Late in 2010, Microsoft sought to position Windows Phone 7 as a consumer device-a smartphone sleek as the Apple iPhone or Google Android. Advertisements emphasized the baked-in Xbox Live and Zune services.
Windows Phone 7 had the "Office" Hub, with easy access to the mobile versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and SharePoint. But that consumer emphasis marked something of a sea change from Windows Mobile, Microsoft's previous mobile platform, which enjoyed a significant business presence even as consumers abandoned it for rival offerings.
But businesses remain a key audience for Microsoft products, so it's no surprise that Microsoft would begin baking productivity enhancements into Windows Phone-starting with the "Mango" update, scheduled for release later in 2011.
Those new business features include the ability to pin email folders to the smartphone's start screen, search a server for email items no longer stored on the device, force emails to obey IT administrators' policies, and a threading email replies into a "conversation view." Users will also capability to save and share Office documents via Office 365 and Windows Live SkyDrive.
"In addition to helping you stay productive, Mango also includes new capabilities for IT," Paul Bryan, a senior director of business experience for the Windows Phone team, wrote in a May 16 posting on The Windows Blog. "With new features such as complex (alpha-numeric) password support, Information Rights Management support for protecting e-mails and Office documents, and support for access to hidden corporate Wi-Fi networks."
Microsoft's Lync Mobile will introduce unified communications capabilities to Windows Phone. In a May 16 conversation with eWEEK, Microsoft executives demurred from commenting on how Microsoft's recent acquisition of Skype will play into Windows Phone, although it's generally assumed that Skype assets will eventually influence Lync's evolution.
A May 8 edition of the Windows Phone Dev Podcast revealed that Mango will include Bing Audio, which allows a smartphone to identify any songs playing in the vicinity, and Bing Vision, an augmented-reality feature that lets a smartphone scan barcodes, QR Codes and the like. That comes on top of multitasking, Internet Explorer 9, and a turn-by-turn navigation feature with voice guidance.
In other words, there's a reason why "Mango" advances the version number of Windows Phone 7 to Windows Phone 7.5-it's a major update, and indicative of Microsoft's continuing efforts to close the massive software lead enjoyed by the iPhone and Google Android.
The question is whether consumers and businesses will go for this giant basket of new features. New data from The Nielsen Company had 6 percent of consumers indicating they wanted a Windows Mobile/Windows Phone 7 smartphone as their next device, compared with 31 percent for Android, 30 percent for Apple's iOS and 11 percent for Research In Motion's BlackBerry.
With more consumers bringing their everyday electronics into the work environment, and a healthy subset of businesses providing vouchers for smartphones in lieu of purchasing a companywide set of one particular device, consumer uptake has the potential to affect which devices end up becoming an enterprise standard. Apple's iOS and Android have enjoyed the effects of this "bleedover," with businesses increasing their support for both platforms in response to their employees' requests.
At the same time, Microsoft needs to make its own push for that business audience, especially since Windows Mobile is well on its way to the dustbin of dead tech. Microsoft is prepping developers for the release of updated Windows Phone Developer Tools, which will (at least in theory) allow the creation of more integrated and high-performance applications; however, a number of prominent developers speaking to eWEEK over the past few months have indicated that the relative lack of Windows Phone uptake within businesses, coupled with the surging popularity of iOS and Android, have led them to focus on development for other platforms.
In the context of all that, Microsoft's mission seems clear: Give businesses more of a concrete reason to adopt Windows Phone as a corporate device, the better to blunt its rivals, encourage developers of all-important enterprise apps, and fill the growing vacuum left by Windows Mobile. But can Microsoft make itself heard in this crowded environment?