Microsoft has been demonstrating its next iteration of the Windows Phone smartphone platform. At a press preview event in London today, Microsoft shared its vision for Mango (the codename for Windows Phone 8) and how it can build on the current version of smartphone OS.

Mango devices will go onsale from the autumn, with free updates offered to current Windows Phone 7 users. Handsets touting Mango will be offered by three manufacturers new to the platform: Acer, Fujitsu and ZTE. At present, HTC offers three Windows Phone 7 handsets, with Samsung, Dell and LG each offering single devices. Nokia-branded Windows Phone Mango devices will also launch - the first fruits of Microsoft's takeover of Nokia last year.

Microsoft says it will launch the new version of Windows Phone in more territories, particularly South America and Asia, and will add support for many more languages. Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Russian, Czech, Greek, Finnish, Polish, Portuguese and Hungarian languages will all be added to the line-up. In all, Microsoft says the reach of Windows Phone will be expanded by a factor of four, with more devices, more price points and more territories covered.

App support is also growing strongly, with 18,000 apps now available on the Windows Marketplace. The Windows Phone app store only launched last October and is about to overtake RIM’s BlackBerry AppWorld Store for choice of apps. Rovio’s Angry Birds is one of the latest recruits to the platform.

Games appear to be an important growth area, as one of the few current areas of distinction for Windows is its likable integration with Xbox Live. Here, users can display and customise their interactive avatar, compete online against friends and view and share details of the Xbox and smartphone games they own and their high scores in each.

Microsoft is also pushing the interactive messaging services that Mango will offer. Termed ‘threads’, Nick Hedderman, Microsoft UK’s product manager for Windows Phone, showed how a conversation initiated on Facebook could be picked up via text messaging, resumed back on Facebook and concluded on text.

Group emails, Facebook invitations and text messages could also be sent, with social and business groups organised accordingly for convenience. Unlike the “app silo” approach of other smartphones, explained Achim Berg, Corporate Vice-President for Windows Phone Marketing, Windows Phone 7 “puts the user at the centre of the conversation, rather than it being dictated by the device”.

He went on to opine that phones haven’t kept pace with the many ways that people communicate these days and to proclaim Mango as “the first platform to bring together all the ways you connect and share”.  

Photos taken on a Mango smartphone will be able to be shared to Twitter or Facebook, for example, but the phone will recognise that you’ve taken a photo of people, marquee their faces and bring up the contacts list in the phone so you can tag them.

Business users will be able to view and respond to Facebook invitations within their Outlook calendar on the Mango device – a function we’ve not previously seen. Additionally, the calendar will support functions such as logging details of a flight you’ve booked, automatically remind you the check-in desk is open and of your seat and flight number.

New to the Marketplace is an app from British Airways that uses Microsoft Silverlight technology to offer a 3D view of the seats and plane layout. Using this, you will be able to confirm your allocated seat, choose another and, where available, select an upgrade. Locations that British Airways flies to will also have their own airport maps so you can arrive at check-in and head to the business lounge before or duty free. The British Airways app will launch on 1 June.

Acknowledging that many of the ideas that Mango will include are not new, Microsoft said that the fact such features work with each other and are essentially native to the device was an important distinction from the end user point of view. Twitter and the business-networking service LinkedIn will both be preinstalled on Mango handsets. Skype – a recent Microsoft acquisition – will also be included.

Windows Phone 7 is only seven months old and represents a turning point for Microsoft in its smartphone fortunes. Microsoft has long been a player in the business handset market, but until late last year was not taken seriously in the hybrid consumer/corporate smartphone space. After several iterations of Windows Mobile OS were criticised for being thinly disguised versions of Microsoft Office, with little appeal to the gadget fan, it went back to the drawing board and redesigned the platform.

With Windows Phone 7 Microsoft seems to have largely got things right. Today, it was able to provide a live demonstration of a graphics benchmark tests pitching an iPhone 4 against a Windows Phone with seemingly conclusive results (the iPhone reported framerates of 2fps).