Microsoft Unveils New Windows Phone Features, Includes Fast App Switching, New APIs, More

The world’s largest software vendor, Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ:MSFT), today showcased various new web technologies at the MIX11 tech conference in Las Vegas, but most notably, the company announced the newest forthcoming features of Windows Phone.

Microsoft largely focused on the developer side by showcasing a comprehensive look at the newest development platform codenamed Mango of Windows Phone. The upcoming version will include many new features, including both under-the-hood enhancements and improvements to the user interface of the platform.

 Microsoft introduced the new Fast App Switching method that will allow users to more seamlessly switch between running applications with static thumbnail previews of the running app. The previews are not live previews, as is the case with the Research In Motion (RIM) BlackBerry PlayBook tablet computer, nevertheless, users will be able to easily pan and select between opened applications.

Although the company did not elaborate on every single new API, Microsoft said there would be tens of new APIs available to developers that would provide more direct access to the operating system and the phone hardware. Among the new APIs included are APIs that provide access to the device contacts database, raw access to the smartphone cameras, and an API for the gyro sensor.

Microsoft also overhauled Microsoft Marketplace, making it easier for users to search, filter, and to learn more about applications.

Among other enhancements to the user interface, Microsoft added a junk list that will be welcomed by users that have many applications. You could now filter the applications list alphabetically and you could also search for apps from a text field, which also searches the Marketplace in the process. Search results from the Marketplace are now more intuitive since they could be filtered by apps, podcasts, and music complete with pivots with more details including price, rating, and the publisher, among other information.

“The next release of Windows Phone represents the evolution of our strategy for ensuring that developers are at the forefront of ‘what’s next’ by investing in even richer customer experiences, a powerful application platform and a thriving ecosystem,” said Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president, Windows Phone Program Management

Microsoft also improved the tiles on the home screen by introducing dynamic live tiles. With supported applications, users will be able to pin parts of an application directly into a new tile on the home screen for quicker access. For example, the new Quantas flight application demoed during the presentation allows you to pin parts of the app to your home screen, which would display key information like flight status.

Microsoft also announced a new backgrounds notifications system, live agent, which allows developers to design their applications to continue to run in the background and push notifications to the home screen based on different events that occur. For example, the Quantas flight app is actually able to continue to run in the background, while keeping aware of your GPS location to push updated notifications to you as you arrive to the airport.

Microsoft also said key applications like Skype, Spotify (see our coverage), and the popular game Angry Birds will soon be available on Windows Phone.

The new Windows Phone Developer Tools for the new Windows Phone OS will be made available to developers in May, according to Microsoft.

The Microsoft Windows Phone platform currently has 13,000 available third-party applications available in Marketplace, according to Microsoft.

Also very notable at the conference, Microsoft announced some fresh details of the developer SDK for Kinect for Windows. The SDK will include new robust skeletal tracking for high-performance capabilities, new audio capabilities, and a new depth system that recognizes the distance of objects from the Kinect camera. The new SDK will surely lead to an explosion of new uses in highly advanced non-gaming applications.

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Murad is an engineering graduate from Centennial college in Toronto, Canada. Write to [email protected]
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