Today Microsoft announced Windows Phone 8.1 at Build, the company's annual developer conference in San Francisco. Windows Phone 8.1 adds a voice-enabled personal digital assistant called Cortana, along with a host of user experience additions and personalization features.
The most significant part of this new version is Cortana, a personal assistant feature built to rival Apple's Siri and Google Now, and powered by Microsoft's search engine, Bing. Named after the AI character in Halo, Cortana is available as a Live Tile and is accessible via the regular Windows Phone search function.
Like Google Now, Cortana follows and understands your behavior on the phone. It understands relationships, location, and many of your habits. Cortana can read the email on your phone (with permission) and extract relevant information; the example Microsoft Windows chief Joe Belfiore gave involved Cortana noticing flight information and asking if he wanted the flight's status tracked.
Cortana can also be extended to third-party apps via APIs, and there will be a few enabled applications from the get-go, including Skype, Facebook, Hulu and Twitter. For example, you can tell Cortana to call a particular Skype contact, or add a particular TV show to your Hulu queue, or check on a friend's Facebook status.
Belfiore said that the company actually talked to real-life assistants to find out how they do their job, and one of the discoveries was that most of them kept very specific information in a notebook, so Microsoft included such a notebook, and makes that transparent to the user. That information includes things like "Interests" and "Inner Circle." The latter refers to the people who matter most in your life and work, and Cortana purportedly understands those relationships and uses it to your advantage. For example, you can use Cortana's understanding of relationships for setting up rules to be interrupted when in the Quiet Hours feature of Windows Phone.
As you would expect, you can talk to Cortana, asking her to make appointments, find restaurants via services like Yelp, and other helpful information, and get back answers both by voice and by actual data-oriented results.
Cortana will launch in beta form, and while it had a few glitches during Microsoft's demonstrations, its errors didn't seem all that different than the ones you still get in Siri.
Microsoft also added a couple of new Windows Phone hardware partners to its growing list (expanded during Mobile World Congress to include the likes of Huawei and ZTE for example), adding Micromax and Presigio. Yeah, we haven't heard of them either.
Microsoft added what it calls "Action Center" to Windows Phone 8.1, which is a quick way to access key settings features, like battery life and Bluetooth access, and also app notifications. Just like in Android, a swipe from the top of the screen gets you to the Action Center.
There were other UI enhancements, like a personalized lock screen (Microsoft has made APIs available so that developers can design some creative, interactive experiences). The Start screen's layout can also be customized more: you can change the density of tiles on the layout, and choose a background to put behind the tiles, for example. There are changes to the Windows Store experience, and a new Calendar app where you can swipe between days.
There is also a new version of Skype in Windows Phone 8.1, and one of the more interesting aspects is that it is integrated into the Phone app, so you can switch a phone call to a Skype video call with the press of a button. Internet Explorer 11 will also be part of Windows Phone 8.1.
Microsoft also added a Swype-like function for its Word Flow keyboard.
Microsoft did not announce a timeframe for Windows Phone 8.1, only saying that it would be available on existing phones within the next few months. It will appear on new phones in late April or early May.