When I wrote the first preview of the second major release of Windows Phone back in April, Microsoft had just concluded its annual MIX developer show and had made its first significant revelations about the product. This week, Microsoft held a formal press conference at which it revealed many (but, as it turns out, not all) major new consumer-oriented feature that will come in this version, called "Mango" internally. And when we combine that with some business-oriented Mango features we learned about the previous week at TechEd, we suddenly have a more complete picture of where Microsoft is taking its stellar new mobile platform.
Curiously, Microsoft didn't reveal everything about Mango, as I'd hoped. The final name, for example, is still a mystery, though I've been told it will almost certainly be marketed as Windows Phone 7.5 when it appears in September or October 2011. There are going to be new phones, from existing hardware makers such as HTC, LG, and Samsung, as well as new devices from new partners such as Acer, Fujitsu, ZTE, and, of course, Nokia, but we didn't even get a hint at what these would look like. (And where the heck was Dell? Dell's Venue Pro is widely lauded as one of the very best first generation Windows Phone handsets.)
And Microsoft has promised a whopping 500 new features in this list, which sounds impressive if suspiciously similar to the "Apple Math" that company uses whenever it rolls out a new Mac OS X version. I'd love to verify this list ... but Microsoft isn't providing it, at least not yet. So what we've got for now is a promise, and a hint at what's to come.
And that's just fine, because what we do know about Mango already is quite impressive. This is going to be a major Windows Phone release, as Microsoft claims, one that extends the platform in key areas that map very neatly to those differentiators that the company highlighted back at the original launch. Point being, if you're already a fan of Windows Phone, you're going to love Mango. And if you're on the fence, this may just be good enough to tip things in Windows Phone's favor.
Here's what we've found out so far this month. (And it's very specifically just the new stuff. If it was covered previously in my first Windows Phone "Mango" Preview, I won't rehash it here.)
Home screen/Live Tiles improvements. Microsoft is making the Live Tiles that appear on the Windows Phone home screen (or "Start screen," annoyingly Microsoft uses both terms) more expressive, capable of providing more "at a glance" information in Mango. "We're bringing more information to Live Tiles," Microsoft senior product manager Derek Snyder said during the press conference. "When you have new call history, when you have messages, when you have IMs, even when you have stuff going on in your social networks. You'll notice that notifications are being pushed into these smarter Live Tiles."
Bing 2.0. Well, Microsoft doesn't call it that, but let's just say that the updates in Bing--which Microsoft claims is not an app on Windows Phone, but is rather an integrated experience--are among the biggest changes coming in Mango. And this is great, because the Bing experience in v1 was pretty bare bones compared to the iPhone Bing client that was available before Windows Phone shipped.
The Bing app (sorry) has been updated with some new icons, placed in a new app bar at the bottom, that provide access to some new features I'll discuss in just a minute. There's also a new location information (to the right and under the search bar) that was supposed to be in v1 but sort of didn't make it.
New Bing features include....
Bing Audio, which allows you to search for music using your phone. Hold up the phone to a song and identify it, similar to how Shazam works, apparently.
Bing Vision, which lets you visually search using the device's camera. This includes barcodes, Microsoft Tags, QR Codes, Books, CDs, DVDs, and even text using OCR. Users could even scan products or images of products.
Local Scout, which provides information about the local area, allowing you to "live like a local." Basically, it just uses the GPS in the phone to see where you are and then provide a nice UI to local services.
Quick Cards, which aggregate information about search results--a restaurant, for example--so you can learn more about the item without navigating to other web pages. So in the restaurant example, you'd see pivots for the contact info, photos of the place, reviews, user ratings, and so on, all aggregated into one UI from multiple sources.
App Connect. This is technically a Bing feature, but it's kind of a big deal, so I wanted to call it out.
With Windows Phone, Microsoft would like for developers to integrate their services into the hubs (Pictures, Music + Video, and so on) instead of offering "whack a mole" standalone apps. This hasn't happened much from what I can see, though Microsoft is building on the integrated services from v1 in a few ways in Mango too. (See below in this list.) However, Microsoft is also offering developers a new way to integrate their services into Mango phones, via apps that can be triggered in response to search requests. Looked at one way, this new approach is like a "meet me halfway" kind of thing. That is, developers have swarmed to create individual apps for Windows Phone (18,000 and counting) but they've not embraced integrated services at all. So this is a way to get their apps integrated, a bit less elegantly, with built-in Windows Phone search features.
I'm not explaining it well, I agree. But the truth is, this is hard to explain. Here's how Microsoft described it during the Windows Phone Mango press conference. "We can hand off seamlessly and effortlessly between searches that you do on the phone, and the applications that are most suited to complete those searches," Snyder said. "So, I have IMDB on my phone. It turns out [IMDB is] really good for finding movie information, and it's a very immersive application. That actually may be where I want to terminate my search [for a movie]. [Bing] hands off [the search], using app shortcuts, directly to the part of the app that I care about, which in this case is all the information about [the movie in question]. So, you see that we've blurred the line between applications and Internet search with Mango."
Deeper Facebook integration. While the original version of Windows Phone offered some interesting Facebook integration, Mango goes a step further and really makes Facebook a truly integrated experience on the phone. This means Facebook Chat integrated throughout (in Messaging, which was previously just for text messages, as well as via some other new UIs discussed below). And it means Facebook Events integration with the Calendar app.
Dive into a Facebook Event in Calendar and you'll see a multi-column layout with Wall, Guests, and Details pivots, giving you an amazing and familiar UI for really interacting with Facebook ... without first going into a Facebook app or web page.
And the Facebook photo uploading experience has been dramatically enhanced. Now, the uploader uses facial recognition to let you tag faces before they're uploaded. That's pretty cool.
LinkedIn integration. We previously learned that Twitter would be integrated into Mango, but this week we found out that LinkedIn will be as well.
Improved People hub and contacts management. In v1, Windows Phone's People hub offers contacts management for all of your account types, including Facebook. In Mango, Twitter (previously announced) and LinkedIn (new) are being added too. This provides a single place for all your contacts, not multiple apps as on the iPhone or Android. Smart.
Diving into individual contacts, which are displayed via a Contact Card, Mango provides more context than in v1. So it still has social networking updates for each contact, but now each Contact Card also provides access to that person's social networking-based photos, regardless of where they're posted. (Assuming of course those services are integrated into Windows Phone.) So you can dive right in from the UI that makes sense--the People hub--instead of navigating to the Pictures hub first. (They're in there too, of course.)
Each Contact Card also includes a History pivot which lists your interaction history with that person. "It's actually a rich communication history as well, where [you] have e-mails, picture messages [MMS], text messages, IMs, and also visual voice mails, which are now available as part of the “Mango” release as well," Snyder noted.
Mango also supports contact groups. "Groups help you mirror your real life relationships on your phone," Snyder said. "And I've gone ahead and set up groups for my family, for some friends in New York City, some best friends that I have in Seattle. You can set up as many groups as you like."
Navigate into a group, and you get an interesting tiles-based UI that very closely resembles the Windows Phone home screen, except that instead of apps, each tile represents a contact. (This type of UI appears in a few other new places in Mango too.) So you get access to each person, of course, but also an aggregated What's New feed that comingles all the social networking updates from each group member into a single view, and a Pictures pivot that does the same for photos.
The most interesting aspect of groups, perhaps, is the ability to do group communication. This includes email, of course, but also Windows Live Messenger (instant messaging) and Facebook Chat. And it's intelligent so that based on your contacts' availability and presence, only the communication types that make sense will surface. This looks good to me, but extensibility--and then third party adoption too--is key.
Finally, groups can be pinned to the home screen, just like individual contacts.
Windows Live Messenger integration. In v1, Microsoft inexplicably farmed out a Windows Live Messenger app to a third party, which is useless since third party apps can't multitask and there's no way to get notifications unless the app is running. This is fixed in Mango, but in keeping with the new OS's integration mantra, Windows Live Messenger isn't an app, it's an integrated experience. So you can launch Messenger conversations through the new Messaging app instead of using a completely different app. Which leads me to...
Threads: Major enhancement to Messaging app - This is somewhat related to the People hub stuff, but it surfaces through the Messaging app, which in v1 is just for MMS and SMS messages, and is in fact a pretty major new feature so I'll cover it separately. "Threads is a way to weave together all the communication that you're already using," Snyder noted. Basically, it keeps all of your textual communications with a contact--text messages, Facebook Chat and Windows Live Messenger--aggregated as a single conversation, in the same way that the v1 Messaging app keeps all of your SMS and MMS messages with a single contact aggregated together. And you can switch back and forth between these communication types as you will.
Improved Games hub. The Games hub--which is often mistakenly called the Xbox or Xbox LIVE hub--has been "completely redesigned." Long story short, it's more attractive and all of that stuff that previously required the awful, HTML-based Xbox LIVE Extras app are now integrated right into the hub where they belong.
Your Xbox LIVE avatard is 3D now, which means he can be even more annoying, and of course you can have all sorts of collectables, add-ons and other silliness. You can edit the avatard on the phone now too. (Can I delete the avatar? Choose not to use the avatar? Come on guys.)
More email improvements. One of the big complaints about the Mail app in Windows Phone v1 is that you can't link multiple accounts into a single instance of the app as you can on other mobile platforms. Instead, each account you added to the phone gets its own instance of the mail app. So if you configure Windows Live, Gmail, and your work email on the phone, you have three separate mail apps to check all day long. This isn't just silly, it goes against the whole Windows Phone "integration" mantra.
Cue Mango, which will finally support linked inboxes, where you can manage two or more email accounts from a single instance of the mail app. Finally.
Voice control for hands-free texting and chatting. As with the Kinect, the best UI on Windows Phone may ultimately turn out to be voice control, which in this case makes plenty of sense since, well, it is a phone and everything. Snyder demonstrated one interesting scenario for speaking into Windows Phone: hands-free texting and chatting, complete with acronym and abbreviation support. The phone will even prompt you appropriately ("You can say reply, call, or I'm done") and read messages to you. Pretty cool.
Virtual keyboard improvements. While the Windows Phone virtual keyboard isn't perfect, it's pretty darn good and, in my experience so far, the best of the virtual keyboards on smart phones out there. It's getting better: "In Mango, we've taken [predictive typing] to the next level by actually predicting the words before you have a chance to make the mistakes at all," Snyder said. "For instance, common phrases, like 'happy birthday,' we understand that the most common word that comes after 'happy' is 'birthday,' and so we present that right on the screen. And so it's a much faster, and much more intuitive typing experience."
Other new business-oriented features. Previously at TechEd 2011, Microsoft spelled out the business-oriented changes coming in Windows Phone Mango. I wrote about these changes in a few places, but the WinInfo news article, Microsoft Announces New Business Features In Windows Phone 7.5, should work. Long story short: A Lync communications/presence client, Office 365 integration, pinnable email folders, Conversation view, and (Exchange) server search for email, and (some) new Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) policies.
Hardware partnerships new and old
Microsoft announced that Acer, Fujitsu, and ZTE would be releasing Windows Phone "Mango" based handsets, though it's not clear which international markets each will target. Additionally, LG, HTC, and Samsung will all release second generation Windows Phone handsets for Mango as well. (As noted before, Dell was curiously absent from that list. This doesn't mean Dell won't have second-gen devices, but it was a curious omission.)
Better language support and international availability of services
Microsoft announced it will support additional languages in Windows Phone "Mango," including Brazilian Portuguese, Simplified and Traditional Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Greek, Hungarian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, and Swedish. Less specifically, it also said it would "greatly expand the list of countries where consumers have access to apps via Windows Phone Marketplace.