Microsoft's iffy bet on 'Mango' to save Windows Phone

What Microsoft has promised in version 7.5 is an improvement -- but still leaves Windows Phone 7 far behind iOS and Android

Microsoft likes to announce its forthcoming products again and again. Today in New York, it reannounced Mango, the code name for the major Windows Phone 7.5 software update planned for release by Christmas that Microsoft hopes will breathe life into the poorly received, poorly selling Windows 7 platform. (Lest we forget, Microsoft first announced Mango in December 2010, then again back in April with some firm details at its Mix developers' conference. Today, the news is the availability of the Mango SDK.)

Mango promises to fill two major gaps in the current Windows Phone 7 OS: support for application-centric multitasking and integration of the Internet Explorer 9 Web browser, which adds the HTML5 support every other competitor offers. The multitasking will not be the full multitasking you get on a PC or Mac; like iOS 4's multitasking on the iPhone and iPad, the multitasking in Mango will be partial, relying on applications to use specific APIs. Microsoft's reason for this constrained multitasking is the same as Apple's: to conserve battery life by preventing task buildup.

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So far, so good -- though both technologies should have been in the first release of Windows Phone 7 last fall. It's a step in the right direction that Microsoft has added copy-and-paste fuctionality -- another "where the hell was that?" omission from the first release -- in its NoDo update earlier this year, though it was bad that the NoDo update had so many problems actually making it onto users' smartphones. ("NoDo" is Microsoft's actual code name; I'm not being mean and making that up.)

The deep linking capability added to Mango is also interesting, as it lets apps hook into other apps' capabilities, if those apps permit it. Of course, this sounds like a great way to allow malware to spread infections across the nominally sandboxed apps. Windows or Mac OS X would use common libraries to accomplish what deep linking does, but as a security measure, most mobile OSes don't allow third-party common services and in fact wall apps off from each other via sandboxes. I'll be very curious whether and how Microsoft addresses this issue. It would not be good if Windows Phone 7 ended up being a malware magnet like Android.

Microsoft is also expanding the set of API-accessible services considerably, which should help developers make more compelling apps. Developers will be able to tap into the network stack (such as for messaging apps), the sensors and camera, the calendar and contacts databases, and through the addition of SQL Server Compact Edition, a repository for stuctured data.

Microsoft will address some of the many security omissions in Windows Phone, such as adding support for complex passwords. There'll also be some consumer candy to go along with the core improvements, such as a Shazam-like music-identification service and a bar code scanner service, that frankly could have been done simply as apps.

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