No matter where you stand on the Android / Apple debate, chances are you don’t dig Windows Phone 7. After all, how can the company responsible for those sullen monoliths you were forced to call ‘my Windows Mobile smartphone’ turn out anything halfway as awesome as your iPhone/Android-insert-confectionary-item handset?

Well, last week the company unveiled the first major update to the OS, Mango, and with 500 new features – not bug fixes, mind you – and a clarification on the Microsoft MO, I’m feeling the WP7 love.

I got a chance to sit down with a couple of the team – including Ashley Highfield, UK Managing Director of Microsoft (Consumer & Online) – to learn more about just how they think they’re going to overtake Apple and Google, and like, are they ever going to implement those folders? People like downloading apps, and they need places to store apps, dammit.

Turns out Microsoft has a whole other gameplan
Why do you need folders, asked the product manager rhetorically, when all your apps are going to be integrated into your ‘user experience’? Mango introduces integration of Twitter and LinkedIn into your contacts book – or People Hub – which already supports Facebook sync, so that it’s a place where you can view an all-in-one news feed, check out friends’ posts and photos as well as call, text, email or IM them. Download a Twitter app? Not so necessary now.
Of course, lots of apps are standalone apps that may not necessarily integrate so deeply – but I’ll be interested to see if this fresh and highly intuitive approach takes off as people get over Microsoft’s image issues.

Another reason to jump on the bandwagon
The apps at Windows Marketplace are now at 18,000, up from just 5,000 when the OS launched last October. That’s more than triple in eight months. It’s no Apple App Store (400,000 plus in four years) or Android Market (300,000 plus in three years) – but then again, it’s not BlackBerry App World (11,000) or Symbian (who cares?) either. When developers are into an OS, it’s a good sign.

Most of all though, it doesn’t feel like Microsoft is on a mission to rush anything – they’re just on a mission. Ashley cites a Gartner report stating that by 2015, WP7 will be the second-most popular smartphone OS – and that’s what they are working towards. No matter than iOS 5 launches next week, with an iPhone 5 likely by autumn; or that an Android Ice Cream Sandwich handset is bound to be about by the time Mango rolls out to Windows handsets.

Tell a friend
Ashley tells me that the returns rate of Windows handsets is under 10% and the advocacy rate is over 90%. Sales of Windows phones aren’t high – one report had them at 670,000 of two million shipped units – but the people that buy them would recommend them to friends.

Ever since the iPhone launched and “changed everything” we’ve been like cattle caught in headlights. Everything was posed as being a potential iPhone killer simply for bearing a similar touch interface. When Android came along, the HTC phones that implemented it so perfectly managed to get a foothold . But though its open-source back end was markedly different to Apple’s closed ecosystem, upfront was the same “sea of apps” interface that Windows Phone 7 is challenging.

With Mango, we’ve been given a clearer look at just what that challenge is – deep-down integration that works via what you want to do rather than the app you need to use – and I for one, am following.

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