Joe Belfiore, the guy in charge of Windows Phone at Microsoft, got up in front of a bunch of developers to talk about Windows Phone 8.1 yesterday. That means what you think it means – Windows Phone owners, it won’t be long before you’re the next group to lay eyes on it.
The updated mobile OS will have quite a few new features, but none more significant than (finally) Microsoft’s own digital assistant. Siri and Google Now will be joined by Cortana. Yes, Microsoft named her after the Halo character, and yes, that’s pretty awesome. And no, the voice will not be the same, because that would be the job from hell for that voice actress.
No, Cortana does sound a bit generic for now, but there are some interesting features here that differentiate her a little from what everyone else is doing. First is a notebook that Cortana keeps about your interests and things of importance (like scheduled flights). Over time, and based on your Bing searches and app use, Cortana will figure this out on her own, but you can add and edit interests in the notebook at any time. You can also have her set up alerts and reminders, some of which are contextual – you can get a reminder the next time you arrive at a certain place, or the next time you start talking to a certain person.
You’ll also be able to have Cortana do things within other apps – Belfiore demonstrated using only voice commands to have Cortana add a show to his Hulu queue and start playing the show, all using natural language. Speaking of natural language, you’ll be able to interact with Cortana either by speaking or typing – whichever one you choose is how Cortana will respond, so if you type a command in a meeting, she won’t speak up and embarrass you in front of everyone. It also seems like Microsoft is trying to throw in the same kind of personality quirks that Siri has, but from the demo, it looks like we might have a case of awkward try-hardism on our hands – but hey, it took Siri some time to get her act together, too.
Over on the Live Tiles UI, there will now be three columns of tiles on Windows phones larger than 5”. You’ll also have the option to make all Live Tiles transparent, and put up a picture in the background that will persist as your wallpaper, even if you scroll up and down. You can make some apps transparent and others not, so there are a lot of different ways to play around with the UI and make it your own.
Rounding out the new features are new lock screen themes, an action center with notifications from all apps (way overdue), and Skype integration with the phone’s dialer. There’s also the Word Flow keyboard, which you can use to type by just passing your fingers quickly over the keys – it enabled someone to break the world record for fastest typing, previously held by someone using Swype on a Galaxy S4, so it’s certainly compelling.
There are also tons of minor tweaks to Calendar, Music, Podcasts, Video, and pretty much every other native app you find on Windows Phone. You can read more about those here, or wait a little while – you’ll be able to try them out once the update starts rolling out this month. Windows Phone 8.1 devices, including the Nokia Lumia 630, 635, and 930, will arrive this summer.
UPDATE: Godspeed to her, voice actress Jen Taylor of the Halo series actually is providing the voice for Windows Phone 8.1′s Cortana. The Verge has a good story about how Cortana came to be, but the short version is that Taylor herself will provide some of the more lighthearted responses, while a digitally synthesized ‘Taylor-like’ voice will handle the lion’s share of the day-to-day uses, like setting up alerts and Bing searches.