I spent much of last summer writing my latest book, Windows Phone Secrets, in which I attempted to document Microsoft's new mobile platform as thoroughly as possible. And today, after a full year of daily Windows Phone usage, I feel like I have a better handle on what Windows Phone is all about than most, and I understand its ins and outs, its innovative and useful highs, and its occasional crushing lows. I know where Windows Phone succeeds and where it still needs to catch up.

And now, thanks to a week or so of hands-on time with a pre-release version of the next major Windows Phone release, codenamed "Mango" and almost certainly to be marketed as Windows Phone 7.5, I finally have a handle on what it is that I think Microsoft will accomplish over this platform's second year. Most interesting, perhaps, is that Windows Phone was already an incredibly mature platform, able to teach more established players like iOS/iPhone and Android a lesson or three. So does Mango change the value proposition? Does it vault Windows Phone ahead of the competition?

We'll know for sure later this year when a more feature-complete version of Mango is available. The current pre-release build I've been using doesn't yet have the much-vaunted Twitter integration working, for example. But even now, in this incomplete state, I see something mature and viable, even exciting. This was only possible because of the strong state of the initial Windows Phone release. But in an age where much older platforms are squeezing out evolutionary release after evolutionary release, it's interesting that Microsoft can do the same thing with a platform that's been in the market less than a year.

That is, while Microsoft is correct to market Mango as a major update, the reality is that Mango is really an evolutionary improvement over its predecessor. There are no major user experience changes, for example, but rather a furthering of the user experience model from v1. Did you enjoy the social networking integration in the first version? There's a lot more of it in Mango. This situation is repeated across the board, with Mango simply emerging on the other side as a more complete and more fully realized Windows Phone than the original.

On the other hand, I did criticize Microsoft for shipping Windows Phone in an unfinished state last fall and then for not moving quickly enough to add the missing pieces. Does Mango address all of these complaints? Mostly, yes. But in some cases, holes remain. A quick example: In the original version of Windows Phone, you could mix and match calendars from multiple sources (Hotmail, Exchange, and Google) but it only worked with primary calendars. So if you had multiple calendars under a single Google account, only the first one would show up in Windows Phone. In Mango, Microsoft has added support for multiple calendars from a single source, but only for Hotmail and Exchange. So if you're using Google Calendar as I am, you're still out of luck.

Some issues from v1 haven't been addressed at all. The Yahoo! account type still only works with email, but not contacts or calendar. Photos that are auto-uploaded to SkyDrive or Facebook are still downsized, so this isn't a viable cloud backup solution, and other content types and settings can't be backed up at all. The promise of Windows Phone hubs extensibility is still more promise than reality because developers still have no way of building their services directly into these super applications. And so on.

But there's so much to like about Mango. Microsoft discussed most of the big updates coming in this release in a May 2011 press conference, which I discuss in Windows Phone "Mango" Preview 2: New Consumer And Business Features. And I've been busy documenting the app-by-app changes I see in Mango so far; the complete (raw) list can be found, for now, in Changes in Windows Phone "Mango": My Notes from the Field. Here, what I'd like to do is take a higher level overview of this release and discuss--again, as a long-time Windows Phone user--what's really going on here.

And that's simple: Windows Phone is so successful, architecturally, and from a user experience standpoint, that Microsoft was able to build off its firm foundation for Mango, or what we might consider the v2 release of Windows Phone. In this sense, Mango is to Windows Phone as Windows 7 was to Windows Vista, an evolutionary update that somehow manages to be much more impressive than its predecessor through an amazing array of relatively minor changes. Just as Windows 7 wouldn't have been possible without Vista, Mango wouldn't have been possible without Windows Phone 7.

Many of the differences between the two releases would be lost on casual users, let alone those who spend more time with iPhones and Android handsets. But they're everywhere, chipping away at Windows Phone's tiny inadequacies, one screen at a time. The gorgeous Windows Phone lock screen carries over from v1, but can now optionally display album art from music playing in the background, along with large, touch-friendly music playback controls that work without requiring you to logon and navigate to the Zune app first.

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Mango Start screen

UIs have been cleaned up throughout, with improper case (in the context of Windows Phone's unusual mostly lower case style) and character ('&' rather than the more Windows Phone-friendly '+') fixed everywhere. Interfaces are more consistent, too. For example, the phone app looks relatively unchanged, but then you realize that the onscreen buttons are all consistently styled now. Likewise, a command bar is now integrated across all hubs, and Search buttons pop-up through the Windows Phone UI, giving users a more obvious way to complete that in-context task.

Previously available but non-discoverable features have been made more obvious. In Windows Phone v1, you could change the Pictures hub wallpaper, but only if you knew the secret (tap and hold on a blank area of the hub, which wasn't exactly obvious). Now this feature, along with new background shuffle functionality, is more obviously available via a common and well-understood command bar.

Strengths of Windows Phone from day one have been further improved in Mango, too. For example, this platform offers exemplary social networking integration, but in v1 only with Windows Live and Facebook. Mango adds Twitter (not available yet in the pre-release build I've used) and LinkedIn, yes, but it also significantly improves the Facebook integration across the board. This means Facebook Events integration in Calendar, Facebook Chat integration with Messaging, face detection and tagging on Facebook photo uploads, check-ins, video sharing to Facebook, and web page sharing, in addition to all the good stuff from v1 (Pictures and People hub integration, and so on).

The camera can now save its settings. Can I get a Halleluiah? And it can take portrait-oriented photos now. The Pictures hub has a nice (but not configurable) auto fix feature for photos.

Contacts management in v1 was pretty flat: You got a consolidated contacts list in the People hub, but no way to filter the list in any meaningful way and only limited forms of communication (call, text, write on Facebook wall, email, mapping). But now in Mango, you get much, much more, including integrated messaging across Windows Live Messenger, Facebook, and MMS/SMS, contact grouping for blasting out various forms of communications to logical groups (Family, Close Friends, Work, etc.), and better integration with social networking in the places that make sense. For example, in v1, you could view your contacts' social networking posts and posted photos, but only separately, in the People and Pictures hubs, respectively. In Mango, if you look up a contact in the People hub, you see it all--social networking posts and photos, all in the same place, plus a complete communication history you've shared with that contact. Bam!

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Integrated Messaging

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Mango Groups

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Me, a special Mango contact card

Email and calendar have evolved in predictable ways, with Microsoft finally realizing that users need to manage multiple accounts in a more cohesive way. So the Mail app gets linked inboxes, where you can arbitrarily link two or more email accounts into a single instance of the apps. I say arbitrarily, because you can mix and match between any number of Mail apps, some linked, and some not, and you can link any account types that support email. And Calendar finally supports multiple calendars from the same account, albeit only Microsoft's calendars, Hotmail and Exchange (and Office 365). Calendar also picks up To-Do/Tasks integration, but again only from Microsoft's solutions, Hotmail and Exchange/365.

(Note: Microsoft's documentation says that Mango "supports multiple calendars on Exchange Active Sync-enabled accounts." Google, of course, supports EAS. But after testing the configuration of my Google account in various ways--you can configure it using the built-in Google account type or the Outlook account type, the latter of which is explicitly for EAS--I couldn't get multiple calendars to appear. Maybe this will be enabled over time. To-Do/Task integration, however, is decidedly Microsoft-only.)

Mail also gets the nifty Conversation view that first appeared in Exchange 2010 and Outlook 2010, but it doesn't require a Microsoft mail solution on the back-end. So you can use Conversation view with Gmail, for example. You can also pin individual email folders to the Mango Start screen, providing yet another unique new instance of the Mail app, one which opens to a specific folder. This exists separately from any other instances of the Mail app, including ones that are linked.

I use both SkyDrive and Office 365's SharePoint to store documents and collaborate online, and Mango adds nice integration with both. (The original version only supported SharePoint, and it was harder to set up and use.) These services are both normally accessed through the Office hub, which has gotten a nice spit shine redesign in Mango and now provides seamless access to online documents, no matter where they are. (Well, sort of. Mango will only integrate with the SkyDrive that is associated with your primary Windows Live ID, the one that is used to configure Xbox LIVE and Zune on the phone as well. I would like to see the ability to associate this feature with a secondary Windows Live ID, but don't believe that to be possible.)

In any event, via a new Locations pivot in the Office hub, you can quickly access documents on your phone, on your SharePoint team site, or on SkyDrive, and your most recently accessed documents are even more easily re-accessed in the Documents pivot. This is a great little interface.

One of the most impressive features in Mango, I think, is voice integration. This appears in a number of new ways, but two stand out. The first is voice-to-text, which can be used to send hands-free text messages and is surprisingly accurate. The second is voice search, or Bing Voice, and it works as you'd expect, and makes plenty of sense given that this device is, after all, a phone. (That is, something you speak into regularly.) I played around with this for a while, trying to fool it, but it consistently surprised me in a positive way.

Speaking of Bing, Microsoft's lackluster search app from v1 has been nicely pumped up in Mango, but I bet it still falls short of the iPhone app version. (I'm afraid to even look.) From a basic search functionality perspective, images are now one of the main search results pivots, alongside web (and news, which is now integrated) and local results. But the big changes come via some big new buttons on the new Bing command bar: Local Scout, Bing Music, and Bing Vision.

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Bing

Local Scout is a great idea: You basically tap this button wherever you are and Bing will supply great local resources divided into categories like Eat + Drink, See + Do, Shop, and Highlights. So even if you're new in town, you can find out what the locals prefer. This is a great resource for travellers, of course, but I've found it very useful around my hometown as well. Nicely done, and it's integrated into Maps as well since that's one of those times you'd need such a service.

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Local Scout

Bing Music and Bing Vision, sadly, are rip-offs of existing services, but they work well enough. Bing Music copies Shazam, allowing you to hold up the phone when you hear a song you like and then, upon recognition, purchase it (or download it) from Zune Marketplace. Bing Vision is Microsoft's version of Google Goggles; it lets you use the phone's camera to identify a product, bar code, or text, and then it provides a way to purchase said object from Wal-Mart and other retailers.

Bing will also be updated over time with App Connect, allowing specially designed apps to respond to certain searches. So, for example, if you search for movie showtimes, the IMDB app may be part of the results. None of these apps are currently available for testing, however.

Internet Explorer is being updated to version 9, and this version looks and works much more like a full-featured mobile browser than the previous, stripped-down browser. I like the new UI, with a consolidated command bar/address bar that works in both portrait and landscape modes, and the speed and compatibility, so far, is terrific. This is something I'll be examining much more (and comparing with iOS) for my final Mango review.

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IE 9 Mobile

From a digital media perspective, Zune carries on Mango despite constant rumors of its impending demise. The Zune app picks up some obvious functionality, like over-the-air podcast support (including on device podcast management) and the Smart DJ feature that's been available elsewhere for years. The Now Playing screens for both audio and video content have been improved too.

The Games hub, or what most people incorrectly called "the Xbox hub," gets a nice makeover and more closely resembles the coming Xbox 360 Dashboard update with a gray background and green highlights. You can see more games in the Collection pivot thanks to a new icon style, and you can view and edit many more avatar features than was possible before without first installing the separate Xbox LIVE Extras app. (This app continues forward but doesn't do as much thanks to the built-in functionality in Mango.) This hasn't gotten a lot of press, but you can finally set parental controls on games, not that I've seen much in the way of racy Windows Phone games yet.

Final thoughts

I'll need to spend a lot more time with Mango, and with more feature-complete versions of the product, before I can make any kind of definitive assessment of this software. But I can say this right now. Mango will be provided as a free update to all existing Windows Phone handsets, so there's some value in that. It very nicely improves the capabilities of the platform while utilizing the same basic user experience, so it will be a seamless and painless upgrade from a usage perspective. And while Mango doesn't address some of the shortcomings from v1, it adds so many useful new features, and fixes so many of the early complaints, that I'm finding it hard to criticize this release with any enthusiasm. I'll keep using it and report back when we get closer to the final release. But Mango looks great so far, and I've really only scratched the surface here.