Microsoft  announced a big upgrade to its flagship Windows Phone 7 OS, with CEO Steve Ballmer promising "over 500" new features in version 7.1 (code name: "Mango"). But if it launches at the same time the new iPhone hits, will anyone care?
Speaking at Microsoft's developer forum  in Japan, Ballmer talked up those features, some of which it unveiled at a special press event today. Mango's new tricks  include threading in messages, which means you can seamlessly switch between text messages, Facebook  chats, and Windows Live IM chats in a single window as part of the same conversation--blurring the differences between all of these essentially text-based discussions. There's also deeper integration of apps like Twitter  and LinkedIn , and Facebook Places check-ins are built directly into the OS. There's also enhanced voice-to-text powers and speech synthesis to enable a more hands-off approach when you're driving or working in the office. The app integration is improving the home screen "live tiles" tech, with tiles now more dynamic and able to convey more information at a single glance.
Multitasking is there, too, with a background running mode for apps that won't sap your battery too much. And mobile browsing is getting a boost with a version of Internet Explorer 9 that's faster and supports HTML5's suite of Web advances. IE9 also includes "Local Scout" for hyperlocal  recommendations, and Bing Vision, Music Search and Bing Voice powers.
There's a lot of extra stuff there, and Windows Phone fans will be pleased--very pleased. They'll probably also be delighted the OS is coming as a free upgrade to existing owners, too, as well as appearing on a range of phones from Nokia, Samsung, and other big-name makers.
But here's the rub: A lot of these features are already baked in to existing mobile OSs like iOS and Android, and some argue that much of this code should've shipped in Windows Phone 7 right from the start--that way the OS would've had a competitive advantage instead of lagging its already better-selling peers. And none of it is arriving until the fall of 2011. That's sooner than we had perhaps expected ...but it's still late.
All indicators suggest that Apple's  new iPhone 5  (plus an iPhone Lite? Who knows?) is due around the same time. Despite the swarm of Android phones, the industry and average consumer continues to look to Apple as the standard bearer--and there are plenty of rumors that its next phone will have interesting hardware, and significantly enhanced software in iOS 5.0 with a deep integration of location-based systems , voice control , and synthesis. In other words, consumers will be faced with choosing the media darling iPhone, with all its Apple cachet, a long list of Android units, and a handful of Microsoft-powered phones. Even with all the techno juiciness of Mango, we can't help but think that Microsoft has slightly mashed its timing.
[Image from Flickr user Sarolazmi ]