At Build 2014 developer conference, Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore unveiled the latest version of the company’s mobile OS, Windows Phone 8.1. The new operating system is designed to be more personal, allowing users better control over key UI elements including the lock screen, home screen and notifications and providing a digital assistant named Cortana. Sadly, Windows Phone owners will have to wait a few months before the update will be available as an over-the-air update.
A key new feature is the action center, a new drawer which looks a lot like the quick settings notification drawer on Android. It features your latest updates along with quick buttons for controlling your wireless settings. Belfiore demonstrated how users will install custom lock screen apps that allow you to customize that screen’s look and feel.
The new Windows Phone 8.1 start screen can be customized by controlling the number of tiles shown or by choosing a wallpaper.
Cortana is Microsoft’s Siri-like voice assistant, and is powered by Bing. The virtual assistant lives either as a Live Tile on the home screen or appears when you touch the search button. It not only takes your queries, but also allows you to schedule tasks and perform other assistant-like duties.
Also, Cortana keeps a “notebook” with all of the information it learns about you, such as who your friends are, what your interests are, what your schedule is and more. Unlike with Google Now, it appears that Cortana lets you see the data it has gathered on you in the notebook so you can change it. You can then use that data, for example, to create “quiet hours” on your phone, but let the people Cortana has identified as close family to still call you.
If you give Cortana permission to scan your email, it can even track your flights, after seeing the itinerary in a message. However, unlike Google Now Cortana first asks for permission to track a flight.
Among other capabilities we saw demonstrated at BUILD 2014, Belfiore asked Cortana’s female voice to read his schedule for a day. He also asked her to “attend a dentist appointment for Friday at 10 am,” and we watched as she told him he had a conflicting appointment at the same time.
Because it is powered by Bing, Cortana can help you find information online. Belfiore asked Cortana for Mexican restaurants in a particular area and she gave suggestions with four star Yelp ratings. He then asked her to narrow the search to only restaurants that take reservations and we watched as it narrowed the results on screen. Belfiore hit a big when he asked Cortana to call the restaurant he wanted for reservations, but he said that Cortana is being launched as a beta and will evolve over time.
He then asked Cortana “how did the Seattle Mariners do yesterday” and got a sports score showing the Mariners had beaten the Angles 8 to 3. It also takes other search questions and reads answers like Google Now. We watched as Belfiore asked “how old is Russell Wilson” and it answeed “25 years old.” He also asked “how many calories are in a banana” and got a screen showing a picture of a banana with nutritional info. He said that you can even add that info to a fitness app.
Don’t feel like talking to your phone? You can type messages to Cortana as well. When we watched Belfiore type “remind me when I get home to cook dinner for my wife” into the Cortana screen, he instantly got a confirmation for adding the reminder.
Belfiore said that Cortana keeps track of your relationships in a unique way by knowing who your friends and relatives are. He commanded Cortana to “remind me to talk to my sister about her new puppy” and it set a reminder with the full name of his sister.
Cortana’s voice recognition can also use other apps including Skype and Facebook. Plus, Cortana has some funny banter built-in, like Siri does.
Also during Build 2014’s keynote Nick Hedderman, senior product manager of Windows, talked about how Windows Phone 8.1 works well for business. He started by showing how you can have a phone log in to a corporate network via VPN. The new OS update also brings supports S/MIME for encrypting messages and mobile device management.
Hedderman showed how when editing a secure document on a phone, the save button was grayed out because the policy was set to forbid local save. He also showed how the phone could block apps such as a game if those are forbidden by IT policy. He then explained that when you “unenroll” a device, it automatically removes all corporate apps in one action.
The Windows Phone Store experience is getting a revamp, as is the built-in calendar app as well. It now sports a category list that matches the Windows Store list of categories, along with personalized suggestions just one swipe to left away. The new calendar gives you additional views, such as a week at a glance view.
Another key new feature of Windows Phone 8.1 His called Wi-Fi Sense. This smart wireless sniffer suggests the best Wi-Fi networks in your area and signs you in to the best one. Also, Wi-Fi Sense can give your friends a secure way to sign into your home Wi-Fi hotspot, without you verbally telling them the password.
Rounding out the new features was an improved wordflow keyboard that reminded us of Swype. It’s so much faster that the Guiness Book of World Records speed typer achieved the new record by using the new Windows Phone 8.1 keyboard. The OS will also have Internet Explorer 11, which has a new reading mode and other key improvements.