With the smartphone market zooming forward, Microsoft (s msft) officially announced the latest update to its new Windows Phone 7 operating system today, which brings a host of features to leverage Bing, Facebook and richer use of hardware. The Mango update features more than 500 new improvements, including many pre-announced features such as multitasking, an IE9 browser and more access to APIs but it also throws in some extras like speech-to-text, facial detection for photo tagging, local guides and better integration of apps in search results and live tiles. Mango is set to be available for all Windows Phone 7 devices this fall while developer tools were released today.
As my colleague Kevin mentioned, Mango is meant to help Windows Phone 7 catch-up to where iOS(s aapl) and Android(s goog) already are. But it’s a necessary maturation process for Microsoft’s smartphone platform, which shows promise but is still in need of evolution and refinement. And in many ways, it shows what Microsoft can do when it starts to marshall all its resources into one product, creating something that is more intelligent and user friendly. But is it enough to close the gap in a fast-moving smartphone market? It’s unclear. Microsoft still didn’t release end user sales but said that it now has 18,000 apps now for WP7 devices.
The new Windows Phone Mango update is designed around easing the way people communicate with a linked e-mail inbox, new groups for messaging a set of people and a threaded view for handling text messages, Facebook Chat and Windows Live Messenger all in one stream. There’s also deep Twitter and LinkedIn (s lnkd) integration in contact cards. Also included are speech-to-text and text-to-speech functionality for easier input so users can answer a text without using their hands while listening to a song, for example.
I like the groups integration because it creates mini social networks among your contacts, letting you message them and follow them. Facebook integration is tapped in several ways including new support for Facebook events in the calendar and integration with the group messaging tool. It shows that Microsoft is working to align itself with Facebook as a partner where it makes sense and adds value.
With Mango, Windows Phone 7 is also updating its hubs to better integrate with applications so users can find more relevant apps within the hubs. When uploading pictures in the Photos hub, a facial recognition tool can tag friends before uploading photos to Facebook. The Office hub includes new versions of Word, Excel and Powerpoint and lets users now connect to Office365, Microsoft’s subscription service and Skydrive, its cloud storage tool. That’s expected for Microsoft, which needed to build on its first WP7 Office apps and integrate more with its cloud tools.
Developers are able to build richer Windows Phone apps with 3-D graphics using XNA in non-gaming apps. They can get more access to the underlying hardware and can tap a local SQL database for storage. And they can create live tiles on the home screen that feature live notifications and app shortcutting, so users can jump to specific areas in an app. For example, an upcoming British Airways app allows users to pick a seat using a 3-D seat locator and then get a flight check-in barcode to appear right on the live tile. Multitasking, a long-talked about feature, is finally appearing on Windows Phone 7. It appears more like the fast app switching on iOS, but it’s a needed addition.
Mango is geared toward connecting apps to other parts of the phone. That’s evident in the new IE9 browser, which brings up apps in search results to help users complete a task when appropriate. For example, a user can look up a movie on Bing and then the IMDb app will appear as a result. It’s part of an enhanced Bing on Windows Phone 7, which now serves up quick cards full of information on popular search results like movies or venues. The cards actually scrape live data so they can offer up concert information, for example at Madison Square Garden, or movie times. It also includes indoor maps for popular malls and other large locations. And it has a feature called Local Scout, which helps users learn about a particular neighborhood by organizing restaurants, things to do and attractions in one view.
Microsoft is trying to make smart use of its hardware similar to what Android (s goog) does. It’s not only implementing speech recognition for input, but it’s also doing barcode scanning, music recognition a la Shazam and visual search for products, so users can take a picture of a book, much like Google Goggles.
A lot of these features are simply catching Microsoft up in the smartphone race. But I like some of the smart touches with Bing, more flexibility for apps and better communications tools. And it’s got some nice new hardware partners in Nokia (s nok) and newly announced manufacturers Acer, Fujitsu and ZTE. But it would be great if these improvements appeared faster. We’re about to see a new OS from Apple (s aapl) and Android continues to evolve in elegance and functionality. Microsoft Windows Phone devices are gaining some nice features but the competition is still moving fast. It could still be playing catch up for some time if the market keeps moving like it does.