At the Mobile World Congress (MWC) trade show in Barcelona one year ago, Microsoft executives announced the company's plans to deep-six its aging and incompetent Windows Mobile system and replace it with a new mobile platform called Windows Phone. The message at this year's MWC is about updating and improving that new platform.
Which makes sense, since Microsoft released Windows Phone in an incomplete and buggy state in its rush to market last fall. And yes, the announced updates, which will ship throughout 2011, are sorely needed. But, unfortunately for Microsoft, the competition is moving forward at a much faster rate.
But don't complain to Microsoft's Steve Ballmer. For the increasingly out-of-touch CEO of a slumbering super-giant, Windows Phone has made such remarkable progress in its first year that the company plans to move just as fast in 2011.
"The past year was fast-paced," he claimed during his MWC keynote address Monday. "Very fast paced ... I think it's fair to say that 2011 will be at least as fast-paced, if not more so, as 2010."
Don't blink, or you might miss the progress. The first minor update to Windows Phone is now due in the first half of March, over four months after Windows Phone 7 launched. But before Microsoft employees start high-fiving each other to celebrate their speed to market, I'd remind them of two inconvenient truths. First, Microsoft Corporate Vice President Joe Belfiore, on the day after the US launch of Windows Phone 7 launch in early November 2010, told me and other tech reviewers that the company would "ship a compelling update very, very soon." We took that to mean "sometime that month" or possibly "by the end of 2010," and not "over four months later."
Second, when Apple shipped the first iPhone back in 2007, it delivered four major functional updates to the platform in its first four months and announced plans for further updates, which it then delivered over the subsequent few months. Microsoft, if it hits this new schedule, will simply deliver one. And it hasn't exactly been transparent about what's going on, and why the first, very limited, update is taking so long to come to market.
My sources at the software giant tell me that Microsoft's wireless-carrier partners have in fact delayed this first update, which has been finished since December. Why the company has done so is unclear, but Microsoft also revealed—at the November reviewer's workshop alluded to above—that the carriers were able to block such releases; we were assured they would not do so.
Beating up on Microsoft for being slow is, if anything, too easy. And it would be cheap as well if this first update was going to be substantial enough to silence the critics. It won't be. The first Windows Phone update (code-named "No Donuts" or "NoDo") fixes a surprisingly small number of issues in the platform and adds only a few new features, including limited cut-and-paste support, application launch and runtime performance improvements, and a desperately needed change to Marketplace search that will finally allow the filtering of results. This update will also enable CDMA network support, allowing Verizon and Sprint to begin selling Windows Phone devices. And that's about it.
Of far more interest is the coming major update, code-named "Mango," which will ship in late 2011. Like the first update, Mango will be "free for all Windows Phone 7 users." Unlike the first update, Mango will be a big deal, and has been described to me as what Microsoft would have liked to have shipped as Windows Phone 7 if it felt it had more time to get to market.
We don't know all the details about Mango yet, but at the MWC keynote on Monday, a few features were discussed and even demonstrated. These include multitasking for third-party apps (built-in apps already multitask) with a nice new webOS-like UI, Internet Explorer (IE) 9 Mobile with hardware-accelerated, standards-based web rendering, integration between Office Mobile and Windows Live SkyDrive, Twitter integration with the People hub, and—more vaguely—some integration between Windows Phone and Kinect, Microsoft's motion sensor for the Xbox 360.
These features all seem valuable, though it's unclear why something as basic as Twitter integration needs to wait for late 2011. (This feature was once planned for the initial version of the OS.) Also unclear is whether Microsoft plans any updates between NoDo and Mango—updates that could and should fix the wide range of problems and incomplete features that currently dog Windows Phone 7. One can only hope.
To be fair, there is a whiff of momentum with Windows Phone. The devices haven't quite rattled the iPhone/Android duopoly, but Microsoft can now boast about more than 8,000 applications in the Windows Phone Marketplace and more than 30,000 registered developers. And the free Windows Phone developer tools have been downloaded and installed more than 1 million times, as well. This, as Ballmer said yesterday, "bears promise" for the fledgling mobile OS.