Microsoft Unveils Windows Phone 7.1 'Mango' with Over 500 New Features

Paul Lilly

Your Windows Phone 7 device is officially obsolete. At a press event in New York this morning and several media events around the world, Microsoft cut the ribbon on its next generation Windows Phone mobile platform codenamed "Mango," which introduces "more than 500 new features to push the boundaries of the smartphone experience."

Before we jump into Mango and it's many new features, let's put some worries to rest. Yes, your Windows Phone 7 device is yesterday's news, but don't toss it in a river just yet. Not only would that be environmentally irresponsible, but Microsoft is making the Mango release available for free to Windows Phone 7 customers (and will come standard on new phones beginning this fall).

"Seven months ago we started our mission to make smartphones smarter and easier for people to do more," said Andy Lees, president of the Mobile Communications Business at Microsoft. "With 'Mango,' Windows Phone takes a major step forward in redefining how people communicate and use apps and the Internet, giving you better results with less effort."

One of the main things Microsoft set out to do with Mango is create a "people-centric approach to communications."

"Of course, the phone was originally designed to do communications, it was all about making phone calls," Less said in Microsoft's webcast . "But today, people communicate in lots of rich ways: Text messaging, picture messaging, IM, chat, email, social networking, even checking in your location is communicating to others about where you are. Taking pictures is moved from being about capturing memories in order to able to share, tag, to be able to get comments and be the beginning of a laugh out loud. And people are communicating not just phone to phone, but phone to PC and even to TV. But the problem is that today smartphones only include the very basic communications. Everything else is an app, and you need different apps for different ways to communicate. This means that people need to be able to hunt and peck to be able to communicate and share, and they keep missing the moment."

App Integration

It all starts with improving the home screen experience with more information being brought into those now familiar Live Tiles. Mango introduces real-time information from apps without having to open them, making the Live Tiles more dynamic. There's also a new feature called App Connect designed to connect apps to search results and deepen their integration with Hubs, ultimately freeing users from having to "connect the dots between applications on their phones and any given scenario."

Here's an example. Let's saying you're using Bing to look up a movie. You would expect to uncover information about show times and theater locations, but why stop there? App Connect takes it to another level by surmising you might want to buy a ticket, and so it brings forward the Fandango app. You'll also be able to swipe through to other compatible apps, like IMDB, where you could click through and view the trailer.

"It's like having a great butler or a valet that you've known for 30 years who can anticipate your every need instead of you doing all the the work yourself," said Greg Sullivan, senior product manager of mobile communications at Microsoft. "Windows Phone stitches all of this together for you and connects the applications you have on your phone, or that we have in the marketplace, to the rest of what you're doing, in a way that's much, much deeper than any other platform. So you can go from Binging to buying in seconds."

The predictive nature of Mango isn't limited to movies and Bing, but what developers ultimately end up doing with App Connect.

Communication

With the Mango update, Windows Phone users can group contacts into personalized Live Tiles to see the latest status updates from the home screen. You may, for example, setup a group for your co-workers and another for your family and/or friends, and then send texts or IMs to an entire group at once. It's not a revolutionary concept, or even a new one by any means, but like everything Microsoft is trying to accomplish with Mango, it's about putting that functionality within easy reach.

Social networking runs a little deeper with Mango. Twitter and LinkedIn feeds have been integrated into contact cards, and conversation threads make it easy to weave between SMS text, Facebook chat, and Windows Live Messenger all within the same conversation.

Other ways Mango tries to make it easier to connect and share is through the use of a linked inbox where you can view multiple email accounts at once, and hands-free messaging with built-in voice-to-text and text-to-voice support.

Internet Explorer 9 and Beyond

Microsoft ported a version of IE9 over to Mango with support for HTML5 and full hardware acceleration, and Microsoft says it's exactly the same as the desktop version. In addition, Mango proposes to "connect the power of the web to the unique capabilities of Windows Phones, such as location awareness, camera, and access to apps, to present a way of viewing the web that is more localized, actionable, and relevant."

One way Mango does this is with a feature called "Local Scout." This provides hyperlocal search results and will recommend nearby eateries, shopping, and activities. You'll be able to see indoor maps of malls and other public locations, all of which is brought together on a "Quick Card," which gives users a quick summary of relevant information, including related apps.

Of course, this is Microsoft we're talking about here, and so Bing is a big part of the ecosystem and deeply integrated into Mango. One of the cooler implementations is that of "Bing Vision," essentially an image scanner that uses your phone's camera and ties in with App Connect, giving users another way to search in addition to text and voice.

During the webcast, Microsoft demonstrated Bing Vision by holding a Windows Phone 7.1 (pre-release version) in front of a book cover. The camera scanned the cover and (correctly) identified it as Miley Cyrus' latest autobiography. This brings up a Quick Card with a description of the book, lowest price, ratings/reviews, and different places to buy it. From there, Mango's App Connect feature kicks in, which identifies compatible apps, like Kindle. Tapping the Kindle app fires it right up and transfers the data over, whisking the user over to the book's entry in the Kindle Store. It's all very slick.

MISC

With over 500 new features, it would be a mammoth task trying to cover them all here, but we can point out some of the remaining highlights. These include:

  • Xbox Live: Your 3D avatar is integrated into the Games hub, eliminating the need to download a separate app. Gaming is a more social experience, as this is the only phone that connects to Xbox Live. Users can view friend requests, send/receive messages, view who's online and what they're playing, compare games with friends and colleagues, view achievements, and a whole lot more.
  • Multitasking: Users are able to jump around from app to app by holding down the back button to bring up a screen of recent app tiles. Similar to iOS, apps are frozen in the background and will come to life when you swipe one to the forefront. The upshot to this approach is improved battery life versus that of true multitasking.
  • Music Search: Think of Shazam. By holding the phone to a speaker, Mango's Music search lets users search Bing to get information about a song, such as the title, artist, and album title.

If you don't have an hour and a half to devote to watching Microsoft's webcast, you can get a glimpse of Mango in this two and a half minute YouTube demo .

Maximum Tech's take: By all accounts, Mango is certainly an ambitious and feature-rich update to the Windows Phone platform. But will it be enough? According to market research firm Gartner, Microsoft only sold 1.6 million WP7 devices in the first quarter of 2011, far less than Android (36.3 million), iOS (16.9 million), and RIM (13 million). Heck, that's even less than the number of Windows Mobile devices -- Microsoft sold a total of 3.6 million Windows devices in Q1, which means that 2 million weren't running Redmond's latest and greatest mobile OS.

Looking at the glass half full, the Windows Phone platform holds a lot of promise, and perhaps Mango will turn things around. It also doesn't hurt that Microsoft is bringing more hardware partners to the WP7 party, including Acer, Fujitsu, and ZTE Corp. Microsoft said new handsets shipping this fall will be powered by Qualcomm's second-generation Snapdragon processors.

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