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June 21, 2012

Microsoft Corp. on Wednesday announced plans to overhaul its struggling Windows Phone software, unifying the underlying technology with its new computer operating system and adding features for mobile payments.

The new Windows Phone 8 software, unveiled at an event for developers here, is expected to arrive on smartphones that go on sale this fall. Microsoft declined to give a more specific launch date. Support from app developers is essential to boost the appeal of Microsoft-powered smartphones, which have barely made a ripple in the market dominated by Apple Inc.'s iPhone and handsets that use Google Inc.'s Android operating system. Microsoft executives hope closer ties to Microsoft's dominant Windows operating system for personal computers will help boost the visibility and appeal of its phones with consumers and with independent software developers.

Windows Phone 8 is "the next chapter in our Windows story," Terry Myerson, the head of the Windows Phone business, said at the event. Microsoft said there will be Windows Phone 8 devices from Nokia Corp., HTC Corp., Samsung Electronics Co. and Huawei Technologies Co. All but Huawei have used the current Windows Phone 7 version on handsets. With the latest software, Microsoft is shifting from code that evolved from an operating system called Windows CE to software that shares technology with Windows 8, an update of Microsoft's operating systems for personal computers being adapted to work on tablets, too.

Microsoft says the shift will make it easier for software developers to more easily create applications for both Windows-powered PCs and Windows Phone. The company is also allowing developers to create "native" applications, or software that is designed to run specifically on a device's operating system. This will let developers create more advanced videogame software, among other things. Some developers who attended Wednesday's event said they're enthusiastic about the changes, as well as signs that Microsoft and its allies are committed to selling more Windows Phone devices and to improving the software. "We know Microsoft, Nokia and others are going to invest what it takes to win," said Kevin Foreman, vice president of consumer applications for Inrix Inc., which makes a traffic-navigation app for Apple, Android, Windows Phone and other gadgets.

But Windows Phone devices won't be able to upgrade to Windows Phone 8, Microsoft said. The situation could lead some shoppers to be wary of buying Windows Phone devices between now and this fall, when Windows Phone 8 gadgets will go on sale. Announcements of new apps at the event included Zynga Inc.'s Words with Friends and Draw Something, a Pictionary-like game Zynga recently acquired.

Microsoft also announced a new "digital wallet" for Windows Phone-a mobile payment option-that will store consumers' credit-card information, digital coupons and loyalty-card information such as airline frequent-flier accounts. Both Google and Apple are offering some digital-wallet features, but Microsoft Corporate Vice President Joe Belfiore said the Windows Phone offering will be "the most complete wallet experience on any smartphone this fall." Microsoft also showed off speech-recognition software that developers can harness to let users launch and control apps with their voice, something Apple's Siri technology "just now is learning to do," said Kevin Gallo, the head of developer platform for Windows Phone. Wall Street Journal; more in USA Today

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