Windows Phone in 2011

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer this week provided a keynote address at Mobile World Congress and gave some insight into the company's plans to update its Windows Phone OS this year. There was precious little in the way of true news, if you've been following the rumor mill, but the talk was still interesting because it was the first time the software giant had formally acknowledged some of these upcoming new features and services.

And let's face it: Windows Phone users needed some reassuring, and badly. Since launching Windows Phone 7 last October, the software giant has been mostly silent, promising that a limited first software update would be shipping anytime now. But now we know: Update 1 will ship in the first half of March.

What Ballmer didn't explain, however, is the reason for all the delays. My sources tell me that Update 1 was actually finalized back in December (this explains why it's so limited in scope) and that the reason it's been delayed ever since is because two or more wireless carriers have chosen to block the release. Why, I don't know. But this was the great broken promise of Windows Phone, that carriers wouldn't be able to do this. And it's already happened.

As for the contents of that first update, we knew some of this already, but Update 1 (or "NoDo," or "No Donuts," as it's called internally) won't be fixing many bugs or adding many new features. We're getting a limited form of cut and paste (only in text box controls), improved application performance (and launching performance) and better Marketplace search capabilities (which are, in the initial version of the software, almost useless). And that's about it.

Well, there is one other piece: NoDo includes the CDMA network support that is required for Windows Phone 7 to launch on Verizon Wireless and Sprint networks here in the US. And that will happen by the end of the first half, Microsoft tells me.

Of more interest is the major update Microsoft has scheduled for late 2011. This update, codenamed "Mango," consists of many, many functional upgrades, I'm told, and I had previously reported on the features Microsoft officially revealed this week. That this represents only a portion of Mango is, of course, what makes it so exciting.

What's in Mango, at least the bit we know so far?

True multitasking. Mango will enable third-party apps to multitask under Windows Phone 7, something that only the built-in apps can do today. The user experience looks pretty seamless, and it features a webOS-like app switching UI that's reached by holding down the Back button. There are also some interesting related capabilities that are part of this, such as the ability for third-party audio apps to keep playing in the background (hello, Pandora and Last.FM) and for third-party apps to support background content downloading.

Twitter integration. One of Windows Phone's most vaunted features is its deep integration with online services. There's just one problem: While developers have created over 8,000 standalone apps for Windows Phone so far, none have created any compelling integrated services, at least not to my knowledge. So in Mango, Microsoft will integrate Twitter into the People hub, just as it did with Facebook in the first release.

Office app integration with SkyDrive. One of the curious limitations in the shipping version of Windows Phone is that while it offers seamless cloud storage integration with SharePoint 2010, it does not offer similar functionality with Windows Live SkyDrive. (Well, mostly. Actually, OneNote 2010 Mobile does do this, but the other Office Mobile apps don't.) With Mango, consumers will be able to collaborate, store, and share their Office documents via SkyDrive using Windows Phone 7.

Internet Explorer 9. The desktop version of IE 9 will ship this spring, bringing hardware accelerated, standards-based web rendering to the PC. But this fall, Microsoft will extend this browser to Windows Phone as well. And it will work just like the desktop version, in some ways, offering hardware-accelerated rendering (thanks to the device's built-in GPU) and the same standards-based rendering engine.

There's more, no doubt, but that's what we know so far.

I do have one final thought, however. You may recall my contention a few weeks back that Microsoft should simply abandon the consumer market because, in part, the speed at which it moves is far more closely aligned with that of its business customers. With Windows Phone, Microsoft is following this same trajectory, and while consumers are rightfully miffed that it will take the company almost six months (!) to ship its first software update for the platform, this is exactly the kind of speed business customers appreciate.

Just sayin'.

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