Microsoft Tuesday unveiled the latest version of its Windows Phone platform, with enhancements including deeper social media integration, multitasking and an upgraded Internet Explorer browser tailored to mobile devices. The updated mobile operating system codenamed "Mango" will roll out on new phones starting this fall.
Microsoft's announcement of the upgraded OS comes seven months after the company launched Windows Phone 7 in a bid to challenge Apple and Android-maker Google in the burgeoning smartphone business. Despite mostly positive reviews, Windows Phone 7 devices have failed to gain much traction with consumers or take share from competitors.
With the latest changes, Microsoft is clearly hoping to increase the appeal of its smartphone platform in connection with its recently formed strategic alliance with Nokia. Under that deal, the Finnish phone giant will replace Symbian with Windows Phone as the primary operating system for its smartphones.
Expanded social-media tools are a big part of the redoubled effort to win over mobile users with Mango. Twitter and LinkedIn have been added to the mix, along with Facebook. New social features include the ability to get status updates pushed to the "live tiles," or subject-oriented hubs that give the Windows Phone home screen its distinctive look and feel.
Another capability, dubbed "Threads," is designed to enable users to shift between text, Facebook chat and Windows Live messenger in the same conversation -- depending on which mode works best at a given time or place. The new software also now supports location check-ins via Facebook.
When it comes to apps, Microsoft has made it easier in Mango to switch among apps in use and allow apps to run in the background to help preserve battery life. It has also taken steps to integrate apps more directly into basic phone functions like search, via a function called "App Connect." For instance, if someone were looking up movie information, they might be presented with Fandango's ticketing app to buy tickets, or the IMDB movie database app, along with showtimes and theater locations.
To improve the mobile Web experience, Mango will add Internet Explorer 9 -- the latest version of Microsoft's browser -- along with other new wrinkles, including "Quick Cards," a feature that allows users to see a quick summary of relevant information -- including apps -- when searching for a product, event or place. Other tools include Local Scout, which provides hyper-local search results and recommends nearby restaurants, shops and other venues.
"Our focus is what people want to do most -- communications, applications and Internet," said Andy Lees, president of Microsoft's Windows Phone division, at the Mango presentation. "We're taking each of those to the next level. Mango is not just easier and faster, but it knows where you're going."
He added that developer tools for Mango would available as of today so new apps for the platform would be ready for download when new phones running the platform hit stores this fall. Existing Microsoft partners including Samsung, LG and HTC will offer devices with the upgraded Windows Phone software -- as will new ones, including Acer, Fujitsu and China-based ZTE.
Mango will also be the first release that runs on Nokia Windows Phone devices, expected to debut at the start of 2012. Whether the changes in its updated smartphone platform will translate into higher sales for Microsoft and its partners is an open question.
During the first quarter, only 1.6 million of the 100 million smartphones sold worldwide were Windows Phone 7 devices, according to new Gartner data. And Android and Apple's iOS continue to gain share at the expense of Windows Phone.
While applauding Microsoft's efforts, Avi Greengart, who leads device research at Current Analysis, points out that the company still offers far fewer mobile apps than Apple and Google and faces an uphill battle as a third contender in the market. "This is a great mobile OS, but Microsoft is largely still playing catch-up while Google and Apple aren't standing still," he said, noting that the next iPhone model could ship before Mango-powerd devices this fall.
Both Gartner and rival tech research firm IDC have predicted, however, that Windows Phone will pick up steam once the platform begins rolling out on Nokia phones. Each has projected that through the two companies' alliance, Windows Phone by 2015 will capture about 20% of the global smartphone market, second only to Android.
Nokia expressed its support for the upgraded Microsoft platform today. "We are very excited about our strategic partnership with Microsoft, and Mango is a great milestone for the first Nokia with Windows Phone devices," said Jo Harlow, executive vice president for Smart Devices at Nokia, in a blog post today.