Windows Phone 7 Plans for 2011: Catch Up to 2009

Microsoft (s msft) outlined feature upgrades for its Windows Phone 7 smartphone platform this week at the MIX11 developer event in Las Vegas. The next update, codenamed “Mango,” is planned for release this fall and will bring the IE9 browser, developer access to the camera and motion sensor, improved system performance, and support for an ever so slightly wider range of hardware. Application multitasking will arrive in Mango as well, allowing for handset owners to run software in the background and transfer audio or video while other apps are running.

It’s a good thing the mobile handset market race is more of a marathon than a sprint, because although all the Mango features will be welcome, I can’t help but think of how they compare to competing phones — from 2009 or so. While the iPhone (s aapl) didn’t gain multitasking until 2010, for example, Google Android (s goog) devices had it in late 2008. Both Apple and Google devices arrived with generally decent browsers and solid user interaction when they launched. And for the past few years, developers could leverage the sensors and cameras on these handsets as well.

I almost hate to bring up this criticism because I did buy a Windows Phone 7 device out-of-pocket, just like some readers have. Truth be told, there’s a world of potential in the platform, and in some ways, a Windows Phone 7 handset is more fun to use than an iPhone, Android device or other currently available platforms. My issue stems around one of timing, even though I do agree smartphone sales will continue to rise for the next several years. It just appears that while Microsoft is committed to staying in the high-stakes smartphone game, it’s really not going all-in. And that’s not going to get hardware partners jazzed.

I know the Windows Phone 7 fans will quickly chime in here to defend Microsoft, and I respect that. Just remember: I’m a Windows Phone 7 owner too. And as such, I’m struggling to understand the lack of speed for these updates. I won’t get into the NoDo update that was delayed, but I’ll admit it concerns me. Instead, I’m looking back to the Mobile World Congress event from this past February. Some of the key Mango features talked about this week were shown off on Windows Phone 7 devices two months ago. Multitasking seemed to work quite well in the demo, as did an early version of IE9. Xbox Live and Kinect integration from the handset even worked. So what’s taking so long?

Perhaps I’m being overly harsh, but the strategy of many months between updates just doesn’t seem to fit the reality of how fast the smartphone is maturing. That’s part of the reason Nokia (s nok) had to abandon Symbian: The company reacted too slowly to the market. Even giving Microsoft the benefit of the doubt, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest not every Windows Phone 7 will see Mango by the end of the year, although I hope I’m wrong.

Where will competitors be at that time, and what new features will they have added? There’s sure to be a major revision of iOS to version 5 by then, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see most of Honeycomb’s features migrated over to the next version of Android smartphones, too. Add in HP’s (s hpq) handsets with the already-capable webOS platform, and the situation becomes even more challenging for Microsoft to stand out from the crowd.

Yes, the Windows Phone 7 fans will cry out against me on this one and I empathize. Some of the features on my HD7 are great. There just aren’t enough things that Windows Phone 7 devices do well enough to make them appealing to a wide audience If there are, Microsoft is holding back super sales numbers for reasons I can’t fathom. All I want to see is Microsoft better-level the smartphone playing field by picking up the pace in making a good mobile platform even better.