Windows Phone's "Mango" update feels like the smartphone platform Microsoft wanted to debut 12 months ago, loaded with tons of features and deeply integrated with services ranging from Twitter and LinkedIn to Office 365.
Windows Phone represents Microsoft's attempt to establish itself as a viable competitor in the smartphone arena. To its credit, Microsoft realized that creating a platform that cloned Apple's iOS or Google Android wouldn't resonate with users; instead, the company consolidated apps and features into a set of subject-specific hubs, such as "People" and "Games." This tile interface (which relies on a design aesthetic Microsoft calls "Metro") is aesthetically pleasing and a welcome change from the gridlike screens of apps that define other smartphones.
Microsoft first released Windows Phone near the end of 2010 with this interface in place, but the platform seemed a bit barren. It lacked some vital features, such as multitasking, which already existed on competitors' phones. The Marketplace for apps, despite Microsoft's attempts to enlist developers to its cause, likewise felt empty in comparison to Apple's App Store and the Android Marketplace, both of which offered hundreds of thousands of apps.
But Windows Phone is a vital part of Microsoft's overall cloud strategy, and the company decided to keep investing in the platform. Earlier in 2011, it released some minor tweaks to the platform. Mango, however, is major: the equivalent of taking your car, detailing the frame a bit, and adding a whole new engine and dashboard.
Indeed, there are 500 new features in all, some of them extremely useful. Multitasking is an elegant addition, and involves pressing the "back" button until a separate screen appears with images of your recent apps. The calendar consolidates dates from multiple sources, including Facebook and Outlook: Unlike my regular PC, I can flip through my smartphone's calendar agenda and see a friend's party (Facebook) living alongside a trip to Tokyo (Outlook).
On the email front, you can now link together email inboxes instead of (if you have multiple accounts on different services) filling your Start screen with email-related tiles. There's now a "conversation view" that groups emails by subject. Messaging comes in threads with cartoonlike "bubbles" for each message, and consolidates missives from texting, Facebook and Messenger.
Microsoft also spent considerable time revamping its People hub, and now offers Windows Phone users the ability to consolidate certain contacts into Groups such as Family or Work. The People hub also supports Twitter and LinkedIn, meaning you can receive feeds from those services. And via the Windows Phone "Me" tile, you can see the latest notifications and set your chat status.
In addition, Mango offers a new app called Local Scout, which offers a quick glance at local restaurants and shopping. You can scan reviews for eateries, for example, and find their location on a map.
Windows Phone's Photo Hub is more robust, with the ability to share images on Facebook, SkyDrive, Twitter and Google Mail. There's also an "auto fix" feature that "improves" photos before you send them into the world-it lightened some extremely dark photos I snapped at Amazon's Kindle Fire press conference in New York and might have performed some other tweaks as well.
For those who plan on using their Windows Phone for work, Microsoft has revamped the Office Hub. You can use it to access documents stored on Microsoft's SkyDrive or Office 365 cloud services. Excel has been given a hefty dose of steroids, with the ability to perform light calculations and re-sort cells.
Microsoft also revamped the Xbox Live hub. Even if you don't have an account, you can still download games from the Marketplace and play them within the games hub (Gravity Guy is worth checking out, especially if you want something different from Angry Birds).
With regard to search, Bing now offers music search (you let the phone "listen" to any ambient music playing in the vicinity, and it does its best to name the song) and the ability to scan tags and QR codes.
The other Mango tweaks aren't quite so apparent. When you shut your device down, a new "Slide down to power off" screen appears. The live tiles seem livelier than in the previous Windows Phone version, the animations a little smoother. One can assume Microsoft adjusted the under-the-hood performance.
Overall, Mango represents a substantial improvement to Windows Phone. Microsoft's decision to integrate services such as Facebook into its features and its focus on creating seamless experiences within the hubs (such as consolidating messages and email) make the platform a far more serious contender in the smartphone wars. At its best, features like Local Scout and the revamped Office hub make Windows Phone Mango less a phone and more a true digital assistant.
The question is whether Mango will help Microsoft build a more substantial presence in smartphones, where its market share has fallen over the past few quarters. A recent report from research firm NPD Group's Connected Intelligence Service suggested that some 44 percent of smartphone owners are considering the purchase of a Windows Phone device. But time will tell whether Mango, in conjunction with new partnerships with hardware vendors like Nokia, will pay off for Redmond in a big way.
Microsoft began rolling out Mango to smartphones starting Sept. 27, but it could be several weeks before all devices receive the update.