There’s a New Windows Phone!

Why you should be overjoyed about Microsoft’s latest entry in the smartphone derby.

Are you having trouble containing your anticipation for the new Windows Phone? Have you been pestering your friends with your incessant, giddy chatter about all the wonderful features in the latest version of Microsoft’s mobile operating system—its elegant maps app, its terrific new local search system, and its fresh, intuitive user interface? Maybe you’ve been worrying about when to start camping out at Best Buy to make sure you get your hands on this revolutionary new mobile platform. After all, with its Windows Phone, Microsoft has created the most novel take on the smartphone since the first iPhone—it looks and feels completely different from everything else on the market, and it’s easier and more fun to use than just about any other phone you can get. Surely people are lining up around the block for this thing, right?

Nope. You’re not excited about Windows Phone. Nobody’s excited about Windows Phone. When Microsoft abandoned its clunky Windows Mobile software last year and unveiled Windows Phone 7 OS as its successor, many observers were optimistic. Finally, the software giant looked to be offering something worthy of competition with the iPhone and Google’s Android OS. And when the first Windows Phone devices went on sale last fall, the critics swooned. I wrote that “the new OS shows that Microsoft is finally fighting to be a contender in the mobile market.”

But Windows Phone hit with a thud. While the iPhone and Android keep gobbling up more and more of the smartphone market, Microsoft’s market share has actually declined since it launched its new platform. With Apple set to unveil a new iPhone next week—this time on AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint, guaranteeing even bigger sales than previous iPhone launches—and Android continuing to make its way into lots and lots of cheap phones, Windows risks getting squeezed out of the mobile business entirely.

And that’s too bad. This week, Microsoft is releasing a fantastic update to the Windows Phone OS. I’ve been using Windows Phone 7.5—also known as Mango—for about a week, and I’ve loved every minute of it. Microsoft has fixed many of the flaws in the first version of the OS—Windows Phone now has copy and paste, and it has adopted Apple’s half-loaf version of multitasking, allowing some apps to stay active while you’re not actively using them. Microsoft has also beefed up its Apps Marketplace: There are now 30,000 apps, far fewer than on Android and the iPhone but still plenty for most people.

Best of all, Microsoft has added several neat user-interface tricks that let you do common tasks more quickly than on other phones. There’s a Shazam-like song-identifying feature built right into the search panel. Also, you can see listings and reviews of restaurants, shops, and movies with a single click. Managing your contacts is also incredibly easy. Because Windows Phone connects to all of your online accounts (e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, IM, etc.), it’s able to create a comprehensive picture of everyone in your address book. Click on a name and you see not just a phone and email address but that person’s Twitter handle, Facebook profile picture, birthday (also from Facebook), and a history of all the conversations you’ve had with him.

You’ll find similar features built into the iPhone and into various versions of Android, or through various iPhone and Android apps. But Microsoft’s design puts a premium on speed and ease of use; where it takes you three steps to do something on the iPhone or Android, it takes just one on Windows Phone. Want to see what your mom just posted on Facebook? On other phones, you’ll have to click the Facebook app or launch the Web browser. Windows Phone alerts you to the post by flashing your mom’s profile picture on your People icon on the main menu. Click on it, and you’ll see her post (as well as all the recent Facebook activity from all your contacts) in the “What’s New” section.

When I first used Windows Phone last year, I was captivated by the operating system’s striking visual design: Its home page buttons are flat and brightly colored, many of the menus feature arresting white- and red-on-black text (with really nice typography), and the line-drawn icons in its built-in apps are slightly quirky while remaining functional. This time I liked the look even more. Compared with my iPhone 4—whose interface hasn’t changed much since the first iPhone, unveiled almost five years ago—Windows Phone feels new. Microsoft is planning to import this design to rest of the Windows empire (Windows 8 will have the same look and feel), which is a wise move: At the moment, there’s no better-designed OS on the market.

Will I trade in my iPhone for a Windows Phone? No. For one thing, I’m going to wait to see what Apple unveils next week. Second, there are a few features on my iPhone, like FaceTime, that I use often and that Windows still lacks. And, finally, most developers still consider the iPhone their primary platform. Because I review a lot of new apps, I need access to the iPhone’s App Store.

But these are my quirks: For most people, the fact that Windows Phones have fewer apps than other platforms isn’t going to be a huge impediment. I’m always suspicious of Apple fans who wield the App Store’s superior app count as a reason to get the iPhone. Weren’t they the same people who told us that it didn’t matter that there was less software created for the Mac than for Windows? Anyhow, Windows Phone has most of the apps you’d want, including Facebook, Kindle, Netflix, and Angry Birds. And while it’s true that the iPhone has some features that Windows Phone lacks, I found many features on Windows Phone that have long been missing on Apple’s device (for instance, the ability to subscribe to podcasts from the phone).

If Windows Phone is so great, then why has it been such a bust? I suspect that part of the reason is its awful name. Windows, as a brand, evokes everything we hate about computers. Windows Phone looks nothing like Windows on your Dell, but folks who’ve never seen the phone are likely to picture a desktop, a Start Menu, and My Computer—and then head to the Apple Store for relief. Then there’s Microsoft’s timing. Windows Phone is competing against two juggernauts that have been in the market for years and that have gained a great deal of exposure over that time. If you want a new smartphone, you can always look at a friend’s iPhone or Android to see if it will work for you. You can’t do that with a Windows Phone.

Let me urge you to give it a chance. If you have your heart set on the new iPhone or an Android, go to a store and try out a Windows Phone first. You’ll find a lot to like.