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Windows Phone 7 tool beta debuts

Near final release of toolkit to help developers build apps for Windows Phone 7 offers a few new features, including an option to use your own phone as a testbed.

Developers interested in creating apps for Microsoft's upcoming Windows Phone 7 platform can now play with the newest beta of the development tools.

Graduating from community technology preview status in March to near-final status on Monday, the Windows Phone Developer Tools offer several new features designed to intrigue developers thinking of building games and other apps for the platform.

Microsoft has now integrated its Expression Blend 4 development tool directly into the Windows Phone 7 environment. Using Expression Blend, developers will be able to build graphical interfaces for their mobile apps using a drag-and-drop approach. Expression Blend 4 joins Visual Studio 2010 Express as the development tools for Windows Phone 7.

Developers will also be able to use their own Windows Phones as a testing area to see how their apps perform. Microsoft had promised that preview Windows Phone 7 models would be available for developers this month and has targeted July 19 as the shipping date for a broader release of the devices. The company concedes that it won't be able to supply enough units to feed demand but said it plans to set up deployment and test labs in major cities so developers can at least have access to the phones.

The Developer Registration Tool lets developers register and unlock their Windows 7 Phones to install and run their apps. And the XAP Deployment Tool allows developers to deploy apps to unlocked Windows 7 phones.

Without access to a phone, developers must use a software emulator to see how their apps fare on the new platform.

Microsoft is also launching a series of virtual live classes for prospective developers to learn how to design apps for Windows Phone 7. The four three-hour courses will run on July 20 and 22.

Scheduled to hit the consumer market in time for this year's holiday-shopping season, Windows Phone 7 is Microsoft's attempt to rejuvenate its presence in the highly competitive smartphone arena. To further drum up interest, the company announced other tidbits about Windows Phone 7 at its Worldwide Partner Conference this week in Washington, D.C., and in a blog post Tuesday.

Microsoft is positioning Windows Phone 7 as a way to connect to its other services, according to Andy Lees, senior vice president of mobile communications business at Microsoft. For example, Windows Phone 7 will use Wi-Fi to tap into Zune software running on a PC to let people grab and manage their songs, videos, photos, and other files. A games hub will offer content for the Xbox Live and let Windows Phone 7 users invite other gamers to compete online.

Using Windows Phone 7, people will be able to access Web-based e-mail and calendars, whether they're hosted on Windows Live, Gmail, or Exchange, while an Office hub will tie together Office apps such as Word, PowerPoint, OneNote, and SharePoint, said Microsoft. The company is also touting a new Windows Phone Live site where consumers can publish photos, sync their Windows Live contacts, and use the Find My Phone service to help track down lost handsets.

Initially, Windows Phone 7 will support five languages: English, French, Italian, German, and Spanish. The Windows Phone Marketplace will let people buy and sell apps in 17 countries.

Update at 8:50 a.m. PDT: More details added.