Will free Windows licenses, the Internet of Things, Cortana, and other announcements put Microsoft back on the right track?
was a big mark against the platform, but Cortana meets, and arguably exceeds, the standard set by competitors such as Siri and Google Now.
The app isn't perfect. At Build, I asked Cortana for directions to Berkeley, which is about half an hour's drive from the conference's San Francisco venue. The app directed me to a town 3,000 miles away. Given that Cortana draws inferences from the user's location, one would expect it to know which Berkeley I meant.
Cortana, Microsoft's digital assistant, is one of several new Windows Phone 8.1 features
But Cortana projects as much personality as a beta as competitors do after years of development. It also features a more sophisticated backend than most, if not all, rivals, as well as hooks that let Cortana interact with other apps.
Cortana also represents some vindication for Ballmer, whose critics often argued that Bing was a misguided grab for consumer mindshare. For years, these critics seemed to have a point; Microsoft's search engine hemorrhaged money, a gnat buzzing in the ear of Google's unfazed bull. But Bing is more than a search engine; it's also the foundation for not only Cortana's intelligence, but also a growing breed of new, context-aware apps. Some of its old critics are starting to look short-sighted.
5. Universal Apps could close the app gap. Mobile developers still prioritize iOS and Android, but Microsoft's new Universal Apps could change that. App makers can now use one set of code to create apps optimized for every kind of Windows device -- even the Xbox. Moreover, developers have the option to make a single app purchase transferrable across all devices; that is, if you buy an app for your phone, you might get it for your tablet and PC for free.
Microsoft also demonstrated ways to reuse old code in new apps and to harness Windows development tools to make iOS and Android products. Heading into Build, Microsoft needed to keep longtime Windows developers invested, attract new interest from the mobile and gaming crowds, and position Azure as the cross-platform cloud of choice. Thanks to the aforementioned moves, the company made progress on all of these fronts.
6. Quality, budget-priced Windows Phone 8.1 devices could stand out in high-growth emerging markets. With Cortana, the new Action Center, several pleasing aesthetic tweaks, and other new features, Windows Phone 8.1 is a definite improvement. Nokia made clear at Build that it intends to cut into Android's base by extending premium features to down-market devices. Cheap Android phones tend to offer poor experiences, and Apple simply doesn't compete in the budget market, so Microsoft has an opportunity.
Microsoft has attracted praise for these moves.
Carolina Milanesi, chief of research at Kantar Worldpanel, said in an email interview that Microsoft's new licensing model will help it align with the "white box" OEM vendors who've driven Android growth, for example, and
Michael Endler joined InformationWeek as an associate editor in 2012. He previously worked in talent representation in the entertainment industry, as a freelance copywriter and photojournalist, and as a teacher. Michael earned a BA in English from Stanford University in 2005 ... View Full Bio
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