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Microsoft Claws Back to Smartphone Relevance: Rich Jaroslovsky

Rich Jaroslovsky
Rich Jaroslovsky, technology columnist with Bloomberg News. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

You know the line about never getting a second chance to make a first impression? Luckily for Microsoft Corp., it turns out not to be true.

Windows Phone 7, Microsoft’s attempt to claw its way back into the lucrative smartphone arena, was released a year ago to respectful but hardly adulatory reviews. It was good, but not good enough to go head-to-head with the big boys, Apple Inc. and Google Inc.

Now it is. Microsoft is rolling out Windows Phone 7.5, also known as “Mango,” an altogether more polished and potent contender. The software began going out to existing users as a free upgrade last week; new handsets from manufacturers including HTC Corp. and Samsung Electronics Co. will begin showing up shortly. It deserves consideration if you’re in the market for a new phone and not already committed to another operating system.

Once a dominant player in smartphones, Microsoft was slow to react to the 2007 release of Apple’s iPhone and saw its market share implode.

Now, though, a combination of factors is giving it an opening. Research In Motion Ltd. is struggling to hold onto its BlackBerry customers; Google’s acquisition of Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc. may lead competing manufacturers to think twice about their dependence on Android; Hewlett-Packard Co. pulled the plug on its competing WebOS platform.

Steady Improvement

All that wouldn’t matter much if the Windows Phone platform didn’t measure up. But Microsoft has steadily improved the software, with interim updates and the 7.5 release adding functions that were notably absent at launch. Hello, copy-and-paste, Twitter support, Internet sharing; good to see you, visual voicemail and multitasking. What kept you?

Unlike Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android and just about every other mobile-device operating system, a Windows phone doesn’t present you with rows of icons representing apps. Instead, the home screen consists of a number of colorful tiles that represent the phone’s key functions. These tiles can update themselves with new information, so that, for example, you can see your next appointment at a glance, or how many new e-mails you’ve received.

Some of the tiles lead to what Microsoft calls hubs -- collections of information and apps organized around a theme. The People hub, for example, aggregates your contacts and social-network feeds, providing one-stop shopping for getting and staying in touch with people important to you.

Suggesting Apps

One of the cleverest features in the new version of the operating system is the way it integrates the search function with the ability to discover and incorporate new apps.

For example, I used my test phone, a Samsung Focus, to find Italian restaurants near Bloomberg’s San Francisco offices. The software not only gave me the usual reviews and directions, but also suggested I might want to download the OpenTable app for booking reservations online. Once I did, future restaurant searches gave me a reservation option that automatically launched the app.

Speech has also been integrated into the operating system. You can dictate messages that are then read back to you and, once you approve, dispatched as texts. Say “’Moneyball’ showtimes” and up pops a list of local theaters where the movie is playing, along with the option to buy tickets.

It’s not as potent as Siri, the personal-assistant feature that Apple is launching with its new iPhone 4S, but I found it more useful and enjoyable than the voice features built into the current version of Android.

Vetting the Marketplace

Microsoft says its Marketplace now has 30,000 apps, far fewer than the 500,000 or so available for iPhone or 250,000 for Android. At least Microsoft, like Apple and unlike Google, vets new apps before they go into the Marketplace, providing a little higher comfort level for the security-conscious.

A few things are still missing from Windows Phone 7.5. One is the ability to take advantage of the powerful multi-core processors that are showing up on high-end phones. Another is support for LTE, the fastest fourth-generation network technology, which Verizon Wireless and, more recently, AT&T Inc. have begun rolling out.

Perhaps those features will show up in updates. In the meantime, the Windows Phone platform may get another boost soon when Nokia Oyj unveils the first devices developed under its new Microsoft partnership.

Microsoft still has a long way to go to catch up with Apple and Google, and as this week’s announcement of the latest iPhone illustrates, they’re hardly standing still. Windows Phone 7.5, though, at least confirms that Microsoft is pointed in the right direction.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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