Windows Phone isn’t the most glorious of mobile operating systems. With just 5.2 percent of the market and “only” 100,000 apps in its Marketplace, Microsoft’s other OS is a mere shadow of the company’s core Windows product. Windows Phone 8, which the company officially unveiled today, represents the company’s attempts to catch-up to – and compete with – iOS and Android.

Microsoft announced eight new features at its Windows Phone 8 summit. We’re going to focus on three of the announcements that will have the biggest impact on the Microsoft OS  – changes to the Start Screen, in-app payments, and access to native code.

The Start Screen

Windows Phone devices were originally billed as “a phone to save us from our phones.” Microsoft aired a number of TV spots emphasizing Windows Phone’s Metro interface and Live Tiles, showcasing the operating system’s in-and-out approach to mobile computing. Today’s changes to the Start Screen take that original idea, slap it across the face, and tell it not to show itself in this town again.

The Start Screen used to be a hallowed space, one that gave the user complete access to their most-used applications and hubs, embracing the “at a glance” nature of Windows Phone. With Windows Phone 8, though, Microsoft has shoved everything onto the Start Screen and created a visually and informationally dense screen that can quickly grow tiring. Instead of large, easy-to-read tiles the new Start Screen emphasizes tiles that are almost comically small and visually jarring.

In-App Payments

Microsoft is playing catchup here; both iOS and Android have had in-app payments for some time, which has allowed “freemium” apps to flourish on the two dominant platforms. While the Windows Phone 8 solution isn’t all that exciting in a macro view of the smartphone ecosystem, adding in-app payments is part of Microsoft’s larger push to bring developers to the platform.

The addition has already led to Zynga porting two of its most popular mobile games – Draw Something (though, at this point, Draw Something is quickly becoming yesterday’s news) and Words with Friends – to the platform. Depending on how much Windows Phone users spend on those two games, smaller developers may be quick to follow the industry’s most prolific mobile game maker.

Access to Native Code

Windows Phone developers all released a sigh of relief and whispered “finally” when Microsoft announced that app makers would be able to run native code in a variety of languages. Developers were previously limited to a C derivative that ran in an emulator on the device, limiting functionality and responsiveness on the platform.

By giving developers access to native code and enabling in-app purchases, Microsoft may finally capitalize on its Xbox brand and see some blockbuster titles released in the Marketplace. Microsoft has also said that apps will now be easier to port from iOS and Android, displaying a consciousness of the fact that developers are more likely to devote their initial energies to those two platforms while simultaneously making it easier to port those games down the line.

Everything Else

Microsoft is battling for smartphone marketshare on a number of fronts. Windows Phone 8 may suffer from “Hey, we’re a few years late”-itis, but it’s clear that Microsoft is making a strong push to simultaneously woo each of the three divisions previously listed. Here are a few other features that Microsoft announced today:

(Yet Another) Mobile Wallet: Microsoft is partnering with a number of wireless providers to offer (another) mobile payments solution that would leverage NFC and carrier billing to enable payments by tapping a button or waving the phone over a NFC-enabled terminal.

Audible: Audible appears to be a digital voice assistant that may actually offer more functionality than Apple’s Siri. Developers that incorporate Audible into their apps can enable “conversations” with the app, encouraging a higher level of interaction with apps beyond “Launch this” (Which Siri actually won’t be able to do until iOS 6) or “Remind me to do this.”

VoIP Support: Applications that utilize VoIP (like Microsoft’s own Skype) can now run in the background and are integrated at a system level. Calls from Skype, for example, look the same as calls from the built-in Phone app.

Multi-Core Support: Windows Phone can now utilize multi-core chipsets, which should improve responsiveness and raw power of applications built on the platform.

Microsoft has been incredibly busy this week, announcing a line of tablets (though, without release dates, prices, or general availability) and an update to its mobile operating system in quick succession. After allowing iOS and Android to dominate the smartphone market for the past five years, Microsoft is playing an aggressive game of catch-up and pursuing marketshare on all fronts.

Unfortunately, the fact remains that Microsoft is introducing products and features that should have debuted with Windows Phone 7’s initial release. This week’s announcements are long overdue, and Microsoft seems to know it, which explains the rapid-fire release of information on new products. The company is cornered, and is fighting tooth-and-nail to gain relevance in a rapidly evolving ecosystem.

[Image Credit: The Verge]