Mango for WP7 ready to roll within 2 weeks

After months of demonstrations and testing, Microsoft’s next major software update is nearly ready for Windows Phone 7 (WP 7) handsets. In a blog post today, the company said that existing smartphone owners can expect the software, known as Mango(s msft) or WP 7.5, “in the next week or two.” The upgrade availability will vary based on carrier and smartphone model as it will also include hardware-specific updates from the original handset makers.

When it launched last year, my first impressions of Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 showed a solid start but had plenty of room for improvement. The new Metro interface, application tiles and hubs showed me a fresh take on old touch interfaces while performance was reasonably good for a first iteration on hardware that was cutting-edge nearly a year prior. But unlike rivals such as Google Android(s goog) and Apple iOS(s aapl), Windows Phone 7 lacked multitasking, copy and paste functionality and a unified Inbox, to name a few. I also wasn’t sold on the home screen tiles, finding them to take took long to show useful information.

Then I tried the final developer version of Mango in early August. What a world of difference.

My tests were run on the same hardware I initially used last November and yet it felt like I had a brand new phone. It was as if someone replaced the processor on my HTC HD7 with a peppy dual-core unit while boosting the available program memory at the same time. Apps open faster and the entire interface moves along quicker. A nifty way to multitask was added — just hold the Windows button to see or switch between running apps — although developers will need to update their software to enable support.

Voice¬†recognition, by way of Microsoft’s purchase of TellMe in 2007, is stellar; perhaps even better than it is on Google Android devices. A unified Inbox is now available and the mail client supports threaded conversations. Xbox Live integration is improved and the IE9 browser supports HTML5. And all the while that Microsoft has been working on Mango, it has been attracting developers and third-party applications; the platform now boasts more than 31,000 apps.

It’s certainly true that sales of Windows Phone 7 smartphones have underwhelmed and there are several reasons why. Few handset models are actually available and all use the same basic hardware. The application market, while steadily growing, pales in comparison to rival ecosystems. And the first software release lacked key features as I noted.

But now, nearly a year after first launching, I think Microsoft Windows Phone is set to gain momentum due to the improvements in the Mango software. Improved marketing may help and so too will new hardware from partners such as HTC and Nokia(s nok).

As Microsoft gains momentum, Research In Motion(s rimm) is losing it, Symbian didn’t have it, and HP’s(s hpq)¬†webOS has completely lost it. That leaves Microsoft in a good spot in the race for the No. 3 mobile platform, just in time for the Mango software update.