Microsoft Debuts Next-Gen Windows Phone, Expands Handset Manufacturer Support

The size of the ecosystem that supports Windows Phone continues to expand, Microsoft also said in a press conference broadcast on the Internet, with more smartphone manufacturers committing to use Windows Phone in their handsets and the number of third-party applications for Windows Phone now exceeding 17,000.

Microsoft is playing catch up in the fast-growing mobile computing market where it lags rivals Apple and Google. The company has released few details about Windows Phone 7 sales since the product debuted in October.

The new release, code-named "Mango," emphasizes improved organization of information around people and groups rather than around individual "siloed" applications, said Andy Lees, president of Microsoft's mobile communications business, in a Tuesday press conference.

"We've put people at the center, not applications," Lees said, demonstrating the mobile operating system's new capabilities. "With Mango, the message always gets through. It's a smarter approach to applications."

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The new product has a feature called "threads" that lets users switch between text, Facebook chat and Windows Live Messenger within the same conversation. "Threads is a way to bring together all the communications you're using," Lees said. "We keep it all in one place and it's extremely easy to use."

Twitter and LinkedIn feeds are now integrated into the operating system's contact cards, according to Microsoft, while Facebook check-in is now built into Windows Phone and users can now view multiple e-mail accounts in a single linked inbox. The software also now has voice-to-text and text-to-voice capabilities that enable hands-free texting and chatting.

The new Windows Phone incorporates Microsoft's recently launched Internet Explorer 9 browser and will offer links to the upcoming Office 365 cloud application suite Microsoft is expected to make generally available later this year.

Microsoft has improved the Live Tiles feature that lets users see real-time information without opening an application, and has enhanced the integration between applications and the Windows Phone Pictures, Xbox Live and Office hubs. And a new Local Scout feature finds and recommends nearby restaurants, shops and activities.

Lees said Acer, Fujitsu and ZTE have committed to develop smartphones that incorporate Windows Phone, joining HTC, LG, Samsung and others that already manufacturer Windows Phone based handsets. And Mango will be the first release of Windows Phone to appear in phones manufactured by Nokia under an alliance it announced with Microsoft in February.

Microsoft said there are currently more than 17,000 applications for Windows Phone devices available through the Windows Phone Marketplace. That number should continue to grow: Lees said a new beta release of development tools for building applications that work with Mango is now available.

Lees also said a number of new service providers would be supporting Windows Phone, although he didn't disclose their names.