On Monday Microsoft announced the Microsoft Surface, its latest foray into the tablet hardware market. Now the software giant has unveiled Windows Phone 8, the new version of its smartphone operating system. The new OS looks impressive on several levels:

  • It borrows much of its code base from Windows 8. The result is an integrated ecosystem wherein developers can easily create apps and drivers that can be used on phones, tablets, and desktops.
  • WP8, which will support multi-core chipsets, a range of screen resolutions and removable MicroSD, also includes better support for native near-field communication (NFC) between phones, laptops, tablets, and PCs, meaning we could soon see more usable applications for NFC and a real mobile wallet.
  • WP8 will get Internet Explorer 10, complete with malware blocking, from Windows 8. IE10 provides significantly faster JavaScript performance and full HTML5 support.
  • Nokia's turn-by-turn navigation and offline maps is built into WP8, which means all phones running the OS, not just Nokia Lumia handsets, will have access to these very popular features.
  • Microsoft also talked about its renewed focus on its business users. The updated OS, which includes Office apps, will support BitLocker encryption, a secure boot mode, and deployment of Line-of-Business apps such as point-of-sale apps, product catalogs, dashboards, in-field or sales apps, workflow management apps, and monitoring and response apps. Admins will like features that let them manage WP8 devices using the same tools they use to manage the desktop, as well as the ability they'll have to set up apps for users without having to go through the Marketplace.

Is Windows Phone on Your Radar?

While BlackBerry used to be the smartphone of choice for business users, it's no secret that its maker, Research in Motion, has been in trouble for a while. In fact, a recent Nielson report indicates that the BlackBerry has only a 6% market share among recent smartphone buyers.

Apple's iPhone and scads of Android phones have filled in the gap as the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) trend--in which employees are increasingly bringing their own mobile devices to work and using them to access company resources like email, file servers, and databases--continues.

Apple fans hold up their iPhones and point to an app store chock full of largely safe and secure apps that have made it through Apple's approval process and into the ecosystem's "walled garden." Android users like to boast about how they can customize their phones and choose from a plethora of different devices, unlike Apple's one phone form factor.

But what about Windows Phone? Are the phones that run it even on your radar?

If not, maybe they should be.

The UI is Great for Business Users

I recently tested the 4G Nokia Lumia 900 (running Windows Phone 7.5 Mango) and in many ways preferred it to my Samsung Galaxy Nexus running Android 4.0. While the Lumia 900 and other current Windows Phones won't be able to upgrade to Windows 8, the Metro user interface it employs remains at the core of WP8. So if you haven't played around with Metro, there are a couple things you should know.

Unlike the iPhone and Android phones which show you screens and screens of small app icons, the Metro UI in Windows Phone features bright and colorful "live" tiles that morph as your phone is synced with real time information.

The People Hub, one of the main tiles on the home screen, can be particularly useful for business users. You can pin an individual, such as a manager or important client, to your start screen in a separate tile. This lets you see new emails, text messages, missed calls, and comments via social media from that person right on your start screen.

Within the People Hub itself you can click on a contact and see all of your latest interactions with him or her, which works out to be an easy way to get a quick refresh on the interactions you've had with someone you're about to meet.

You can also organize your contacts into Groups so you can email, text, or chat with a whole group at once. By pinning a group to the home screen, you'll see missed calls, new messages, and social networking updates from members of the group anytime you launch your phone.

You can also pin documents and spreadsheets to your start screen so as to easily view and edit them. For instance, while at a conference you could pin the event itinerary so as to quickly see what's coming up next or where you need to go.

Apps for Windows Phone

One complaint people sometimes lodge against the Windows Phone ecosystem is that it doesn't have anywhere near the number of apps that Apple or Android have in their app stores.

That's true, but Microsoft is working hard to get developers more invested in coding for the platform. In fact, the company gives developers free phones and promises to prominently locate them in its app store and advertising spots. It also generously finances the creation of apps that are popular on the other two platforms.

As such, many of the most useful apps you can get on the other two platforms are available from the Windows Phone Marketplace, such as Skype, Evernote, Amazon Kindle, Facebook, Twitter, and more.

And sometimes the Windows Phone version of an app is even better than its iOS or Android counterpart. LinkedIn, for example, makes good use of the Metro design in its Windows Phone app and updates its stream in real time with posts from connections, news affecting particular industries and updates from professional groups. It also lets you search for jobs and follow news from your favorite companies.

And business users entrenched in Microsoft products will certainly want to download Microsoft's Skydrive app, which is available in the Windows Phone Marketplace and lets you create and edit various kinds of file types--documents, presentations, spreadsheets, and more--right inside a Web browser, share them with others, and access them from your phone or other device.

If you search in the business and productivity sections of the Marketplace you'll find plenty of useful apps for business. For instance, Call Recorder lets you record phone calls, play them back and upload them to Skydrive.

Your Windows Phone Options

Nokia, HTC, and Samsung make Windows Phone handsets that are available through AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile for anywhere from free to $200 with a new two-year contract.

If you don't want to wait for the next wave of devices to emerge with WP8 on board, I would recommend the Nokia Lumia 900. You won't be able to upgrade it, of course, but it's a great 4G phone available for $99 at AT&T, or $50 at Amazon.com.