Multitasking, IE9 and SkyDrive coming to Windows Phone

CEO Steve Ballmer said the new features would come out later this year

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer showed off a few new features that the company will push out to Windows Phone 7 users this year, including access to SkyDrive, multitasking capability and a new HTML5 browser. He spoke during a keynote at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on Monday.

Those features will come after the first update to the OS, which is limited to adding copy and paste functions and enhancing performance and is scheduled to go out in early March, he said.

The newly announced capabilities include the ability to access SkyDrive, the online storage service that lets users save Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents online. With the update, users will be able to access those documents, as well as documents that other people have shared with them through SkyDrive, on their phones.

Windows Phone 7 users will also get a version of Internet Explorer 9 designed for the phone. It does hardware acceleration in a way that takes advantage of the powerful graphics hardware in many phones, said Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president for Microsoft.

Because the browser is based on HTML5, website developers will be able to create sites that feel like apps, he said. In addition, while Windows Phones currently don't display videos that use Flash, the browser will natively run video, making it easier for sites to offer video to users of the phones.

The update later this year will also include multitasking, a capability Microsoft was criticized for not including at the start. Belfiore demonstrated it by streaming music from the Slacker radio app while navigating to other apps on the phone. Currently, users can only listen to music from Microsoft's Zune music service while using other apps.

With multitasking, users will get a new user interface feature that should make it easier for them to note which apps are running in the background and to switch among them. Holding the back key displays a screen that shows a minimized view of each app and users can scroll through the images. Touching the image will bring the app to the forefront.

"When apps run in the background, if you're not careful about how it's architected, they can drain the battery," Belfiore said. "We will ship a multitasking approach that we think does the right balance of protecting the battery while allowing multitasking."

Microsoft also plans to incorporate Twitter into the People Hub on the phones. The People Hub is a tile on Windows Phones where users can find an array of information about their friends including contact information and Facebook updates. With the update later this year, they'll start seeing their friends' Twitter messages too.

Belfiore also previewed a new technology that turns Windows Phones into controllers for some Xbox games. He showed a video of one person playing an Xbox game using Kinect, moving around a room to block colorful balls being thrown at him. Two additional people had Windows Phones that showed the game and an image of other players on the phone screen. Tapping the screen of their phones, the phone users threw the balls at the Kinect player. Kinect is the Xbox attachment that lets users control games with their bodies rather than a controller.

Belfiore didn't say when the technology that allows that application would become available.

But Ballmer hinted that there are even more new features to come to the Windows Phone software. "This year we're investing a significant amount to continue popularizing the phone," Ballmer said. The company plans to add even more features along with next generation phones later this year, he said. He mentioned Samsung, LG, Dell and Nokia as companies bringing those new models to market.

Ballmer briefly invited Stephen Elop, CEO of Nokia, on the stage to talk briefly about the new agreement between the companies. Last week Nokia announced that it would phase out Symbian and start making smartphones that run Windows Phone software.

"The world is shifting from a battle of devices to a war of ecosystems," Elop said, reiterating a statement Ballmer made earlier. The partnership is balanced because Nokia brings its brand and phone volumes to the deal while Microsoft can help solve some of Nokia's problems, such as the need to break into the U.S. market, he said.

The agreement with Nokia could bring Windows Phone the scale the platform needs. "The Windows Phone platform, like any other, will only thrive with scale and with variety," Ballmer said. "We will work with our partners to bring their innovations more rapidly into our platform while also working to ensure their innovation doesn't lead to the kind of fragmentation for developers that other platforms are currently experiencing."

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