They don't have dual-core processors, or qHD displays, or 4G LTE. So are Windows Phone Mango devices like the HTC Titan and Samsung Omnia W already obsolete before they hit the market? Not according to Greg Sullivan, senior product manager for Microsoft. He says he'll put handsets running the latest Windows Phone OS up against the competition any day of the week, both in terms of performance and especially the overall user experience. In fact, he argues that "the key attribute of dual core right now is that your battery doesn't last as long."
Windows Phone devices didn't sell well the first time around, but Sullivan says that the Mango update paired with sleeker new hardware will be enough to woo the growing number of first-time smartphone buyers. To do that, the retooled OS focuses on people-centric communication through features like Groups, Local Scout for discovering cool places to go around you, and connecting the web to apps to save users time.
According to NPD, 44 percent of smartphone owners and shoppers are considering Windows Phone for their next smartphone purchase, so Mango could have some legs. But will it be enough to move the needle for a platform that's currently stuck at just 1 percent market share? To take the pulse of Windows Phone at this critical juncture, we sat down with Sullivan on the eve of the Mango launch.
LAPTOP: What was the thinking that went into the Mango software update and what are you trying to accomplish?
Greg Sullivan: Many of the investments that we’ve made in Mango are based on questions that we asked new smartphone users or smartphone intenders around the world. And globally, we were a little surprised by the consistency of the response. They said, “I want to communicate with the people I care about,” and we’ve done a lot of work to integrate all the ways that you communicate. We’ve focused your communications around people you care about in a way no other platform can. And so we’re going to say, “This phone makes it easier and faster to communicate in any way you want with the people you care about.”
How do you think your approach to messaging differs from iMessage in Apple’s iOS 5?
I think this idea of threads is a really unique approach to messaging; the way that I can switch modes and that I can have a conversation on my phone with somebody on Facebook chat and it’ll just come right up to my messages without having to use the app. If someone happens to be at their computer on Facebook and they see that I’m available, they can send me a quick IM and it shows up on my phone. And if they leave their computer and get on their phone, that conversation continues and it’s all part of the same thread.
If people really love standalone apps, why are you trying to break the walls down between apps and the rest of the smartphone?
Today, your phone is asking you to do way too much work. And with Mango, there’s a better way. It’s the idea that the applications on my phone know about the rest of my phone. So that when I search for a movie in Bing, the we take it to the next level here by saying, you have an app on your phone that knows about movies and adds extra value. Go ahead and click it, launch that app with this shortcut and I’ll just send this search query you just did to that app, integrate it, then complete this end-to-end experience.
One of the hallmark features of Mango is multitasking, but how is your approach better?
We dehydrate that application and we save its state in memory, so it’s not running down your battery and it’s not taking up any additional system resources. Then we enable it to very quickly resume and rehydrate. So from a user standpoint, the app is still running in real time. We think that’s a really good approach. One of the other things that Mango offers is this background agent capability for third-party music apps such as Slacker that you want to keep running.
It’s great that Xbox Live will let you dress up a 3D avatar, but when are we going to see games that really live up to the Xbox brand?
That’s exactly the goal. The fact that we intrinsically take advantage of the hardware acceleration in the system to deliver that rich 3D experience is something that will differentiate us. Developers use many of the tools they’re familiar with to create rich Xbox Live games for the console; they can use many of the same tools to leverage the power of the hardware on the phone as well.
Since you’ve acquired Skype should Windows Phone 7 users expect to see video chat capability via Skype in Mango, or will that come later?
We’ll have a Skype application. One of the changes we made to the platform is to expose sockets for APIs, the VIP sockets, and have developers be able to do things like input applications. So we’ll see a Skype app. But in terms of any deeper integration, yeah, it’s too soon to say specifically. There are front-facing cameras in some of the devices today, but they’re not always exposed to all the APIs. We’ll be seeding the OEMs and operators take advantage of some of those capabilities.
What is Microsoft doing to make music and Zune more exciting to Windows Phone owners?
With, the most recent things you have watched and listened to—regardless of which app you used to do so—are always displayed front and center. A new feature in Windows Phone Mango called Smart DJ takes “seeds”—an artist, album, or song—and creates a music mix that’s similar using whatever songs it finds on your phone. If you have a monthly Zune Pass music subscription, Smart DJ selects from the millions of tracks available in the Zune catalog.
The Windows Phone Mango devices that have been announced thus far lack dual-core processors, qHD displays, 4G LTE, and NFC support. Is the new generation of Windows Phone devices already a generation behind the competition?
I think generally people who can can explain dual core and know what NFC stands for it matters more. There is some type of halo effect, so I don't want to dismiss it. The thing that we're going to focus on is the huge and growing segment of the population that's new to smartphones. The key attribute of dual core right now is that your battery doesn't last as long. I would argue that from an everyday performance standpoint I would put our phones up against any dual-core phone and we would compare favorably. The way that we communicate. the way apps work, and the overall user experience matter so much more.
How important is your partnership with Nokia and do you think they can give Windows Phone a halo product like Google’s Nexus devices?
We’re very excited about Nokia, and it’s a very complementary relationship for many reasons, not the least of which is their clear expertise in hardware and building super sexy, high-performing devices that people lust after. I don’t think I’m overstating there. People are really into Nokia hardware, so it’s going to provide us with a great partner that allows us to get to a degree of scale, get to a degree of regional availability, and some very, very exciting hardware.