Cortana: I want Microsoft's Windows Phone 8.1 developer bits

Cortana: I want Microsoft's Windows Phone 8.1 developer bits

Summary: The Windows Phone 8.1 developer preview bits, including a beta of its Cortana digital assistant, are available as of April 14. I've been using WP 8.1 for over a week. Here's what I found.

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The rumors were right: Today, April 14, is the day Microsoft is making the developer version of its Windows Phone 8.1 operating system publicly available to developers.

cortanawp81

The 8.1 developer preview is slated to be live by 8 a.m. ET/5 a.m. PT today. Even though this is a developer preview, anyone willing to sign up (for free) as a developer can download the bits to their phones. (Both WPCentral.com and the Windows Supersite have posted instructions on how to do this.)

I've had the near-final developer preview bits running on a Nokia Lumia Icon loaner phone from Microsoft for the past week-plus. Microsoft provided these bits to a few reviewers and press folk so they could put the hundreds (literally) of new features — and especially Cortana, Microsoft's new digital personal assistant — in this OS release through its paces.

I admit I've been a big Cortana skeptic since plans for it leaked a year ago. I was leery about how much I'd want and use Cortana once I saw Microsoft execs demo it at the Build 2014 show the first week of April. Would I really ever talk to my phone? Would I want my phone searching my email, contacts, and calendar and storing that information about me? And would it be just way too creepy to see an "ask your sister about her cat" reminder pop up when I called her?

Over the past week, my use of Cortana has moved beyond trying to get it to trigger amusing chit-chat to using it to do tasks on my behalf more easily. I've used Cortana to set alarms, generate reminders, prepare for a plane trip and find local diners open early on Sunday. These are all searches I could do without Cortana, but Cortana made them easier and quicker. As thousands of developers, and ultimately, Windows Phone users, start using Cortana, its results should improve, given more data will be made available to Bing on the back end.

I'm glad there's a choice of being able to speak or type my queries with Cortana. By habit, I almost never speak to my phone outside the confines of my own home. Yes, I live in New York City where people talk to themselves on the street, subway, and in other public places. But I'm not comfortable doing that.

There are two ways users can "wake up" Cortana: By pressing the dedicated search button or by activating the Cortana app/tile. Users who want no part of Cortana or who are in markets where it's not supported will still be able to use Bing for Web and device searches. Currently, Cortana is available in preview form only for US users. It will work if users set their regions to US and language to English, but those outside the US won't get the same experience, since many of the Bing-powered Cortana features (like places-related reminders) won't work right, according to Microsoft officials.

One of the key reasons that search is more useful in the Windows Phone 8.1 release is because the OS enables device search. This means users can find email, text messages, contacts, settings, appointments, music, and apps that are on their phones using a simple search query. (Email attachments and Office Hub files aren't covered by device search at the moment.) 

wp81home

As I've been a Windows Phone user for the past few years, I can't answer how Cortana stacks up against Apple's Siri or Google Now. From what I've seen and read about those digital assistants, I'd say Microsoft has tried to strike a middle ground, adopting some Siri elements and some Google Now elements. Using the voice of Jen Taylor, who is the voice of the Cortana intelligent assistant character in the Halo game series, is a nice branding touch. (Taylor is in the midst recording more responses for Windows Phone, and users/testers will hear her voice more as those are phased in over time.)

Cortana isn't the only new feature in the Windows Phone 8.1 (codenamed "Blue") release. There are new Start and lock-screen customizations available. (See my Start screen at left, which shows off the ability to have a picture as the background image behind the tiles.)

There's also a new Action Center/notification center. Users can customize a handful of quick settings for Wifi, Camera, and Bluetooth, plus see a list of notifications from/about their apps. Users just swipe down from the Windows Phone start screen to see and access these settings/notifications. I didn't find myself needing or using the Action Center much over the past week. The updated calendar is a lot easier to use than the current Windows Phone calendar, with interactive day, week and month views, along with integrated weather.

There's also a much enhanced Word Flow Keyboard included as part of the Windows Phone 8.1 release. Microsoft execs showed off this keyboard, and its new "shape writing" that lets users skip typing individual characters and instead glide their finger over keys in a continuous motion to enter text, similar to the way Swype works. I've tried using this a bit in the past week-plus. It definitely takes some getting used to. At the moment, I still type more accurately and intuitively without using shape writing, but I could see myself using this more once I have time to train myself on it.

Check out ZDNet's Windows Phone 8.1 screen shot gallery 

 

For business users, Windows Phone 8.1 is a huge step up from the current Windows Phone releases. Microsoft officials said a year ago to expect the company to add back to Windows Phone a number of the enterprise features it eliminated when it moved from Windows Mobile to Windows Phone. They said they'd do this via an enterprise pack. Instead, they are making available these capabilities as a built-in part of the Windows Phone 8.1 OS itself.

Enterprise VPN, supporting IPsec and SSL VPN gateways, is built in. Enterprise Wi-Fi, manageable by mobile-device-management systems, is built in, as well. Certificate management, S/MIME support for secure email, the ability to lock down documents in OneDrive via information-rights-management software and policies are all there, too. There's a free mobile-device-management guide available for download from Microsoft that details these new enterprise features. There's also a downloadable guide focusing on security enhancements in Windows Phone 8.1.

What's next? New Windows Phones with Windows Phone 8.1 built in should begin debuting in late spring/early summer and carriers should start pushing Windows Phone 8.1 to existing Windows Phone users this summer, as well. Again, users who don't want to wait for their carriers can download the developer bits. Word is that Microsoft plans to continue to update Windows Phone 8.1 with multiple GDR/updates during this calendar year, the same way it did with Windows Phone 8.

There's no word from Microsoft when the company will integrate Cortana into Windows client and Xbox, but this is expected to happen possibly by next year.

Bottom line: Windows Phone 8.1 is a hefty and welcome update. Cortana is more fun and useful than I anticipated but not a killer feature/app for me.

Topics: Mobile OS, Emerging Tech, Microsoft, Mobility, Windows Phone

About

Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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48 comments
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  • All the reviews I've read for Cortana have been positive

    Sounds like this might be a hit feature for M$, might help them get in the game with smart phones.
    I just think they should have named it something other than Cortana, just a bit over the 'too cute' line for me.
    FrankInKy
    • The voice functions

      in 8.0 are better than my Android phone or iPhone were. I switched recently to a Lumia and for the first time since getting a smartphone in 2008, I had a real wow moment.

      The bluetooth hands free in the car cut out the radio and a female voice asked if I wanted to have the new SMS read to me. I could then answer. That is something my Galaxy S3 and iPhone have never done - using the same hands free kit.

      I know some entertainment kits offer similar functionality, but it is the first time that I had the phone offer to read me a message.
      wright_is
      • Android does that as well

        I'm running Android 4.3 on my Galaxy Note 2 and it does that if you turn on the hands free driving mode feature.
        laequis
        • android does what as well?

          does it allow you to respond to the text message using just your voice?
          vpupkin
        • Interesting

          My GS3 is now running 4.4 and has been paired with the same car based hands free for 2 years and has never offered this.
          wright_is
          • yes this is true

            Yes this is correct, if you turn the right features on it does sorta work, the feature used to be called driving mode pre 4.3 and is called hands free post 4.3 (at least on galaxy phones S2 and S3) you need to turn on the right set of options etc, the reply/response voice commands on my device however stopped working after the 4.3 update and I haven't gotten around to working out why yet.
            nbates66
          • Aha

            I've looked through the settings, but I can't find anything to do with Hands Free in the settings - is this maybe something only for English language phones? I'm using German phones.

            The guide I found said Google Now->Settings->Voice->Hands Free

            But that option isn't available.
            wright_is
          • wrong place

            on Samsung's skin it isn't done via Google now, look in device settings > my Device tab.
            nbates66
      • Guess your not well versed with android

        Android reads texts and email as you described for couple years guess your not familiar with android
        Fletchguy
      • Guess your not well versed with iOS

        iOS has also been able to read emails and texts for years
        rbgaynor
    • Continued...

      so, I wanted to say that I have high hopes for Cortanan, whenever it might reach these shores - I'm hearing this time next year for us over here in Germany.
      wright_is
      • Yes, being able to "read" and reply to texts while driving is handy

        It takes away the temptation to look at the phone completely. That said, my daughter gets a kick out of my mangled replies (it does text to speech a lot better than speech to text).
        Flydog57
    • some truth

      Yea, Microsoft has been missing out on some key features and functions to REALLY compete for best smartphone including this well made assistant so these are some good steps in the right direction. Personally though, I love the Cortana name and love that Jen Taylor will be the voice! She's gonna call me, "chief" and everything. Great branding and one of the biggest things keeping Microsoft in the relevant to all ages category is their amazing work on gaming consoles so I fully encourage ALL steps that the new windows phones take to get closer to the Xbox and all other great Micro$oft products
      TobyBlue91
  • Siri user feedback

    I have not used a Windows phone much. I had a 7.5 Windows phone which was primitive as far as smartphones go. Android of course has Google Now which I am familiar with and used for a year. I was never so impressed with Siri or Google now that I was anymore then intrigued by their services. Sometimes they worked, and sometimes both Google Now and Siri could never understand what I wanted. Even today with my iPhone Siri the other day could not direct me to a valid commercial address that was listed everywhere. It just could not find it and kept redirecting me to go somewhere else. I speak very fluent and clear English and yet many times background noises and general issues with voice recognition has actually made things harder and not better to do simple tasks. Many times I find myself going back and typing in a search or manually dialing a number because i do not trust Siri to work correctly. Maybe Microsoft with have better luck with Cortana? But as my Mother always said. They are probably stirred with the same spoon.
    JohnnyES-25227553276394558534412264934521
  • another M$ flop!

    M$ wants to be the skynet, but it is so far behind FOSS that it never will!
    LlNUX Geek
    • Giving the ongoing epic OpenSSL FUBAR

      ... I doubt anything in this world could be "far behind FOSS" even if it works hard at it.

      Patched all those servers yet btw?
      LBiege
    • Our token troll

      An article about Microsoft and here it comes. Please pet it on the way by.
      lwetzel
    • Which FOSS project are you talking about?

      I can't think of a successful FOSS digital assistant.
      Michael Alan Goff
    • My heartbleed's for you.

      Secure openSSL and fix your certs then come back, you troll..
      Nick Zamparello
    • I'm going to go out on a limb here, and take a guess

      but does the "SF" stand for "Stupid F........."?
      William.Farrel