Today at the Build 2014 conference, amidst a wide variety of exciting unveilings, Microsoft finally announced the long-awaited Windows Phone 8.1 update. But don’t be fooled by the update’s seemingly small version number; Windows Phone 8.1 is a huge update featuring Microsoft’s new digital assistant, Cortana, and many other exciting new features.
The update takes Windows Phone 8.1 in entirely new directions, bringing features we’ve seen on other platforms and completely unique innovations exclusive to the new software version as well.
The big news here is Cortana, Microsoft’s new personal voice assistant, which is their “better-late-than-never” answer to Siri and Google Now. Cortana’s interface is a spherical, blue user interface built on Bing and its knowledge repository dubbed Satori.
The pretense behind Cortana is that the service will attempt to continually learn more about the user and he or she interacts with it–and, in this way, Cortana is similar to Google Now. But simialr to Siri, Cortana will also perform basic actions such as send texts, search the web, schedule reminders.
Part of what separates Cortana from the herd, though, is that it can be used by other applications. While it has been rumored that Apple and Google may one day plan for their voice assistants to be made available to third-party developers by way of a set of APIs, that has yet to happen. Maybe this will push that process along.
Cortana is launching soon as a beta in the United States (and will hopefully come out of beta in a reasonable amount of time).
First, as leaked previously across the internet, the update includes a new notification center–similar to the ones we’ve had on Android and iOS for years–dubbed Action Center. Action Center includes battery information, SIM information, four customizable action buttons, and notification information from all of your installed apps.
Many changes are also coming to the Windows Phone 8 lock screen with the 8.1 update. New developer APIs that Microsoft is releasing will allow developers to “take over” the start screen and make it more than just a start screen.
Other announcements made today include an update to Internet Explorer (it will be bumped up to version 11) which will feature Reading View and InPrivate tabs, as well as that the long-awaited Windows Phone Enterprise Feature Pack–which brings enterprise applications such as S/MIME support and application-triggered VPN support–will be packed with the Windows Phone 8.1 update.
The Windows Phone store is also getting updated, with better navigation and a featured apps section. The Windows Phone calendar will also be receiving similar navigation improvements. Lastly, Microsoft walked through a “Wi-Fi Sense” tool for automatically joining free Wi-Fi hotspots, and showed off a new Swype-like keyboard for faster typing.
Also worth noting is that Microsoft has slashed Windows Phone 8.1 prices for phone makers with intentions on making the platform more competitive. From today on, device makers will be charged just $15 to license a Windows Phone 8.1 preinstall on devices that cost less than $250. This is a notable discount compared to the standard $50.
All in all, this is a huge update. If you’re reading this and you’re a Windows Phone user, let us know what feature you’re most excited about below.
[Images via TheNextWeb]