Other bundled Windows Phone 7.5 apps that aren’t so people-centric are also fancier this time around. The newly spruced-up Bing program, for instance, lets you search by typing, typing or taking a photo of a real-world object and includes a Shazam-like feature that can listen to music and then identify it. (Bing-o-phobes can use Google to search in the Internet Explorer browser, but Microsoft isn’t about to go out of its way to make it easy.)
These days, of course, third-party apps are as critical to a phone operating system as the ones it comes with. When the first Windows Phone 7 devices showed up a year ago, a thousand apps were ready in Microsoft’s store. Now there are 40,000 of them–far short of the hundreds of thousands available for iPhone and Android, but a critical mass of sorts. Many are quite good: They use the Metro interface to achieve a feel unlike anything you’ll find on an iPhone or an Android device.
A bunch of big-name mobile apps are present and accounted for, but hardly all of them. You can get Netflix but not Hulu; Foursquare but not Instagram; Spotify but not Pandora. Skype, despite being recently purchased by Microsoft, is currently a no-show. Some software doesn’t yet fully support the new multitasking capability: Each time I went to the Twitter app, it displayed a splash screen and loaded Tweets from scratch.
Bottom line: If you pick a phone based primarily on the quality and quantity of available software–which is a perfectly intelligent strategy–the iPhone still rules.
I also found that the Web as experienced in Windows Phone 7.5’s version of Internet Explorer has its disappointments. Some sites that deliver slick versions customized for iPhones and Android handsets show up on Windows Phone in more rudimentary mobile incarnations. (You get a dumb-phone version of Gmail, for instance.) I believe this may not have much to do with Windows Phone’s abilities–it’s more likely that site owners are simply oblivious to this operating system and haven’t bothered to support it well.
Lastly, Windows Phone continues to lag the newest versions of Apple and Google’s operating systems when it comes to letting a phone act as a stand-alone, fully wireless computing device rather than a mere PC peripheral. It does let you get at Office documents stored in Windows Live’s SkyDrive online storage, but I was surprised at how often the formatting was wonky or I was permitted only to view a file, not edit it. And while you can stream music directly to the handset, Microsoft’s Zune Pass service for buying music and movies still expects you to sync the phone with a Windows PC running Zune software. (Mac users don’t have access to the full-blown Zune Pass service, but can use a different piece of software to sync a Windows Phone with their iTunes music.)
For all that Microsoft has done right with Windows Phone 7.5, the competition with Apple and Google remains daunting. Microsoft has proven that it can build a pleasing modern phone operating system, but it hasn’t yet figured out how to make it into a hit. Even phone buyers who are intrigued by this platform might feel more confident about it if there were more signs that it won’t suffer the early demise of its ancestor, the legendarily unsuccessful Zune music player.
Still, I think phone shoppers who are the least bit adventuresome should take a look at Windows Phone 7.5 before assuming it’s not for them. It’s a choice, not an echo. And I hope Microsoft keeps plugging away at this market, regardless of the new version’s commercial success. Back in the 1990s, the conventional wisdom was that the company never got any product right or found much success with it until the third try. If that turns out to be true with Windows Phone, the next version could really be something.
McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist; on Twitter, he’s @harrymccracken. His column, also called Technologizer, appears every week on TIME.com.
A previous version of this article stated that Spotify was not available for Windows Phone. It was released earlier this month.