Tuesday, Microsoft held a press event in New York to preview the first major up date to their Windows Phone 7 mobile operating system. “Windows Phone Mango,” as its code named (and not Windows Phone 7 Mango, apparently), will feature some 500 updates and new features, and while no new hardware was unveiled this week, Microsoft mentioned the usual WP partners as having new gear in the works. Most notably, Nokia has promised multiple WP devices later this year – the first fruits of their partnership with MSFT. Partnerships with Acer, Fujitsu, and ZTE were also mentioned. And though the Mango SDK beta will be made available to developers any minute now, consumers will have to wait until early autumn to get their hands on the new software.

That release date should line up nicely with Google’s already announced window for the next major Android release, “Ice Cream Sandwich,” and what everyone expects to be a significant update to Apple’s iOS, likely named iOS 5. While Apple’s been mum about potential new iPhone hardware and software, common wisdom is pointing to a June preview of iOS5 followed by a September release of the software accompanied by new hardware. Somewhere in there we should also see HP’s first high-end webOS-based smartphone, Pre 3, hit store shelves.

So what will Mango bring when it arrives? And more importantly, will it matter?  The former question is easier, if longer, to answer. As for the latter, given the way the mobile marketplace shakes out these days, it’ll probably come back to hardware and ecosystem support as much as the advances made in Mango itself. Smartphone buyers like flashy design, they like big, sharp screens and thin, light bodies, and they like apps. Microsoft’s approach to messaging, Live Tiles, and integrated search is definitely on the right track, but they’re going to need some sexy hardware and big name app support to move the needle at all in an ultra-competitive landscape.

The first wave of Windows Phone 7 devices were fine, but none particularly lust-worthy. While the operating system itself touted a fresh, clean approach to the mobile experience, it also lacked basic smartphone features like copy and paste that prevented many a would-be user from leaving their Droid or iPhone to dip a toe in the Metro UI waters. As such, Windows Phone 7 has generally been marked to date by that backhandedly worst of all descriptors, “Shows potential.” A few drop-dead sexy devices with cutting edge features like 4G support and dual-core processors, combined with a healthy dose of most wanted apps – like, um, that birds game – is more or less necessary for Microsoft to make a serious push at gaining a foothold in mobile this Fall and Winter.

Time will tell what Microsoft can wrangle on the hardware and developer support fronts before the next batch of Windows Phones hits our hands and hearts. In the meantime, here are some of the key new features announced for Windows Phone Mango:

App Connect & Hubs: App Connect will link search results to apps in order to prompt users to, say, launch Fandango to buy movie tickets after having searched for movie times using Bing. Apps will also show up in Hub search results. Sounds pretty handy in theory – we’ll see how well it not only integrates, but also offers unique functionality, in practice.

Speaking of apps, multitasking will be supported in Mango.

Improved Live Tiles: Mango will up the possibilities for home screen Live Tiles. Microsoft had The History Channel and The Weather Channel on hand showing a few examples: Pinning historical landmarks to the home screen (that link to HC’s augmented reality app), and tiles that flip between radar and weather forecasts for specific locations, respectively.

Messaging: Universal Inbox and Messaging threads (i.e. combining IM/SMS/etc. into a single conversation thread); Live Tiles supporting group messaging via Windows Live and Facebook Chat; Speech-t0-text and text-to-speech support.

Web: IE 9 will be part of Mango, and support HTML5 and hardware acceleration, but not Flash or Silverlight. Search will be expanded to include music (Soundhound style), voice, and Bing Vision, a visual search tool that will allow you to take a photo of a bar code or object and return shopping results where possible. Local search will seemingly be a big focus, as well, including something called Local Scout, which “prioritizes hyper-local search results based on user preferences and recommends the closest restauratns, shopping and activities in an easy-to-use guide.” (That from the Microsoft News Center)

Microsoft is emphasizing their approach to apps, saying they’re trying to “connect the dots between applications” to enable a more seamless user experience – as in the Bing Search -> Fandango example above. App Connect sounds great, and if it works as advertised it will no doubt be a nice little bonus, but I can’t help but wonder if things like this will be too little, too late for the platform. I genuinely hope not – I really like WP7’s Metro design language, and I’ll continue to applaud the Windows Phone team for coming up with a fresh approach to the smartphone experience.

But Apple has shown that a one-at-a-time approach to apps backed by a massive ecosystem of developers, accessory makers, and access to tightly integrated music, movies, and computer hardware to sync it altogether is a winning formula. And Google has shown that technological innovation backed by sheer volume – volume of handsets, partners, carriers, and countries – is another winning formula. Microsoft is sort of cutting it both ways, or at least trying to, by coming up with what could be a very tightly integrated platform/app experience backed by a modest but growing cartel of hardware and carrier partners around the globe. It’s not the “we control everything” model iPhone users live with, but neither is it the “many sizes with many skins for many people and places” model that Android users love.

Come Fall, we should know what iOS 5 has to offer, and we should start seeing the first wave of Ice Cream Sandwich devices from Google’s partners, as well. Not to mention those arguably already-overdue Pre 3s. Will Mango have enough behind it to compete for a lion’s share of the mobile marketplace this December, or will Microsoft be relegated to clawing for Apple and Google’s table scraps? The answer might just ride on whether or not Nokia has any sexy left in their hardware division.

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