The recent iOS 5 announcement highlighted several interesting additions to Apple's app-focused operating system, such as the new Siri voice command interface, which will be available only on the iPhone 4S. In contrast, Microsoft's new Mango version of Windows Phone 7 (which is actually version 7.5) helps fulfill that platform's promise of helping people focus on the tasks they want to accomplish and the information they want to receive, rather than the apps they run -- especially when it comes to social networking and communications.
I had a chance to try Mango out using a Samsung Focus. My conclusion? Windows Phone 7 now feels like a complete, polished operating system rather than a work in progress.
Changes to social networking and contacts
Microsoft has clearly targeted social networking and contacts with Mango. For a start, it fixes the most glaring issue with earlier versions of Windows Phone -- incomplete support of social networking and difficulty with multitasking -- and now supports Twitter and LinkedIn.
Social networking is now woven through the entire Windows Phone experience. You don't need to consciously launch a Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn app in order to gain the benefits of social networking, because their capabilities are integrated directly into the way you use the phone.
For example, a new profile pane for each contact shows a combined history of your communications with that contact, whether it be via email, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or text messaging. A new pictures pane shows the photos that each contact has posted to Facebook and Windows Live. In addition, the new Me tile aggregates updates and content from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Windows Live, so you can see at a glance all the recent updates from your contacts on multiple social networking services. You can also use the Me pane to send updates to multiple social networking sites with a single post.
Another welcome change: Mango finally adds threaded messaging for email and text messaging, so you can easily follow all messages in a single conversation. And Mango introduces something even better: You can hold a single conversation with someone across multiple communications services. For example, if you start a conversation with someone on Facebook chat, you can continue that same conversation via text messaging.
Also new is the ability to filter which updates from which social networks you want displayed. If you're suffering from Twitter fatigue, for example, you can tell Windows Phone to stop displaying Twitter updates. When you're ready again for the unending Twitter stream, enable it.
And you can now place your contacts into groups -- family, colleagues, people on your softball team and so on -- using a feature appropriately named Groups. You can send out a single message to the entire group in several ways. You'll also be able to see the combined social networking updates (and the newest phones) of everyone in the group at a glance. One feature I found especially useful: You can pin a group to your Start screen, and the group's tile will tell you when anyone in the group posts to a social network or sends you a message. The tile also alerts you when you've missed a call.
Facebook integration has been strengthened, so events from Facebook are now included in your phone's calendar. However, you can't make changes to the Facebook events from the calendar -- you'll have to head to Facebook for that.
Microsoft also claims that Live Tiles update more frequently than in the past. As a practical matter, I didn't notice a difference, but those addicted to the need for instant updates may see one.
Each of these changes to social networking is useful, but what really counts is the cumulative effect. Use Mango for a while, and you'll find yourself more easily focusing on the content of your communications with others, and less on the mechanics of communications.
Bing takes center stage
The second most important set of Mango additions centers on Bing, Microsoft's search engine, which has gained a bunch of new features.
To begin with, the new Local Scout feature integrates into Bing Maps and shows a variety of local information, including places to eat, drink and shop, as well as local attractions and events. It grabs that information from a variety of partners such as Yelp.
Overall, Local Scout is a nifty addition, but it's only as good as the partner information, which is not always stellar. Restaurant information wasn't comprehensive; in my neighborhood, for example, it left out several of the best restaurants and most interesting stores. As for local things to see and do, it included events well over an hour's drive away, which may not fit everyone's idea of local. And I found the recommendations in its "highlights" section, which are supposed to list the most interesting places and things to do, downright strange at times -- for example, it listed a nearby burrito joint as one of the top three attractions in my vicinity. Note to Local Scout: My neighborhood is a whole lot more interesting than that.
Bing also adds a feature called Bing Vision, which is like a combination of the Google Goggles and Barcode Scanner Android apps. It scans bar codes, QR codes, Microsoft tags and the covers of CDs, DVDs and books; it then provides information about the object it scanned. I found the results to be hit-and-miss. It was able to identify the wireless Sonos 3 music system from a bar code, for example, but got the pricing wrong. It did, however, properly identify a CD of the opera Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner.
Bing Vision also says it will translate foreign words and signs into English. Based on my experience with it, though, it needs to re-take Languages 101. For example, when presented with the simple French phrase, Decrivez un acteur, it defined it as "Define an actor" rather than "Describe an actor." Worse yet, when confronted by the simple sentence, Votre francais est excellent, it translated it as "Your English is excellent."
A new music identification feature works like the Shazam music recognition app: It listens to and then identifies the song being played. I found it surprisingly accurate. As with similar apps, it had no trouble identifying popular music -- and while I've found that Shazam often chokes on classical music, the Bing feature was no slouch, correctly identifying Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1 after only a few seconds of listening.
The music ID feature also shows how Bing may eventually become less a standalone search engine than a kind of virtual glue connecting disparate parts of Windows Phone. For example, you can identify a song, have Bing search for the guitar tablature and lyrics, and then send the links to a music group you've set up.
Multitasking and apps
With Mango, Windows Phone joins the other major phone platforms in allowing a form of multitasking. You can now easily switch between running apps by pressing and holding the Back button. If all the open apps don't fit on one screen, you can swipe to see others.
Apps have been better integrated into the operating system. Do a Bing search, for example, and you'll see any related Windows Phone apps you might want to download. Tap the Music + Videos tile and swipe to the right, and you'll see any related apps you've installed on your device, such as a built-in radio player app.
Speaking of apps: Microsoft Marketplace now has a substantial number -- about 30,000. That's certainly nowhere near the estimated 500,000 for iOS or 250,000 for Android. But you'll find most of the popular apps you might expect, and you now have a solid choice of many others as well.
Mango introduces a number of welcome tweaks to the interface, notably on the Start screen. It's much easier to customize it -- you now have the ability to pin an item to the Start screen and move and delete tiles. You can also pin Groups and individual contacts, making it easier to follow friends. The Lock screen has received a modest makeover so that, if you're listening to audio, you don't need to unlock the phone in order to control your music player.
The on-screen keyboard is now context-sensitive, so it changes according to your task. When you're text messaging, for example, you can choose from ASCII emoticons, and when you're inputting an email address, you'll find .com and @ keys.
Mango gives Windows Phone the ability to share its 3G or 4G Internet connection with up to five other devices by setting up a Wi-Fi hot spot, something that Android devices and the iPhone already offer. But if you've got a Windows Phone device, don't start celebrating yet because this feature won't work on existing devices; only new ones will have this capability. (My review unit didn't support tethering, so I was unable to test this feature.)
As with Android and the iPhone, you'll have to pay extra for the tethering capability. Prices may vary depending on your carrier, although $20 per month is often the going rate. And tethering will not be available on every new Windows Phone device with Mango; availability will depend upon the specific device and carrier, so check before buying if this is important to you.
Windows Phone has always included voice commands, but you can now compose text messages and instant messages using your voice; Mango also will read text to you. But there's nothing in Windows Phone that comes close to the new Siri feature in iOS 5, which performs complex, multistep tasks by voice alone.
A new SmartDJ feature automatically creates playlists from your music collection, and there's better Xbox Live integration so that you can do things such as track how you've done in various games. There are now parental controls as well.
The bottom line
All in all, Mango is a significant upgrade to Windows Phone, and it brings out even more of the platform's strengths, notably the way in which information is brought to you, rather than you having to go out and search for it. With Bing's new features, and other improved functionality such as multitasking, Windows Phone is now a polished operating system.
Those with existing Windows Phone devices will welcome the upgrade. As for those buying a new phone, if you're looking for a smartphone with a task-based approach rather than an app-based one, you'll find Windows Phone 7.5 Mango to be a solid OS.