Windows Phone 7 has not made a much of a dent yet in the worldwide smartphone market — it has less than a four percent share worldwide, according to the latest figures from Gartner — but Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) is still moving full steam ahead in its push to carve out a space in mobile. Today — after a number of smaller previews that started back in February — it finally unveiled Mango, the latest release of its operating system, which has no less than 500 new features compared to the current version of the service.
mocoNews was on hand at one of the launch events, in London, and had a chance to catch up with Achim Berg, Microsoft’s VP of marketing for the Windows Phone, as well as a few analysts, to ask about some of the new features, and some of what was left out:
— Skype: Disappointment for those of you expecting some interesting integration related to the big news of two weeks ago — Microsoft’s purchase of Skype for $8.5 billion. The internet telephony company didn’t get so much as a mention during the event today. In fact, the only reference to Skype was in the form of a small icon in a sea of other app icons (a new app, it turns out). Was it too early to hope for something?
“Until the regulators approve the acquisition we won’t be saying even a word about Skype,” Berg told me.
— Native integration: As Microsoft had previously said would be the case, there is a lot of close native integration of other Microsoft services, such as XBox 360 and Bing. The OS has gone big tying services to the cloud, allowing users, for example, to view presentations created on a PC, save them to the cloud, edit them on the handset, and automatically update the main file.
There’s also a lot of social networking options worked into the core OS — for example, a person can now integrate his Facebook or LinkedIn (NYSE: LNKD) calendar with his main WP7 calendar.
— New apps, new features: Berg trumpeted the fact that Microsoft now has 18,000 apps in its app store: “Soon we’ll have more than RIM.” But not quite as many as Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) (who apparently reached 500,000 approved apps today).
More importantly, perhaps, is what Microsoft is trying to do with its apps. It’s trying to integrate them more with the smartphone experience — for example by letting people go to searches directly from the apps — and it is adding in some pretty spectacular extras features. One that was demonstrated was a walk-through of a new British Airways app that featured a very smooth, virtual-reality simulation of the inside of an aircraft for users to choose their seats.
The mobile web experience, too, was as quick as you would expect a native browser that supports HTML5 to be.
— Geographical footprint: This is, apparently, going to increase four-fold with the launch of the new OS. New geographies will include Brazil and China, which will all now have local language support. But will Microsoft go far enough to speak to these new users?
As Martin Garner, director of mobile internet at CSS Insight pointed out, Microsoft needs to take that further: “It needs to integrate with many other social networks,” he said. “That’s a key step. We know people use local social networks in countries like China and Brazil, and it will disappoint a whole chunk of users if they can’t get them. But that’s true for most phone vendors, that’s not a Microsoft failing exclusively.”
— New OEMs, new price points: Nokia (NYSE: NOK) is not Microsoft’s only new handset partner. Others include Acer, Fujitsu and ZTE. These, Berg told me, will go a long way towards developing handsets at lower price points than those WP7 devices currently on the market today, and will be a key part of the company targeting developing markets.
It was important for Microsoft to announce new OEMs today — many had thought that its partnership with Nokia would effectively make it impossible to cut deals with other OEMs. Not so, said Berg. “If anything, the Nokia partnership has lifted the ecosystem and made it more interesting for everyone else,” he claimed.
Will anyone give WP7 the same marketing push as Nokia will, though? That’s been a big problem for Microsoft up to now, with handset makers like Samsung and HTC throwing much more weight into their launches of Android devices than their WP7 products.
— Can there be too much here? This was my big question of the day. Think of how you use Microsoft Word. A million features, yet only a handful are ever utilized by the average person. These new devices do a lot — and promise a lot — but will want it all, or use it all?
Ben Wood, another CSS Insight analyst, disagreed. “In the smartphone space you can never have too many features,” he said. “This is such an insanely competive area that this is what you need.” Indeed, given that the OS won’t go live for another three months — which is a long time in today’s market — what looks up to date today could look dated tomorrow.
“Right now, Microsoft presents a competitve challenge to iOS but with the widely rumored next generation iPhone, it’s impossible to tell. I can tell you that Apple will not be standing still.”