Sometime this fall, Microsoft (NYSE:MSFT) will push its "Mango" software update to Windows Phones.
That in itself doesn't seem like terribly exciting news-smartphone software is updated all the time, either in the name of improving features or patching some sort of vulnerability in the code. But Mango is more of a total revamp, adding some 500 new elements to Microsoft's Windows Phone platform.
Microsoft executives demonstrated some of Mango's more top-line features during a May 24 press event in New York City: Multitasking, a redesigned Xbox Live Hub, visual voicemail, the ability to consolidate friends and colleagues into groups within the "People" Hub, and Local Scout, which offers a view of everything to see and do in a particular neighborhood. The "People" Hub will also include data from Twitter and LinkedIn, as well as the ability to share and tag photos.
Mango's newfound enterprise functionality includes the ability to search a server for email items no longer stored on the device, and share and save Office documents via Office 365 and Windows SkyDrive. There's also an upgraded Internet experience, one that tightly bakes Microsoft's Bing search engine into the interface.
"Rather than providing blue-link answers, we bring the Internet in this innovative [way] called Quick Cards," Andy Lees, senior vice president of Microsoft's Mobile Communications Business, told media and analysts gathered for the presentation. If you use your Mango-enabled Windows Phone to search for a restaurant, for example, Bing will return a series of cards (rendered in Windows Phone's distinctive "Metro" style) with images, access to related apps (such as Yelp), and related information.
For enterprise users, Mango offers some key additions, including the ability to search a server for email items no longer stored to a device, and share and save Office documents via Office 365 and Windows SkyDrive.
Windows Phone is currently wrestling to establish itself in a smartphone market filled with aggressive competitors such as Apple's iPhone and the growing family of Google Android devices. Research firm Gartner estimated that Windows Phone sold 1.6 million units in the first quarter of 2011, and recent data from comScore suggests that Microsoft's share of the overall smartphone market continues to erode.
In addition to HTC and Nokia, Samsung and LG Electronics have apparently committed to building new Windows Phone devices preloaded with Mango. Acer, Fujitsu and ZTE are also planning to produce Windows Phone devices for the first time. "We have some Windows Mango phones," HTC CEO Peter Chou reportedly told Reuters May 25. "We are very committed to Windows phone products."
Mango wasn't the only forward-looking bit of news out of Microsoft this week: in a speech to the Microsoft Developer Forum in Toyko, CEO Steve Ballmer seemed to confirm that Windows 8 will make its debut in 2012, and appear on a variety of factors including tablets and PCs.
"As we look forward to the next generation of Windows systems, which will come out next year, there's a whole lot more coming," he told the audience, according to a transcript published on Microsoft's Website. "As we progress through the year, you ought to expect to hear a lot about Windows 8. Windows 8 slates, tablets, PCs, a variety of different form factors."
Barely had the words left Ballmer's mouth before the blogosphere began its parsing. Did his use of "tablets" and "slates" mean two different form-factors in the pipeline, or was he merely using both terms to emphasize a singular touch-screen form-factor? Will the next version of Windows include a singular interface, or multiple versions for multiple devices?
Yet even as it printed Ballmer's comments on its Website, Microsoft seemed intent on tamping down the burst of Windows 8 news. "It appears there was a misstatement," a Microsoft spokesperson wrote in a statement circulated to media. "To date, we have yet to formally announce any timing or naming for the next version of Windows."
While it seems odd that a company would directly contradict its CEO, Microsoft has a good reason to keep the next version of Windows under wraps for the time being. With Microsoft dependent on continuing Windows 7 sales to fuel a healthy portion of its revenue, it needs to stop anything that threatens to choke off a portion of those sales. If companies believe Windows 7 will be formally outdated in just over a year, they could hesitate to upgrade.
What do we know about the next-generation Windows? Windows and Windows Live division president Steven Sinofsky announced during this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that the next-generation platform will support SoC (system-on-a-chip) architecture, in particular ARM-based systems from partners such as Qualcomm, Nvidia and Texas Instruments. That would give Microsoft the ability to port the next Windows onto tablets and other mobile form factors powered by ARM offerings.
Aside from that, everything remains conjecture-including, apparently, statements from Ballmer himself.