Commentary

Smartphones Get A Little Smarter

The Wall Street Journal tells us that the upcoming release of Microsoft's Mango OS for mobile devices announced yesterday "dials up the phone wars." The long-anticipated upgrade, which some reports speculated might be delayed until next year, will be available to existing users for free in the fall. It focuses on improving the communications and Internet experience and Microsoft hopes it will encourage developers to release more applications.

With more than 500 improvements, Mango is taking a "people-centric" approach, according to the head of the company's Windows Phone division, Andy Lees, who also points out there are now about 18,000 apps available in the Windows Phone Marketplace.

ComputerWorld's Matt Hamblen says that Microsoft demonstrated about 20 of the 500 ways Mango is better than Windows Phone 7 but he boils it all down to three reasons why consumers might bite:

  • Mango is running a very fast, full-desktop version of the IE9 browser, not a mobile variation;
  • It utilizes something called "quick cards" that enable users making Bing searches to get quick summaries of relevant information, including related apps. In a demo, Microsoft product marketing manager Derek Snyder took a photo of a book, which launched a quick card that gave reviews and places where the book could be purchased online. Snyder then tapped the Amazon Kindle app and downloaded the book.
  • It will have an updated version of the Office suite with new versions of Excel, One Note and PowerPoint, as well as fully integrated Skyping and Xbox Live gaming capability.

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IDC analyst Ramon Llamas tells Hamblen that Mango might not convince dedicated iPhone and Android fans to switch, but it could attract millions of first-time smartphone buyers to try Windows Phone. Microsoft's smartphones accounted for only about 8% of the U.S. market in April, according to comScore, well behind Google (33%), RIM (29%) and Apple (25%).

The Los Angeles Times technology blog reports that Mango will also "let users search for restaurants and businesses in their immediate area, perform voice-based Web searches, identify music playing in their surroundings, and switch back and forth between applications."

Microsoft's strategy, David Sarno observes, seems to be to create its own version of popular features that other companies developed months, or years, ago and build them directly into its browser.

Microsoft announced a $1-billion deal with Nokia in February in which the Finnish company will adopt the Windows phone system for many of its upcoming handsets. ZTE, China's second-largest network equipment maker, says it plans to launch smartphones based on Mango in Europe in the third quarter of this year, executives tell Reuters. Microsoft also has partnerships with Acer and Fujitsu, Matt Warman reports in The Telegraph, in an "effort to get Windows Phone in budget markets" worldwide.

But analysts are "skeptical" about the release. Ovum principal analyst Tony Cripps tells Warman that "Mango will provide a worthwhile upgrade for both existing and new users of Windows Phone" but that it "still lacks the potential for customization and brand differentiation that some manufacturers are looking for."

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal's Amir Efrati and Robin Sidel report that Google is expected to release details tomorrow about its near-field-communication technology, which allows consumers to make store purchases, redeem coupons, and get loyalty points by waving their by Google's Android smartphones in front of readers at checkout counters.

Participating retailers will include Macy's, American Eagle Outfitters and Subway, according to a source. The system will provide retailers with more data about their customers and help them target ads and discount offers to users near their stores, Efrati and Sidel write.

Bloomberg News, which broke the story, says that the technology will be available on phones from Sprint Nextel and that the service will be introduced in five cities -- New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Apple is planning similar technology for devices running its mobile OS. ISIS -- a joint effort of AT&T, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile USA -- plans to roll out service in test markets in early 2012, Olga Kharif and Greg Bensinger report.

Dialing for dollars, indeed.

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