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Did Nokia make the right call?

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Another tactic is to push MeeGo into low-cost laptops for deprived communities, under the One Laptop Per Child initiative. These low-cost notebooks will also be used to provide qualified developers with free hardware on which to test their apps and code. This has been hard to source, said some attendees, a complaint acknowledged by Dawn Foster, a MeeGo community organiser at Intel. In her presentation, she sounded a note of caution, saying it was an "awkward time" because the market was waiting for the devices that would prove the OS's viability. "A lot of companies are working on bringing devices to market, but they are not willing to talk about them yet," she said in her address. "People aren't willing to spend a lot of time learning a new SDK and APIs when there aren't a lot of devices in the market."

German vendor 4titoo had got round that problem by creating its own tablet, the WeTab, primarily as a showcase for its user interface, for which it hopes to get support on set-top boxes, smartphones and other devices. The WeTab, which is also commercially available in Germany, has a touchscreen with small navigation spaces at either edge, for moving around web pages and content with the thumbs.

Microsoft unleashes Mango

Meanwhile, the attentions of the Nokia developer base have been forcibly switched towards WP7, and Microsoft showed off its major upgrade, codenamed Mango, in New York this week. It comes with a revamped user interface, and a focus on integrated applications. The update, which WP7 chief Andy Lees said was "a very big release, and one worth waiting for", will be available free to existing users from autumn. It will also appear in new devices from next month, initially in Verizon Wireless' first WP7 launches.

The platform certainly needs a shot in the arm, even ahead of first devices from Nokia, expected around the turn of the year. Despite a warm reception among many developers and some consumers, mobile versions of Windows continue to see their market share slide in the face of Android – according to Gartner estimates, they had 3.6 per cent of first quarter smartphone sales, half the level of the year-ago period.

A key theme of WP7 has been its deep integration of key apps into the phone functionality, and the ability to access important data and programs directly from the homescreen, without digging down into menus. This approach continues with the 500 updates promised for Mango. Lees commented: "Third-party applications have been freed from their silos. They're part of the total experience."

As an example, Microsoft continues to promote its unique Live Tiles feature, which allows users to create icons for key apps on their homescreens. The apps then feed updates and information to the homescreen so that these can be viewed without delving into the program itself. Product marketing manager Derek Snyder demonstrated an app from British Airways which uses this capability to give users on-screen updates on their flight status, and allows them to put a scannable boarding pass on their home display. This app also shows how the XNA tools, devised for Xbox gaming, are now being extended to WP7 and integrated with its key runtime environment, Silverlight. The BA programme allowed for a 3G walkthrough of a plane for choosing a seat and finding information on menus and in-flight movies.

One of the biggest claims for Mango is that it "blurs the line between apps and internet search", as Derek Snyder put it. His example was a new feature called Quick Cards – searching for a movie, a Quick Card popped up with key information on showtimes and reviews, plus direct links to relevant apps on the phone.

This blurring of the lines is also important to Microsoft's overarching web strategy, to create a full platform around its Bing search engine and brand. Acquisitions such as Skype and new features in WP7 aim to push Bing up against Facebook and Google as a hub for every kind of web and communications activity, across mobile devices and PCs. Among the Bing functions in Mango are Bing Vision, for scanning images and barcodes and then linking directly to web data and phone apps; and App Connect, which ties apps to Bing search tools.

The trend for hyperlocal search is acknowledged with the Local Scout browser tool, which prioritises local search results according to user preferences. Microsoft has also added Visual Search, which initiates Bing searches via barcodes, QR codes and Microsoft Tags; Music Search; and augmented reality support.

There are now 18,000 apps available in the Windows Phone Marketplace, and Mango includes multi-tasking between them. Other improvements concentrated on improved communications, boasting the new People Hub, for tighter integration of Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Outlook and Windows Live Messenger. Support group text and IM was also added and Mango promises it can detect the best method of communication for interacting with contacts.

Mango includes full-blown Internet Explorer 9, with HTML5 support, for mobile browsing speed and there is a redesigned Xbox gaming hub and a cloud storage service called Skydrive. Other updates include a new version of Office, Skype and Twitter apps, and support for further languages. However, the expected introduction of NFC and front-facing cameras were missing.

Although Microsoft has placed most of its hopes of being a mainstream mobile OS supplier on its Nokia alliance, it continues to sign up other hardware partners. Sony Ericsson and Motorola have given WP7 the cold shoulder, for now at least, but Samsung, LG, HTC and Dell were the original supporters, and now they are joined by Acer, Fujitsu and ZTE.

With the coming launch of Mango, Microsoft will begin phasing out its legacy Windows Mobile 6.x operating system this summer, informing developers they can no longer submit new apps or update existing apps after that, although consumers may continue downloading and purchasing software from the Windows Marketplace for Mobile storefront.

Copyright © 2011, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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