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Originally published Tuesday, September 27, 2011 at 8:27 PM

Microsoft dials in Mango buzz for hit phone

Despite hundreds of new features, there are other factors that will also play into whether Mango, the latest update to Microsoft's Windows Phone operating system, succeeds in the marketplace. Mango's rollout began Tuesday and with it, Microsoft needs to show that it can compete in the smartphone market.

Seattle Times technology reporter

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From the announcement of a Web marketplace to new ways to group contacts, Tuesday's rollout of Mango, the wide-ranging update to Microsoft's Windows Phone operating system (OS), is intended to generate buzz.

And, indeed, some Windows Phone users are already posting excited tweets, and early reviews are positive.

But Mango is also shouldering great expectations.

With this update, Microsoft needs to show that it can compete in the global smartphone market. It currently has less than 2 percent of that market, steamrollered by Google's Android and Apple's iOS platforms.

Microsoft bigwigs have been talking up the 500 additional features that Mango, officially called Windows Phone 7.5, adds to Windows Phone 7.

But there are other factors at play — from marketing to getting developers to write applications for Mango to relationships with carriers — that Microsoft needs to heed in order to prevent Mango from becoming, well, so much crushed fruit in the global marketplace.

"Technologically, the Mango Phone 7.5 is very strong. There are very few people that have been arguing that," said Rob Sanfilippo, a research vice president with Directions on Microsoft, an independent analysis firm not affiliated with Microsoft. "But there's really a lot more of these other factors that are going to go into Mango's success."

Gradual rollout

To be clear, Tuesday was simply the start of a gradual rollout of the Mango update to existing users of Windows Phone 7.

The delivery will be ramped up gradually and will be available to most existing Windows Phone users by the end of October, according to Microsoft. (So far, the process seems to be going smoother than an earlier update, referred to as NoDo, which some users said was confusing and came later than promised.)

Microsoft has not announced specific dates for when Mango will be available on specific devices.

Phone manufacturers including HTC, Samsung and Nokia — which will use Windows Phone exclusively for its smartphones — have announced they'll be producing new Windows Phone handsets carrying Mango, though no definite dates have been set on those releases either. At least some are expected before the end of this year.

(Some analysts expect the partnership with Nokia will significantly boost Windows Phone's market share.)

New features in Mango include:

• Web Marketplace, a shop to buy new apps and get them automatically delivered to a phone.

• A new Groups feature that lets consumers create groups from their contacts (like trivia buddies or soccer teammates) and turn them into a personalized live, interactive tile on the start screen.

• Integration with other Microsoft products such as Bing, Office, Internet Explorer 9 and Xbox Live.

• Deep integration with Twitter and LinkedIn in addition to Facebook and Windows Live.

"The problem is that applications today are locked up in silos. With Windows Phone 7.5, information inside of applications breaks free from their silos," Andy Lees, president of Microsoft's Windows Phone Division, said in a posting on Microsoft's News Center.

Pushing Mango

The real test will come in the next months as new handsets preloaded with Mango hit the market.

Given that researchers have found that people who've tried Windows Phone generally like it, why hasn't it sold well?

Several analysts and tech writers have pointed to, anecdotally, a lack of promotional backing by carriers, with Windows Phones not prominently displayed — if at all — in stores and salespeople with little knowledge of them.

Some analysts also say the last ad campaign for Windows Phone — based around the idea that it was a phone that allowed you to spend less time on the phone because it accomplished tasks so well - — didn't capture the public imagination.

"I don't think that was a compelling campaign," said Charles Golvin, principal analyst for consumer product strategy at Forrester Research.

The smartphone market has been changing and many people are buying a smartphone for the first time, Golvin said. A campaign centering on people feeling encumbered by their previous smartphones probably wasn't "the reality of most people's experience."

This time around, Microsoft appears to be going with a "put people first" campaign, given the emphasis on the phrase in the Windows Phone Facebook page, promotional videos and blogs. The company has a trademark application for that phrase.

Windows Phone also had — and continues to have — far fewer apps than Apple and Android's marketplace. But that's starting to change as well, with more developers expressing interest in writing for Mango.

Bill Chi, chief technology officer of Pirq, a local startup, first developed iPhone and Android apps for his company, which offers local real-time deals over a smartphone. "When you piece it together, Apple and Android — there's some key market share. You can't ignore that," he said.

But he's now also developing an app for Mango, saying: "We firmly banked on the future."

Taking advantage

Indeed, some analysts are predicting a good future for Windows Phone, saying it may even capture 20 percent of the smartphone market by 2015.

To get there, Microsoft needs to take advantage of shifts and opportunities in the marketplace.

Customers spanning a greater range of income and age are buying smartphones these days.

So Windows Phones should have different models that hit at different price points and have a greater diversity of form factors to differentiate themselves, Forrester's Golvin said.

(AT&T has already said it would carry the Samsung Focus Flash, billed as a value-oriented smartphone.)

At least one carrier also needs to commit significant resources to promote Windows Phone as one of its lead devices, Golvin said.

Salespeople also need reasons to recommend Windows Phone above other phones, he said, recommending not just training, but perhaps also giving more devices away to sales agents so they're more familiar with the product.

Microsoft also needs to overcome a certain customer-perceived coolness factor in owning an iPhone or Android device, said Directions on Microsoft's Sanfilippo.

"It's a little harder to say you have a Windows Phone these days. It's psychological, really. A lot of it is branding."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

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