Though it’s not launching for several more months, Microsoft is getting its first major Windows Phone update — codenamed “Mango” — out in front of developers and media way early, just as it did with the Windows Phone 7 kickoff a year ago. As a refresher, this is the update that Redmond first teased at Mobile World Congress back in February, but it wasn’t until a press event in New York about a month ago that we really got a deep dive on what Mango brings to the table. All told, they’re claiming a total of around 500 real, actual, customer-facing improvements, particularly focused on contact management, multitasking, and Bing — but there are tweaks spread throughout the entire platform.
There’s no new hardware to talk about — yet — but we’ve got a Samsung Focus here with Mango loaded, so it’s time to dig in and see what’s changed, what’s good, and what needs improvement. Remember: this isn’t a final build, and pretty much everything you read here is subject to change (hopefully for the better) by the time you’ve got a retail Mango device in your hands. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s have a look at how far we’ve come since 7.0.
The bulk of the People hub (and contact management in general) carries over from Windows Phone 7, and if you ask me, that’s just fine — I thought it was already attractive and plenty functional from the start. In fact, you can broaden at least part of that statement: as a whole, Windows Phone 7 as it stands today is exceptionally attractive. And needless to say, the so-called Metro UI isn’t going anywhere — Mango’s more about plugging a few holes that Microsoft didn’t have time to fill for last fall’s launch and expanding in a few creative directions that its competitors haven’t, not about refreshing the look and feel.
But back to contact management. As before, signing into your account the first time you power up the phone creates a “Me” tile on the home screen, but you’ve got a little bit more functionality now with support for Facebook check-ins (Foursquare would be great, too) and setting of your Windows Live Messenger status — Available, Busy, Away, and so forth. We’re told that the Live Tile itself will be showing dynamic information culled from Facebook, your messages and emails, and your new voicemails, but for whatever reason, I never saw this work — the tile just cycled between my Facebook profile picture and the word “Me,” although I could see updates flow in when I’d check the What’s New pivot inside the hub. My guess is that this just isn’t working reliably yet in this build. For what it’s worth, I noticed similar behavior with my other contacts when I pinned them to the home screen — some tiles would show Facebook status updates, others wouldn’t.
Otherwise, the headline feature in Mango’s People hub is the addition of Groups, which simply allow you to group contacts together. As you might expect, doing this unlocks a fair bit of magic: your created groups each effectively get their own hubs that appear at the top of the All pivot in the main People hub, right above the list of all your contacts. Inside, you’ve got a tile for each member of the group — these look and behave the same way as they would on the home screen, which means that dynamic updates from Facebook and other services will appear (though I had the same bugs here that I mentioned before). Below, you’ve got mass communication options, Text and Send Email, each labeled with the number of group members that have the information necessary to participate in that form of communication. For instance, I’ve got a group of three contacts and only two have phone numbers associated with them, so the Text option reads “2 of 3 members” to let me know that not everyone will be involved. You’ve also got a What’s New pivot that aggregates status updates from members of the group — which you can reply to directly from this screen — and a Pictures pivot. I found the layout and behavior of this particular screen a little odd. There’s a box at the top labeled “Pictures of [group name]” that gives you quick access to aggregated pictures of the group’s members, but there’s no way to get to an aggregation of their albums — instead, that’s broken down in a list below, one menu item to jump out to each member’s albums individually. Considering how aggregated and unified everything else is here, that seems like a strange omission.
As with individual contacts, you can pin your groups to the home screen as Live Tiles — and that’s a feature that I’ve really taken to. Having your coworkers or particular groups of friends together as Live Tiles is... well, if nothing else, cool: each tile is cleverly animated to cycle between fragments of each member’s profile pictures, interspersed with status updates. Don’t let the Windows Phone commercials fool you — you’re not going to be able to glance at these tiles and divine all the information you need — but they’re really attractive ways to lively up your home screen while making it really easy to, say, see what new pictures of your old high school buddies have shown up on Facebook today.
Email and calendar
Mango’s email client looks largely the same as before, but it’s got a few new tricks up its sleeve. First up, there’s a fairly well-implemented conversation view that groups threads together — you can visually distinguish them from singleton emails by virtue of an indent and vertical gray bar in the message preview beneath the subject line. By default they’re collapsed; a single tap expands them out to reveal all the emails in the thread. The functionality also allows group message management: tapping and holding on a collapsed thread lets you delete, move, flag, or toggle the read status on all the contained messages at once. As with many (if not most) other threaded email implementations I’ve seen, it’s pretty easy to fool the app if you’ve got multiple unrelated messages with the same subject line — they’ll all show up grouped together. That’s not a huge deal but for one exception: emails with blank subject lines, which I think most of us get every once in a while. I sent myself a test email without a subject, and when it showed up on the phone, it immediately became threaded in with dozens of old subject-less emails floating in my inbox. It seems like Microsoft’s quick fix there is simply to disable threads for emails without subjects. (Oh, and if you’re not into threaded email views at all, no worries — you can disable it completely from the app’s settings.)
Next up, linked inboxes. As with unified messaging (which I’ll get to in the next section), this is a trick webOS has been pulling off for some time; iOS and BlackBerry OS too, for that matter. Microsoft’s twist is that you can link just some inboxes and leave others separate. So for instance, if you had a handful of personal accounts that you wanted to view together plus a work account that you wanted to keep isolated, Mango lets you do that. It’s trivially easy to link and unlink - there’s a menu item at the bottom of the app that you tap, choose the configured accounts that you want linked, and optionally change the name of the combined inbox. Afterwards, it’ll automatically show up as a Live Tile on the home screen. One niggle is that composing an email from the linked inbox sends you to a full-screen account chooser each and every time — I’m not aware of a way to set a default or to skip the screen and be able to change accounts from the email composition screen itself, which would be cleaner.
On the calendar side, it’s the same story — it looks the same, but the devil’s in the details. Actually, upgraders will immediately notice the addition of a To-Do pivot in the Calendar app that offers simple task list functionality: you get a subject line, priority setting (low, medium, or high), due date, and a notes field. You can also set a reminder alarm for just a single date and time; that’s fine for my use, personally, but if you’re coming from a more powerful dedicated to-do app, this thing probably won’t cut the mustard. The to-dos can sync with your Exchange and Windows Live accounts, but I didn’t have any luck getting it to play nice with Google Tasks (no surprise). Once you’ve got your to-dos filled out, you’ll see them in the integrated Agenda pivot, but I was disappointed that they didn’t show up on the Calendar Live Tile; what’d be nice here is if Microsoft provided some sort of dedicated To-Do tile that you could pin to the home screen.
The other big news in the Calendar app is support for multiple calendars per Exchange ActiveSync account. I personally use multiple calendars extensively in my Gmail and Google Apps accounts, so I was particularly stoked to hear this — unfortunately, though, Google’s actively blocking Windows Phone users from selecting more than one calendar on Google Sync. Actually, I was totally unable to get to Google Sync settings from the phone’s browser, but when I tricked it into loading on my PC using an iPhone user agent, it recognized that I had synchronized with a Windows Phone and limited the total number of calendars selected to one. My hope is that Google will get this patched up by the time Mango launches, but I wouldn’t hold my breath — Google’s been spotty in the past about improving Sync in a timely fashion.
One of Mango’s major thrusts is unifying (or at least, attempting to unify) all of the types of communication you have with your contacts: calls, text messages, IMs, Facebook updates, and so on. Windows Phone 7 was already on that path, but Mango takes it a step further with a refined Messaging app that brings SMS, Facebook, and Windows Live Messenger together in one place. Of course, this isn’t a new trick - webOS has been doing it all along, and it does so with more types of accounts. Ultimately, that’s what’s going to limit the usefulness of what Microsoft is doing here: it needs, at bare minimum, support for AIM and Google Talk in the integrated client. As “unified messaging” goes, I’d actually argue that partially-unified messaging is less helpful and more troublesome than a complete lack of unification where you’re using different apps to manage each service.
That said, the functionality that’s here works simply and ably. For each active messaging thread that you’ve got going with a contact, the top of the screen indicates the service you’re currently using - Text, Messenger, and so on - and as you (or your contact) change services along the way, a small note appears between chat bubbles to let you know that the change has occurred. A new button at the bottom of the screen lets you change services on the fly; if you’ve only got one service available for a given contact, the button won’t appear.
Speaking of changing services, I did run into a couple speed bumps along the way. First - and I’m assuming this won’t be a problem for the overwhelming majority of users - you can’t add multiple Windows Live Messenger accounts to a single contact. If you try, you’ll get an error. Unfortunately, this means that if you’ve got friends in this situation, they’ll need to live as two separate contacts in your People hub, which is counterintuitive and confusing. Second, there’s no way to link Windows Live Messenger contacts from the Messaging app itself, so I found that I needed to visit the People hub an awful lot to get everything working correctly (linking is critical to unifying the messaging). Fortunately, this is a one-time problem - link it and you’ll never need to worry about it again, so it’s really only going to be an issue for the first few days you’ve got the phone.
Voice search was already prominently integrated into Windows Phone from day one, but voice generally takes on a bigger role in Mango - and one of the places you’ll notice that is in messaging. A microphone button at the bottom of every thread lets you dictate your SMS or IM, and it’s quick - the phone will announce “say your message!” in a synthesized voice within about a half second of initiating the function, then you just start talking. I had about 50 percent success with it in a quiet room using common words and phrases; as for proper nouns, I figured it might be smart enough to deduce the names of my contacts, but I didn’t have much luck there. Funnily enough, I found that the speech-to-text was either dead on or completely wrong, there was very little in between. I imagine the accuracy of this will vary a bit from phone model to model with the quality and position of the microphone, but on the Focus, I think I’d generally avoid it.
Windows Phone’s gallery app (which is just a swipe away from the viewfinder — a feature I still absolutely love) now features an “auto-fix” function that can be triggered from the menu to automatically adjust exposure, highlights, and saturation. In my quick testing, I found that it definitely did a good job bringing definition to dark areas of photos, but I found myself usually saying “I think I could do better with a couple sliders.” In other words, I’d prefer a little more adjustment capability. In general, “fiddling” is counter to Windows Phone’s mantra of keeping your head from being buried in the phone — but considering Microsoft’s focus on making sure Windows Phone produces great photos, I think this is one place where they could make an exception for some basic controls.
When you share your photos on Facebook or Windows Live, Mango automatically runs face recognition and prompts you to tap the boxes to associate contacts with the faces it finds - and it happens basically instantaneously, even before the photo uploads. What I don’t understand, though, is why Microsoft’s limiting the functionality to photos shared on services. I understand that this is an extremely social platform — almost to the point where non-Facebook users shouldn’t even consider it — but given that all the heavy lifting is happening in the phone itself and you’ve got plenty of local storage, I don’t see why you couldn’t tag photos for your own reference and keep the associations inside the People hub without exporting for everyone to see.
Bing Vision and Local Scout
Bing has rapidly become a rallying point for Microsoft — a product platform that’s positioned as an answer to Google in many ways, though it’s generally regarded as having a long way to go to get there. With Local Scout and Bing Vision in particular, I get the impression that Microsoft’s insinuating “we’re doing this better than Google or anyone else.” It’s a bold claim — but then again, pretty much everything about Windows Phone has been “bold” in one way or another since day one.
I’ll admit: I love Local Scout. Not because it’s necessarily better than Yelp, Google Places, or any number of other local attraction products already on the market, but because it’s so tightly integrated with the fabric of the platform, it’s very well designed, and — I can’t stress enough how important this is — it’s fast. You really can’t help but use it and use it frequently. To get to it, you just hit the search button regardless of what you’re doing on the phone (which, admittedly, is still a sore spot for me and very different than the way Android search contextually) and hit the leftmost button at the bottom of the Bing app, Scout. It’s easy enough to access it that I found myself doing it pretty much everywhere I went - even in my own city — and I never failed to catch wind of an event or restaurant that I hadn’t already known about.
But allow me to back up for a second. What all does Local Scout do? Basically, it takes a look at where you are then breaks out into four pivots — Eat+Drink, See+Do, Shop, and Highlights. Eat+Drink, as you’ve probably guessed, calls out the nearest bars and restaurants and displays addresses, distances, relative costs, and ratings. See+Do is a tile grid of local attractions and events — if Bing can find an image to go along with a particular item, you’ll see it in the background of the tile, and you can tap any tile for full details. Shop resembles the Eat+Drink list but for retail instead of dining, and Highlights seems to somehow intelligently select a few places from across all the categories that it thinks you should check out, though I’m not sure what black magicks Microsoft is using to make those selections. In any event, the data for all this jazz is coming from a variety of sources: I saw TripAdvisor, Citysearch, and Zvents in there, but I’d imagine there are a number of others. I saw a few recommendations on the See+Do results that didn’t make any sense; offices of businesses listed as “tourist attractions” and events that no one would want to attend, for instance, but they were generally quite good — and even a clueless tourist should be able to sort the wheat from the chaff with a glance.
Bing Vision is Microsoft’s answer to Google Goggles — but like Local Scout, the secret sauce is in its level of integration with the platform. This is something I didn’t have a chance to fully test, since the third-party apps to tie in here and let you, for example, buy the stuff you identify using Vision simply don’t exist yet. In the meantime, you can aim it at barcodes, QR codes, Microsoft Tags, books, CDs, DVDs, or plain text. Obviously, camera quality and lighting conditions are key to your success here, but I found that the app was pretty adept at picking barcodes off products in any situation. I was also rather shocked to find that it rapidly identified a book (my own Palm Pre for Dummies, of course) with little drama. As it finds objects it can decode, Bing search results appear as a text overlay on the screen that can be very hard to read - and for some reason, the book matches disappear very quickly once Vision no longer detects that the book is in the camera’s view. Once that happens, you need to go into History (at the bottom of the screen) to see what you’ve scanned.
Mango also adds the ability to search for music just as you would with a product like Shazam or SoundHound. Rather than testing it with a barrage of obscure electronica that I knew it wouldn’t have any luck with (it’s not even a fair fight), I tossed it AC/DC’s Back In Black, which has a simple, distinctive sound that seems pretty easy to pick out. Surprisingly, on the first pass, it came back with a foreign track I’d never heard of, but after listening for an extended period of time on the second shot - maybe 20 seconds or so — it correctly picked out Angus Young’s distinctive guitar riffs. Naturally, regardless of what song Bing identifies, it lets you head straight over to Zune Marketplace to buy it - though it just drops in the track name as a Marketplace search, which ends up returning a whole list of results instead of simply taking you directly to the song that Bing literally just identified a moment ago. This doesn’t seem like the right behavior — and if it is, it suggests a pronounced lack of coordination between the Bing and Zune teams.
Twitter integration and Skype: not ready for consumption
Many users won’t likely care — but for me and many of my colleagues, proper contact-level Twitter integration in Mango is a pretty sexy and important addition to the platform. Unfortunately, it’s not here yet. You can choose it as an account type in system settings, but the phone informs you that you need to be sent out to Twitter’s website to authorize device access to your account — and at the bottom of the screen, you’ve got a “Coming Soon!” placeholder button. I’m really looking forward to seeing that go live, because for me, it’s going to make the People hub and contact Live Tiles considerably more useful.
As for Skype, it’s not actually a part of Mango — it’s just an app — but we’re sure it’s got a lot more visibility inside Microsoft since the recent acquisition. Mango’s new multitasking capabilities mean that Skype should be a good deal more useful, too (a little bit like the transition from iOS 3 to 4). But alas, it’s not here for us to test just yet. Something tells me Skype’s going to figure prominently into the Windows Phone equation down the road; like Facebook and Twitter, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was simply an integrated service by the time we get to version 8.
Digging through Mango’s settings revealed that the version number is 7.5 — and after spending several days putting it through its paces, I’d argue that’s the right number. It’s more than a 7.1, less than an 8.0. Without question, Mango thoroughly addresses a few pain points that Windows Phone 7 users are experiencing today — none bigger than multitasking — but we’re going to need to wait until developers kick into high gear before we’re going to be able to see just how well Microsoft’s architecture works in practice. And really, Microsoft seems just as keen as ever on moving the conversation away from functionality line items and toward end-to-end user experiences — features like Bing Vision, for instance, that are completely effortless and seamless to use. That’s a familiar message that it’s been delivering since last year with Windows Phone 7′s initial launch. Granted, Mango delivers it with more credibility, but convincing manufacturers, carriers, and users that Windows Phone is a legitimate contender will be as difficult as ever, particularly with Ice Cream Sandwich and iOS 5 hitting the market around the same time. Regardless of Mango’s ultimate success at the register, though, I like more about Windows Phone in Mango than ever — and I’m definitely looking forward to playing with some final software and hardware.