Windows Phone ‘Mango’ update unveiled with new phones

Microsoft on Tuesday unveiled many new features to its Windows Phone software but it left out a few that some people had hoped to see.

It said it will add 500 features, many of them that integrate applications together, in an update called Mango. The update will be pushed out for free to existing Windows Phone 7 users later this year. It will also appear on new handset models from manufacturers like HTC and Samsung that already make WP7 devices as well as from Acer, Fujitsu and ZTE, which will make Windows Phones for the first time.

Microsoft also said that the first Windows Phones to come as part of its new partnership with Nokia will run Mango. “We already have Nokia phones running Mango in our labs,” said Andy Lees, president of Microsoft’s mobile communications group, during a webcast of an event in New York to unveil the new features.

During the event, executives focused mainly on the new capabilities in Mango that might appeal to consumers. One new feature integrates a number of communications services into a single thread, so a user can switch between text messaging, Facebook chat and Windows Live Messenger within the same conversation, for instance.

Facebook is integrated into the photos application so that when a user uploads a photo to Facebook, the phone scans faces in the photo and can automatically identify the person, making tagging easier.

Mango ties together different applications in other ways too. In one example, Derek Snyder, a product marketing manager for Microsoft, showed off a new feature called Quick Cards. When he searched for a movie, he clicked on “showtimes” which opened a Quick Card for the movie that included information such as a synopsis and reviews. In addition, the Quick Card listed applications on the phone that might be useful. Snyder clicked on the IMDB application, which automatically opened to the page in the online film database for the movie he had searched for.

“It blurs the line between apps and Internet search,” he said.

In another example, he used a feature called Bing Vision that lets users scan images, QR codes and barcodes. Snyder scanned an image of a book, launching the Quick Card for it where he could read reviews and find it for sale online. The Quick Card also showed relevant apps including Amazon’s shopping app and the Kindle app. Tapping the Kindle app took him directly to the Kindle store where he could download the book.

At a Toronto-based event hosted by Microsoft Canada to brief reporters on the new version of Windows Phone (the version number hasn’t been finalized yet), Microsoft said all Canadian Windows Phone 7 users would get a free upgrade. “Existing customers will be able to take advantage of the majority of those 500 features,” says Tim Darling, Windows Phone lead for Microsoft Canada.

Mango also includes some updates to the live tiles, a feature unique to Windows Phone that lets users pin icons for applications on their home screens. With Mango, application developers have more options for feeding live information onto those tiles so that users can quickly see updates at a glance.

Snyder showed off a new application built by British Airways that takes advantage of the new features. The tile shows a user the status of their upcoming flight.

The British Airways application also demonstrates a new capability that lets developers combine Silverlight and XNA tools. XNA has typically been used by game developers and so includes features like 3D. The new British Airways application offers users a virtual walkthrough of the plane to let passengers choose their seat. Users can also find information about movies and food available on the plane.

It also offers users a scannable boarding pass that can be pinned to the home page, making it easier to open.

Snyder did show off a few new features likely to appeal to business users. For instance, users can now send protected messages. Such messages can’t be forwarded or opened on another phone.

Emails are also linked to calendars in Mango. When a user receives a meeting request via email, the message will include a link to the user’s calendar and will open the calendar in the date and time suggested for the meeting.

In Mango, you’ll be able to pin an e-mail folder to your start screen for quick access. For example, you can pin a specific folder for a project or from a specific group or person. You can also pin an RSS feed from Outlook. Emails will be organized by conversation, so replies to a thread will be a consolidated into a single view you can more easily follow.

Business users will appreciate the ability to search e-mail servers, like the Exchange Server, for older emails no longer stored on your phone. And finally, Microsoft Lync, the business communication service that combines IM, web conferencing and an internal social network, will now be available to Windows Phone customers via the free Lync Mobile app.

In addition to the new productivity features, Mango will also deliver some new features for IT professionals. Users will have access to complex (alpha-numeric) password support, Information Rights Management support for protecting e-mails and Office documents, and support for access to hidden corporate Wi-Fi networks.

Mango will include an updated version of Office that includes new versions of Excel, One Note, PowerPoint and other apps. People will be able to perform a wide array of Excel functions including highlighting cells to add them and making other changes from the phone.

Mango also will be the first version of the phone to include IE9, which the executives said will speed up browsing.

Microsoft is playing a bit of catch up by adding hardware-accelerated graphics and HTML5 to the mobile version of IE 9, but we’re happy to see this update. Furthermore, at least from the demos shown today, the Bing integration looks really nice. A few new features that make browsing that much easier include something called Local Scout, which uses GPS to recognize where you are and then provides you with hyper-local search results based on your preferences. Another neat feature is Music search. Sort of like Shazaam, you can simply hold your phone up to a speaker and Bing will identify the track that’s playing and give you information about the artist, song and where to buy it.

It will also include a Skype app that will allow users to make Skype calls from the phones. Microsoft recently announced plans to buy Skype. Using Skype on mobile phones has been a sticky issue with operators that don’t want free voice over Wi-Fi calling to impact their profits. Microsoft did not elaborate on pricing in the Skype app.

Mango will also include a Twitter app and will support Office 365.

As Windows Phones will be more widely available around the world, via the new hardware partners, support for more languages has been added to the software. New languages include Brazilian Portuguese, Simplified and Traditional Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Greek, Hungarian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian and Swedish.

Some of the new features have been announced by Microsoft over the past months or were leaked in advance. A couple that were expected, including support for near field communications and a front facing camera, were not announced. Some people had also expected to see new handsets at the event in New York.

The executives also did not comment on ways that its process for pushing the update out to users might be improved. It struggled for months and through many problems as it pushed out the first two updates to current users of Windows Phones.

They also did not discuss ways that the company can maintain interest in current generation phones in light of the coming update. Verizon Wireless plans to introduce its first Windows Phones this week and they will run the current generation software. Some potential buyers could wonder if they should wait for the new hardware and software to come out later this year.

With notes from Brian Jackson (ITBusiness.ca) and Ginny Mies (PC World).

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