Sep. 27, 2011 at 7:22 PM ET
Microsoft is starting to roll out Windows Phone 7.5 to the small population of current Windows Phone owners. The upgrade is meaningful, but is mostly catch-up. What will it take for Microsoft to grow a real user base? It might just take the full force of Windows 8, due to hit PCs and tablets next fall.
(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal, but that relationship does not impact our coverage of Microsoft or its competitors, as you can probably tell.)
The new software, alternately referred to by Microsoft as 7.5 or "Mango," was released as a preview way back in June. It adds some significant functionality, not least of all multitasking for apps, deeper integration of Facebook and Twitter into the heart of the operating system and, announced just today, the ability of the phones to serve as Wi-Fi hotspots for computers and tablets. There are also new Web services to help Windows Phone users, including an app marketplace, an emergency phone locator and a My Phone tool that lets you check all your phone's vitals from a PC.
Mango is a tremendous improvement over what was already a very nice mobile OS. I've said time and again that Windows Phone was an admirable effort on the part of Microsoft's engineers. And I've said that the "Metro" design approach, intended to bring more active information to the home screen, in some ways even one-ups the iPhone OS. Even the platform's app development has grown steadily: Currently there are 30,000 apps, and by this time next year I wager there will be 10 times that.
But going up against the establishment is not as easy as being as good as the rest. For a platform to break in, huge amounts of leverage are required. Windows Phone launched late, improved late, and is getting the support of the larger Windows ecosystem very, very late. That would kill a lesser platform, and indeed it did kill the WebOS of Palm and HP. But Microsoft can presumably afford to cover costs as the platform grows, until Nokia pushes it in a major way throughout its core markets (that is, most countries outside the U.S.), and until Windows 8 is launched worldwide, in the fall of 2012.
As many of you know, what makes Windows 8 special is the overlay of the Metro touch-friendly design. Proven effective in Windows Phone, it's going to be the Windows OS's bridge to tablets. And as a result, developers writing apps large and small for Windows desktops will have a choice of the classic look or the new Metro look. Flip that around and it means that Windows developers the world over have suddenly been given a very good reason to think about Windows Phone as they plan their PC and tablet apps.
Great OS, great apps — those are important, but the battle lines are being drawn around whole ecosystems. Google unites the Web and the phone; Apple unites media with phone and tablet. Windows Phone doesn't do anything yet, but soon it will be a fundamental piece of an ecosystem that already unites major software developers with the world's most populous operating system. If it can't succeed with that kind of leverage, well, it simply wasn't meant to succeed at all.
For additional thoughts on today's news, have a look at two pieces by my friends Matt Buchanan at Gizmodo and Mark Spoonauer at Laptop:
Below is a video we shot in June highlighting key Mango/Windows Phone 7.5 improvements. Please note that, at the time, deep Twitter integration wasn't working, and the Wi-Fi hotspot functionality had yet to be announced. But otherwise, it should give you a basic idea of the improvements now coming to Windows Phones. For more on all of the new goodness, have a look here.