Microsoft's smartphone operating system, Windows Phone 7, is being updated to version 7.5. Codenamed Mango, the update has been much trailed, and will be rolling out to existing handsets over the coming weeks.
As well as announcing a multitude of enhancements and new features for Windows Phone 7.5, Microsoft today formally announced four new hardware partners: Fujitsu, ZTE, Acer and (already much talked-about) Nokia.
ZTE has been swift to announce its first Windows Phone 7.5 handset, the Tania. This will have a 4.3in. 480-by-800-pixel screen, a 1GHz processor and 4GB of internal memory. It will be launched across Europe later this year.
Windows Phone 7.5's many tweaks and new features are designed to enhance usability and put the user in the driving seat. The aim of the new OS is to offer logical opportunities wherever you are, without requiring you to keep breaking off from activities to run apps in order to complete tasks.
Many of the new features should have been present from the outset. We're not sure why custom ringtones have only just surfaced, for example, or why the ability to use handsets as Wi-Fi hotspots for up to five devices only now makes an appearance — if sanctioned by operators. Similarly, the new 'conversation' (or threaded) views in email make it easy to follow a communication stream, but arguably could have been present earlier.
Still, the new features often show a remarkable degree of lateral thinking in terms of making smartphone use more intuitive, less obviously app-dependent and more task oriented.
One example is the new implementation of linked inboxes for email.
Much more than simply a unified inbox system, linked inboxes allow you to join inboxes in whatever configurations you like, give them names, and pin them to the Start screen. This offers multiple possibilities for keeping different types of email separate, yet easily accessible in logical groupings.
A similar degree of lateral thinking is applied to contacts, with the new contact groups feature offering a lot of flexibility. Once created, groups can be pinned to the Start screen, from where it's easy to message a group en masse by SMS, IM or email.
Group tiles display live data, so status updates are drawn down to the Start screen, enabling you to keep in touch with information more easily. The potential here in both business and social contexts is far reaching.
Some of the changes in the Office Hub should please business users. The Mobile versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint include more features, and there are a few templates for Word and Excel to help with on-device document creation.
Business users may also like the entirely new Local Scout feature. This is an online service that gathers information about the local area, dividing it across four panes — 'eat+drink', 'see+do', 'shop' and 'highlights'. You can pin individual Local Scout results to the Start screen for quick access at a later date.
Business travellers could research destinations and have data about them readily to hand on the Start screen. However, when we tried this for our local area, the search found pubs that were no longer in operation. A service is only as good as the data behind it.
This level of integration extends to applications too, so developers can work to have their apps show up where they are relevant to current tasks. For example, if you use Local Scout to identify an eatery and an app you've downloaded offers a table booking service, you can scroll through panes to make a booking via the app.
Social networking gets more visibility in Windows Phone 7.5 too. Facebook and Windows Live were integrated into Windows Phone 7, but Twitter and LinkedIn are now also supported natively. To avoid overload, you can decide which social networking account updates will be shown, and which should be hidden.
There are many new or enhanced features aimed specifically at business users. Support for IRM (Information Rights Management) is now in Outlook email and Office Mobile documents. This will help with the protection of sensitive information in corporate environments.
Users of Office 365 will, later this year, be able to use the Microsoft Lync Mobile app. Microsoft says this will provide presence information, IM sessions including multi-party chat, people search and conference calling features.
And companies that develop custom apps for internal use by employees can distribute them on the Applications Marketplace. These are hidden from the general public, but available via a deep-link URL.
There are many more enhancements, tweaks and new features to be found in Windows Phone 7.5, from enhanced Start screen capability to improved xBox LIVE services. Menus have added options in many instances, and while many of the changes are small, each one we've discovered offers an incremental usability improvement.
Just to give two more small examples: holding down the back button beneath the screen lets you switch between open apps, and a new music control panel drops down if you hit the side-mounted volume bar in any app.
Microsoft has retained the fundamentals of Windows Phone 7 for this update, but has made lots of changes under the surface. Whether it can attract more developers to augment the 30,000-plus apps currently available and take market share from rival, more popular, mobile operating systems remains to be seen.