster and get the consumers using it.

“There will be deep Xbox integration, along with deep Facebook integration and LinkedIn integration with your phone book via People Hub. A combination of the graphics processor (GPU) and CPU will lead also to a strong browser experience. Windows Phone devices won’t need to be dual-core because of this CPU and GPU integration,” Fitzgerald said.

In the coming weeks, Nokia’s new Windows Phone devices will roll out, followed by Samsung Omnia devices in November.

While I’m convinced that Windows Phone 7.5 is a thoroughly decent OS with a great opportunity to shine, what Microsoft needs to remember on this occasion is that it only needs to be functional, not fashionable. The rest will follow.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years