In addition the software itself, there's a lot more going on around the Windows Phone 7.5 release. In this final part of my review, I'll examine some exciting but caveat-laden additional features and services, when to expect the new software and Windows Phone 7.5-based handsets, and then provide a summary of this first major update to Microsoft's innovative smartphone platform.

Last Minute Additions

In a briefing before the Windows Phone 7.5 GA (general availability) announcement this week, Microsoft's Greg Sullivan told me about four new things that were previously hinted at. With the exception of the web-based Windows Marketplace (see below), each of these new items comes with various caveats, so if you're interested in any of them, pay attention to the fine print. They are:

Internet sharing. As I revealed several months ago, Windows Phone 7.5 will indeed support 3G wireless network sharing with up to five devices. Sometimes referred to as "tethering," this feature supports optional WPA2 wireless security. But it requires explicit support from your wireless carrier--which will charge you extra for this functionality, each month. And it will only be made available via new devices, not on existing devices. That said, wireless carriers are free to add this feature to first generation devices down the road. My guess is that they will not.

Hidden Wi-Fi network support. One of the weird limitations in Windows Phone is that it cannot connect to hidden Wi-Fi networks. This feature is available now in Windows Phone 7.5, but only if your carrier OKs it and makes it available. (No, I have no idea why this is a restriction.) Like Internet sharing, it will be enabled only on new devices first, but could be back-ported to first gen devices too.

Visual Voice Mail. When Windows Phone first launched, a lot of people wondered why it didn't have Visual Voice Mail like the iPhone. What these people don't realize is that Visual Voice Mail is not an Apple/iPhone feature; that feature was created by AT&T. So Windows Phone 7.5 does support Visual Voice Mail, but again it can only be offered when your wireless carrier explicitly provides it. So you can expect AT&T to offer this, and any other carriers that provide Visual Voice Mail. And unlike with the previous two features, it seems that this will come to existing devices pretty quickly.

Windows Phone Marketplace on the Web. Windows Phone customers can now browse, download, and buy apps, games, music, and (in the US) podcasts from their 7.5-based devices, and they can browse, download, and buy apps, games, music, TV shows, movies, and podcasts from the Zune PC software. But with the release of Windows Phone 7.5, Microsoft is dramatically enhancing its web-based services, and one of the big additions is a web-based version of Windows Phone Marketplace. It only offers app and game downloads, but there is one major new feature not found elsewhere: This web site tracks all of your previously downloaded and purchased apps and games, so when you wipe out your phone or get a new phone, you can use the site to wireless transmit any apps and games you want to the device. Excellent.

Availability and pricing

Windows Phone 7.5 will begin shipping to existing Windows Phone 7 customers starting on September 27, 2011. At the time I originally wrote this, I noted that I was told that this update would deploy much more quickly to users than did the previous updates, and that Microsoft's wireless carrier partners have gotten the message and won't be holding up the works as they did so painfully through the first half of 2011. We'll see, I added.

We'll see, indeed.

Since this is posting a day after the general availability of Windows Phone 7.5, let's see how things went: In the United States, all existing Windows Phone devices except for one revision of the Samsung Focus (which is in testing) and the Dell Venue Pro (in planning) are currently listed as "shipping." Internationally, all existing Windows Phone devices in all supported locales, except for Samsung Omnia 7 models are all shipping. This means that about 98 percent of all currently available handsets are already in the queue to get the free upgrade.

There is one caveat to all this good news. Microsoft is deliberately metering the availability of Windows Phone 7.5 to existing customers to ensure that everyone has a reliable upgrade experience. So for the first few days of availability, only 10 percent of applicable handsets will see the update. Within a week, this will rise to 25 percent, then 50 percent, and then 100 percent within three weeks. So keep your eyes peeled for an upgrade notice on your phone. Then rush it over to a PC so you can install the update via the Zune PC software.

When you think back on the horrible experience we had getting very minor updates deployed to customers earlier this year, this new schedule is nothing short of miraculous. Obviously, something could still go wrong here. But let's all pause for a moment and admit that our concerns have been heard and that Microsoft has moved far more quickly than we would have thought possible given our earlier experiences. In fact, if you go back to my original writings about Windows Phone 7, you'll find that this is how I always expected things to go. So bravo for that, Microsoft. Bravo.

But maybe you don't understand how good this really is. Maybe you're still in a high state of bitchiness thanks to your update travails earlier this year. Please, then, allow me to remind you, courtesy of an earlier interview with Microsoft's Greg Sullivan, why this situation is so freaking excellent.

"We have a pretty difficult problem to solve with updating," Sullivan told me. "Our model is more like Android, a horizontal approach with different hardware devices, different wireless carriers, and different languages, and each one requires a unique image. Managing the process for updating is hard, but at least we're doing it. With Android, Google doesn't even try to update all the devices, not at the same time, and sometimes not ever." Apple, by contrast, has a much simpler time updating its iPhone devices because there is zero hardware variability.

"What we do is provide the best of both worlds," Sullivan continued. "You get a choice of the hardware and the networks, but we also bring everyone along when we issue a software update. We make it available to everyone and we try to do it as quickly as possible. We are going to do better this time. But we'll let the results speak for themselves."

They already have. Consider the ship righted.

As for new devices, expect those to begin rolling out over October, November, and December, starting in Europe first. I had hoped that there would be some sort of new device announcements around the GA (general availability) announcement, but that hasn't happened. So we can look forward to Nokia World in late October and of course the previously announced devices, the Samsung Focus S, Samsung Focus Flash, and HTC TITAN on AT&T, the Samsung Omnia W, the HTC Radar, and so on. Rest assured I'll be watching this space very closely in the weeks and months ahead, and since I've got a wireless contract up for renewal soon, I'm personally interested in getting the best possible Windows Phone for myself as well.

Final thoughts

Even before the 7.5 update, Windows Phone was the most innovative and usable smart phone platform available, and this release only furthers Microsoft's lead. Whether that superiority will translate into better sales for the second go-round remains to be seen. But Windows Phone 7.5 provides exactly the right complement of new features and improvements to keep enthusiasts happy, and I'm expecting some great new hardware--especially Nokia's trend-setting devices--to help turn the tide as well. Windows Phone already has what it takes to beat the iPhone and rival Android. The only question is whether that will ever happen and whether consumers will wake up to the fact that their favorite platforms are hopelessly outdated by comparison. Even if you're not a Windows Phone fan for some reason, you should embrace this future: A three horse race is healthier for the marketplace and would benefit all consumers, regardless of which phone they choose. But I'm choosing Windows Phone, again. My bet last year was the right one. And I think if you actually gave Windows Phone a chance, you'd come along for the ride as well.

Windows Phone 7.5 is the most usable and innovative smart phone OS available today, and is highly recommended.