Microsoft borrows a page from Apple and Google in latest smartphone operating system update.
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Microsoft unveiled Windows Phone 8.1 at its Build developer conference in San Francisco Wednesday, and the update brings some much-needed and long-overdue features to the mobile operating system. Many of the new features are borrowed from competing platforms but should be enough to make users happier with their Windows smartphones.
The foremost new feature is Cortana, a new voice-activated personal assistant. Cortana is like Apple's Siri and Google's Google Now combined. Cortana recognizes natural language requests and commands to perform a wide number of actions. For example, Microsoft's Joe Belfiore used Cortana on stage to set reminders, schedule appointments, seek out local Mexican food, and find out which team won the Seattle Mariners' home opener. Cortana pulls data not only from Bing, but from other sources such as Yelp. Cortana will be included as a beta feature in Windows Phone 8.1.
Windows Phone 8.1 includes a handful of user interface tweaks that make phones more customizable. The Start Screen, for example, can be laid over a personal image. The tile effect is a big improvement over Windows Phone 8's start screen. The lock screen, too, can be customized. Microsoft plans to release APIs to developers so they can create unique lock screen apps. The platform now also includes a notification tray with drop-down screen that mimics the Android and iOS notification trays. It holds toggles for wireless radios, as well as notifications for email and messages.
On a broader level, Windows Phone 8.1 brings a handful of tools that should make owners' day-to-day lives better. Wi-Fi Sense, for example, can be used to automatically connect to trusted WiFi networks -- public or private -- without forcing users to acknowledge that they are joining the network or enter a password. Windows Phone 8.1 includes new support for VPNs, and can segregate personal and enterprise data to keep work info secure.
Cortana (left) is Microsoft's take on Suri. Wi-Fi Sense is another useful new feature in Windows Phone 8.1.
The calendar app now supports the ability to view a single week, as well as swipe from day to day. Windows Phone 8.1 will incorporate Internet Explorer 11, complete with Web apps and new developer APIs. The Data Sense and Power Sense tools offer more detail about monthly mobile broadband usage and battery life. The camera adds a new burst mode, and the gallery app now jumps straight to the last series of images captured. Email can be encrypted, and Microsoft added support for iCloud in an olive branch to Apple users. The keyboard now supports swiping input for faster typing. And Skype has been incorporated into the main phone application for switching between traditional voice and Skype calls.
Last, Microsoft is now offering the Windows Phone operating system to hardware makers for free, which could help boost interest from companies that want to build devices.
Because this is not a full version jump, the list of new features is contained and evolutionary. Microsoft clearly took several of the new behaviors directly from competitors in a bid to make the platform more appealing to potential switchers.
Windows Phone 8.1 will be available in new Nokia Lumia devices as soon as May, and will be available as an over-the-air update to most existing Windows Phone 8 devices this summer.
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Eric is a freelance writer for InformationWeek specializing in mobile technologies. View Full Bio
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