Microsoft's Mango release of Windows Phone 7 qualifies as a Big Deal.
Last week, the company made available the beta software development kit for developers, with production release set for Fall 2011, not quite a year after Windows Phone 7 debuted on the first handsets designed for it. It's likely a new generation of smartphones will be announced then, too, from new handset partners. And Nokia this week
The Mango release is clearly aimed at developers, with 1,500 new APIs giving them more flexibility, functionality, and simplicity in creating a new generation of apps that are more closely linked with each other and with services like search, via Microsoft's Bing. Three developers I talked with find a lot to love in Mango. Overall, they say Mango makes it possible to more easily program apps that are more sophisticated and more complex, with a local database, Background Agents for controlled multitasking, and through richer Live Tiles the ability to literally bring to the surface of Tiles much more information from any app on your phone.
At the same time, all these changes preserve and extend the unique UI architecture and design of Windows Phone, it's critical distinction in the smartphone marketplace. [Check out PC World's slideshow "Windows Phone 7 Mango: a visual tour of the new feature"]One developer I talked with Kevin Hoffman, who has experience with both Windows and Apple iOS programming, notes that in iOS today the "unit of work" is the individual, standalone app. With Mango, Hoffman argues, Microsoft continues to dissolve the barriers between apps (and their attendant functions and information), creating a phone that's genuinely smart.
As Mango makes clear, Microsoft's design focus remains the consumer, but there are some Mango changes that help business users and IT groups.[see "6 changes in Windows Phone Mango target business users"]
Overall, Mango is a solid achievement that shows Microsoft's determination to succeed in the smartphone space. Mango may have been one of the deciding factors in convincing Nokia to scrap its own mobile OS development and adopt the Microsoft OS instead for its future smartphones.
Yet there's no question that Windows Phone handset sales in both absolute numbers and, from what I can tell, in growth rates, lag far behind Android and iOS. And Apple will unveil the details of iOS 5.0 at next week's annual Worldwide Developer Conference. Microsoft's best marketing decision might be to stop marketing Windows Phone, given the abysmal television ads it has cranked out so far. Sometime in Q4 this year, we're likely to see how, or whether, Nokia's gamble can create Windows Phone handsets that grab consumers' attention and dollars.
Personally, I still don't think Windows Phone 7 is too little or too late. The latest numbers from Nielsen show that Windows Phone has only 1% of the US smartphone marketshare, far behind Android at 36%, iOS at 26%, and RIM's BlackBerry OS at 23%. But Nielsen also notes that only 37% of the US consumers own a smartphone, which means over 60% haven't bought one yet.