What's next for Windows Phone?

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The Nokia Lumia 900 in cyan.

Windows Phone: The darling of tech reviewers and critics, but used by nobody.

Well, that's an exaggeration, but recent sales numbers for the platform aren't looking good. According to the NPD Group, Windows Phone represented 2 percent of new smartphone sales in the U.S. in the first quarter of 2012. Nielsen reported even more dire numbers, with Windows Phone nabbing just 1.7 percent market share among U.S. smartphone owners in the first quarter. Even sadder? Microsoft's older mobile platform, Windows Mobile, has 4.1% market share. Yikes.

I’m one of those reviewers who praised Microsoft’s revamped mobile platform when it first launched at Mobile World Congress in 2010. I was also quite enthusiastic about the Windows Phone 7.5 update, also known as "Mango". But over the last year, I’ve become less confident that the platform will ever be a powerful competitor to Android and iOS.

With Windows 8 on the horizon, what’s next for Windows Phone? Is the party over already, or will Microsoft's latest mobile operating system finally catch on among consumers?

Tango Update

The next update to Windows Phone, Tango, is due in the next month or two. Though Microsoft hasn’t confirmed the exact timing or the additional features, WPCentral got its hands on a Tango phone. The update's new features include the ability to text multiple images, the ability to forward calls, and (finally!) the ability to use the device as a hotspot.

Tango is also optimized to run on 800MHz processors. Previously, Windows Phone would only run on phones with a 1GHz or 1.4GHz Snapdragon processor. This means that Windows Phone can now run on inexpensive phones, which is both a blessing and a curse for the platform. Microsoft will be able to expand the platform's reach, especially in China and India. However, Tango still doesn't support dual-core processors.

Windows Phone 8 aka "Apollo"

Windows 8 has a similar look to Windows Phone 7.5

So what’s after Tango? Although Microsoft hasn't officially said anything, multiple sources have confirmed that Windows Phone 8, nicknamed "Apollo," will not be the same as Microsoft's tablet OS, Windows RT. There's also some confusion as to whether existing Windows Phones, such as Nokia's Lumia 900, will support upgrades to Windows Phone 8. Microsoft has only said that the next major revision of Windows Phone will still support the applications made for Windows Phone 7.

On a positive note, those who have seen Windows Phone 8 have said good things about it. Last week at CTIA, Matthew Stoiber, senior vice president of devices for Cricket Wireless, told me the carrier is very interested in Windows 8 mobile phones. There are currently no Windows Phone 7 devices on Cricket right now, and very few are available for prepaid plans in general.

"We've watched as [Microsoft] developed their platform, and Windows 8 seems to us to be a very marketable version," Stoiber said.

Apps: Exclusivity Vs. Fragmentation

The most recent bit of actual Windows Phone news beyond rumors or speculation has been about apps. Last week at CTIA, Nokia announced a handful of exclusive apps for its Lumia line of phones, making me wonder whether Windows Phone is headed down a fragmentation path where some apps are only available for certain phones. The Lumia apps include ESPN, Groupon, and AOL Entertainment, and those particular apps will be Lumia-only for six months after their summer 2012 debut. Additionally, there will be a PGA Tour app exclusive to the Lumia for a year after its launch.

Offering exclusive apps seems like a bad move for Nokia. When an operating system only makes up 1.7 percent of the market share, the last thing Microsoft needs is conflict between its device-makers.

Possible fragmentation aside, these partnerships might promote some developer excitement for Windows Phone. Right now, only about 82,000 apps are currently available for the platform—a far cry from the half-million or so found in both Google Play and the iTunes App Store. These partnerships will also encourage optimizing each app for the Windows Phone platform; one of my biggest gripes with Android apps is that many of them are iOS ports that don't take advantage of Android's features.

In a perfect world, all Windows Phones would be upgradable to Windows Phone 8, Windows 8 tablets and phones would run the same operating system, and all apps would be available to all Windows Phone devices. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem like it will be the case—and Windows Phone's future as a viable competitor seems even more distant.

This story, "What's next for Windows Phone?" was originally published by TechHive.

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