What’s Microsoft strategy to take on likes of iPhone and Android
A new model of a certain black, rectangular, touchscreen smartphone has just arrived. Its new software contains what the company says are hundreds of new features.
The most eye-popping enhancement is speech recognition: you can tell this new phone to call someone, text someone or give you driving directions. I refer, of course, to Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7.5. Gotcha! Yes, Microsoft is belatedly trying to take on the iPhone and Android phones with its own phone software.
Phones from Samsung and HTC are already here, whereas other manufacturers are expected to follow suit in the coming months. The Windows Phone 7.5 software, code-named Mango, is also available as a free upgrade for older Windows Phone 7 phones such as Dell Venue Pro.
Windows Phone 7.5 is gorgeous, classy, satisfying, fast and coherent. The design is intelligent, clean and uncluttered. Never in a million years would you guess that it came from the same company that cooked up the bloated spaghetti that is Windows and Office.
What is Windows Phone?
Most impressively, Windows Phone is not a feeble-minded copycat. Microsoft came up with completely fresh metaphors that generally steer clear of the iPhone/Android design (grid-spaced icons that scroll across home pages).
The home screen presents two columns of colorful tiles. Each represents something you’ve put there for easy access: an app, a speed-dial entry, a Web page, a music playlist or an e-mail folder. More than ever, the text on them conveys instant information, saving you the effort of opening them up.
A number on a tile tells you how many voice-mail messages, e-mail messages or app updates are waiting. The music tile shows album art, the calendar tile identifies your next appointment. A tile for your sister might display her latest Twitter and Facebook updates.
Windows Phone first appeared, incomplete, a year ago. There was no copy and paste. No way to add new ringtones. No multitasking. No tethering option (which lets you use the phone as an Internet antenna for your laptop). No unified e-mail in-box for multiple accounts. No message threading. No Twitter integration. It’s all complete now!
The Mango update
In Mango, Microsoft has addressed all of these shortcomings. Most of them bear that new Microsoft finesse and excellence, but there are some footnotes.
For example: You enter the multitasking switcher by holding down the phone’s Back button. But this ‘multitasking’ is the iPhone variety: when you switch out of an app, it doesn’t keep running in the background, instead, the app you’re leaving goes into suspended animation.
In your address book, each person’s card displays a complete history of your conversations, If you begin a Facebook chat with somebody who logs out, you can keep right on chatting via text message; the phone seamlessly switches between those chat channels. Twitter and LinkedIn are built in, too, although there’s no way to send or receive direct messages on Twitter.
Mango still offers everything that Windows Phone already had going for it: a terrific onscreen keyboard with smart auto-suggestions. Integration with your Xbox account. A GPS app that now speaks your directions, turn by turn. Now, if this phone had arrived before the iPhone, people would have been sacrificing small animals to it.
Compared to Android and iOS
Microsoft’s three-year lag behind its rivals is going to be tough to overcome. Unlike the iPhone, there’s no teeming universe of accessories. Similarly, Windows Phone’s app store has 30,000 apps, but Android market offers 10 times as many, and the iPhone store has 16 times as many.
Microsoft says that it’s quality, not quantity, and that all the important apps are there. Unfortunately, a long list of essentials are still unavailable. Microsoft’s schoolyard grudge against Google manifests itself in several disappointing ways: you can’t export videos to YouTube, and you can’t search with Google.
Remember the Zune? In the end, it was a beautiful, capable, highly refined music player, but nobody bought it. Why would anyone buy it when the iPod offered safety in numbers? Let’s hope the Windows Phone story doesn’t play out the same way. Microsoft’s work here deserves attention, praise and sales. Maybe it’s not quite as mature as the iPhone or Android. But the world is a more interesting place with Windows Phone in it.
Using Bing for search
The Bing search app now offers audio and visual searching. That is, you can hold the phone up to any song playing wherever you go; in about three seconds, it identifies the song and offers the chance to buy it online.
It’s just like Shazam on iPhone or Android, but built into the operating system. Visual search is a lot like the Google Goggles app for iPhone or Android: you can aim the phone’s camera at a bar code, a book cover or a DVD cover, and the phone identifies it by product name and company.
You can even aim the camera at any printed text, and marvel as the Bing app translates it into typed text, ready for pasting into an e-mail message or Word document. There’s even a Translate button if you want the scanned text flipped roughly into another language.
Advanced speech functionality
In Windows Phone Mango, when you hold down the Windows-logo button, you get a talking virtual assistant, similar to Siri on the iPhone 4S.
Well, O.K., it is not just like Siri. The recognition is nowhere near as good or as broad. You can’t actually dictate what you would otherwise type, as on Android and the iPhone; the only things you can dictate are text messages, search terms and e-mail messages.
And Microsoft makes no effort to give the phone a personality, as Apple did. But it’s great at understanding its Big Four commands: Call, Text, Find (on the Web) and Open (an app). “Call mom,” “Text Rakesh Sharma,” “Find coffee shops” and “Open Angry Birds,” for example, are all reliable and important. (On the iPhone, you can’t open apps by voice at all).