Exclusive hands-on: Windows Phone update to integrate apps into hubs

CNET gets a close look at four big changes that pertain to apps in Windows Phone 7's next update, code-named Mango.

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With the next update to Windows Phone 7 coming this fall, Microsoft is getting serious about apps. It's not just about how many programs Redmond can cram into its app store (more on this later), but what the Windows Phone platform can do to deliver the right app when you need it.

CNET sat down with Greg Sullivan last week, senior marketing manager of Windows Phone, to preview the most significant new app features hitting the operating system a few months from now in the update code-named Mango.

App Connect brings hubs in on app action
Microsoft is raring to free apps from the confines of the app store and start screens, and bring them into hubs and the browser where users can access them more easily.

Search Bing for a movie listing, for instance, and in addition to receiving the usual set of search links, you'll also be able to swipe to see a list of compatible apps you've installed, like Netflix and IMDB, perhaps. You can click into the app to view the movie preview and other pertinent content. In addition, Windows Phone will use an algorithm to surface relevant suggested apps that you don't yet have installed.

Xbox Live avatar on Windows Phone 7
Xbox Live avatars will get native support in Mango. Microsoft

Movies aren't the only category to receive this type of attention in Bing search results, and Bing is only one place that this app integration will turn up. Microsoft will also support lifestyle categories like restaurants, books, landmarks, people, and theaters in Bing, and you'll be able to swipe to see relevant apps as a separate screen in the Picture, and Music + Video hubs as well.

Microsoft calls this app integration App Connect, and to make it happen, Redmond will give developers the keys to a certain application programming interface. Once they update their apps to enable App Connect, those apps can appear in the hubs and in Bing search results. (Microsoft will not monetize app suggestions at launch, we're told.)

Bringing app access to Bing and the hubs is a great idea that worked well in our demo, though we'll have to judge the actual implementation when we receive the update in-house.

Bing Vision
Another new Bing feature dovetails nicely with App Connect. Bing Vision is an on-screen browser control that's shaped like a human eye; tap it to view and scan an item with the phone's camera. During our demo, Bing Vision took a couple of seconds to focus on a book cover, then returned search results. In the Mango release, you'll be able to swipe over to the apps list and pull up the book's title on an Amazon Kindle app, for example.

App switching
The Windows Phone Mango update will also surface a logical and easy way to switch among recently used apps. Just press and hold the back button to surface a screen of recent app tiles that can be swiped. Although apps aren't technically running in the background (this saves battery,) Windows Phone will basically resume the app once you re-enter. App-switching and other multitasking tools have long been around on rival mobile platforms, but it's useful and welcome nonetheless.

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Xbox Live
The Xbox Live section of the Games hub will also get native support for your 3D Xbox Live avatar. Before, you had to download a separate free app to get your "mini me" bouncing around on the screen within that hub. After Mango, you'll not only get that by default, you'll also be able to edit your profile, check live gaming requests, and review your achievements for all Xbox-related gameplay on the phone, console, and PC.

Microsoft's app strategy
Windows Phone Marketplace has taken a beating for the size of its app store, a relatively anemic 17,000 titles compared to BlackBerry's 25,000-plus apps, Android's more than 200,000 titles, and iPhone's over 350,000 apps. Much of that has to do with the Windows Phone 7 overhaul six months ago, which made existing apps on the Windows Mobile platform incompatible with the new OS and which forced Microsoft to start wooing developers all over again. Microsoft's Sullivan did note during our demo that the Marketplace is quickly growing.

Microsoft can't yet compete in sheer app numbers--one of three criteria that the company says phone owners tend to consider when buying a smartphone (Internet experience and sharing/community are two others)--hence its focus on providing greater value with multitasking and with bringing apps into the hubs.

Although we still expect the app store's total haul to lure prospective Windows Phone owners, everything Microsoft can do to make its OS smarter will help its chances for survival in today's cut-throat, Android- and iPhone-dominated world. Keep checking in to get all the news from today's Mango preview event in New York, and all other Windows Phone news.