Windows Phone is about to get a whole lot more personal.
Microsoft's smartphone operating system now has its own personal assistant. Just like Apple's Siri and Android's Google Now, Microsoft's "Cortana" is a voice activated-personal assistant to help users control their devices, send messages and search apps and the Web.
Cortana is powered by Microsoft's Bing search engine. It will live in a Live Tile on Windows Phone and completely replaces the default Bing search engine in Windows Phone. It learns what you search and what you do over time to deliver. The assistant is named after an artificial intelligence character in the popular Halo game series.
Cortana comes with a notebook that organizes all of the functions it performs such as interests like news, traffic and weather and learns to keep track of those interests over time. Cortana knows who your best friends are and the places you frequent on a regular basis.
If you are familiar with Apple's Siri or Google Now, Cortana will seem very familiar. It is voice-activated and helps users keep track of events and common behavior, reminders and calendar updates.
Cortana can also open apps in Windows Phone and perform actions through voice controls. For instance, a user can open Skype and call a contact by telling Cortana to open the app with the contact. It will work with third-party apps, allowing you to add TV shows to a queue in Hulu or to look up a certain person on Facebook. This is a unique feature for personal assistants, as neither Google Now nor Siri are very good at opening third-party apps and controlling them.
Microsoft is launching Cortana as a beta version as it continues to iron out the wrinkles of the new assistant. The beta designation follows both Google Now and Apple's Siri that were both launched in beta before becoming full-fledged consumer products almost a year after launch.
Here are eight other things you need to know about the new Windows Phone 8.1 update.
- Windows Phone 8.1 introduces a new "Action Center" that is a drop-down menu from the top of the home screen. It provides quick access to settings and connectivity such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Airplane Mode. The new drop-down menu brings Windows Phone 8.1 in line with Android and iOS, both of which have settings menus that can be dragged from the top of a locked homescreen.
- Speaking of the lock screen, Microsoft is now letting users customize their locked homescreens with Windows Phone 8.1. This setting was not previously available to users of Windows Phone and is an important update that will help manufacturers and users differentiate the user experience of the device.
- The Start screen on Windows Phone will now also be customizable, letting users pick color themes or set a background images in which the Hubs and Tiles interface will lay on to of.
- Microsoft also has new enterprise virtual private network features that will help Windows Phone 8.1 securely connect to corporate networks. A S/MIME messages setting will help Windows Phone 8.1 enterprise users send secure messages.
- The Windows Phone Marketplace has been updated to put a focus on apps, a departure from the previous iterations of the store that would also feature books, music and media next to apps. This should make the Windows Phone Marketplace easier to search and browse.
- A new calendar app offers a new user interface that allows users to swipe to the right to change the day view along with week settings. Developers can build towards the Windows Phone 8.1 calendar with a new public API.
- Microsoft added a new Wi-Fi booster it calls "Wi-Fi Sense" that will help users stay off their cellular data connections and displace to free Wi-Fi hotspots when in range. Wi-Fi Sense will automatically sign into free public networks with credentials saved within the operating system. Microsoft also improved all its other "Sense" features in Windows Phone including Battery Sense.
- Windows Phone 8.1 provides enhancements to the "Word Flow" keyboard that improves the accuracy as well as institutes a Swype-like gesture feature that brings the keyboard much more in line with the capabilities of default keyboards for Android phones.
- Windows Phone 8.1 will start rolling out to consumer within the next few months. It will be available on brand new Windows Phones by late April or early May.
Photos by Owen Thomas for ReadWrite