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.
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.)
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.
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.