Microsoft shows off Cortana beta and Windows Phone 8.1 operating system

Microsoft shows off Cortana beta and Windows Phone 8.1 operating system

Summary: Microsoft officials finally and officially revealed Microsoft's Cortana personal assistant and Windows Phone 8.1 operating system at Build 2014.


Microsoft finally and officially has taken the wraps off Windows Phone 8.1, codenamed "Blue."

The new features demonstrated during Microsoft's April 2 Build 2014 keynote mirror the features that have leaked over the past month-plus.


As expected, Cortana, Microsoft's new personal assistant that will compete with Google Now and Apple Siri, is part of the new operating system. Cortana is going to be designated as a beta when it arrives with the Windows Phone 8.1 update. It will be powered by Bing and replace the current Bing search functionality that's built into Windows Phone.

Cortana, which takes its name from the Cortana assistant in Halo, looks like an orb, or halo. (See the sample screen image from Microsoft at right.) The voice of Cortana is provided by Jen Taylor, who is the voice in the Halo game. Users can interact with Cortana either by speaking or typing.

Cortana will be integrated with Skype and other Microsoft apps, allowing users to see prompts such as "Ask Linda about her new puppy" when engaged in a Skype audio and/or video conversation with her. Microsoft also will open up Cortana so that third-party developers can integrate with it.

Microsoft officials are not commenting on when Cortana will be available as part of Windows and Xbox One.

A notification center will be part of the Windows Phone 8.1 update. The lock screen will allow for customization. User-selectable background images can be used on the phone start screen, so that the image shows through the live tiles in the background.

There's now a third column of tiles for devices not just with 5-inch and larger screens, but on all screen sizes. (There will be an optional setting allowing users to turn on/off the extra column of tiles.) Datasense and Wi-Fi sense are in the update, as well.

Internet Explorer 11 and VPN support is built into the Windows Phone 8.1 operating system. Other enterprise-specific features, like S/MIME mail support, mobile-device management customizability and certificate management also will be supported on the platform. (I'm not clear if any of the enterprise features beyond VPN are going to be built right into the WP 8.1 operating system, or are avaialble later as an update.)

The calendar app, Windows Phone Store, Xbox Music and Skype app all have been updated substantially in this release.

A new Microsoft blog post lists many of the "hundreds" of new features in the Windows Phone 8.1 release.

Microsoft plans to make Windows Phone 8.1 available to its developer community later this month. The new OS will start rolling out to existing Windows Phone users starting this summer (May/June). 


Topics: Windows Phone, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Mobile OS, Smartphones


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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  • Siri and Google now is blown away...

    Hello Cortana!
    • I haven't seen the latest yet

      The early demo that was on Youtube certainly doesn't blow Siri away. But I'm glad there's more competition. And surely, using the real Cortana voice is the most awesome thing they could have done short of calling it "Jarvis" :)
      • Siri's back-end is Bing...

        I am pretty sure that Cortana can do way better than Siri or whatever.
        • No

          Siri's "back end" is not Bing; their web search results are Bing. Siri does a lot more than web searching, however: it draws on a lot of sources, including the Wolfram Alpha computational engine, Yelp, Apple's own maps, plus the data on your own phone.
          • Cortana does more

            Cortana isn't all about web search either. The problem and notion lies that Bing is a search engine but actually it is more than that. It's Microsoft platform for cloud services and anything related to the web and one of that is search.

            Developers can integrate Cortana in their apps so Cortana becomes highly functional across apps and not just the OS itself. While over time Cortana is learning how a user uses Windows Phone.
          • platform for cloud services

            Did you see the demo? He made the point that it can do local tasks that have nothing to do with the cloud either. It is a personal assistant, so don't try to compartmentalize it into some domain when it is aiming to do everything related to you, your environment etc period!
          • Fanboys much?

            You sound like a sock puppet for Microsoft. Stop before you make your employer look foolish.
      • The Name should have been

    • As the old fable says...

      ..."Don't count your chickens before they're hatched".

      Time will tell how successful Cortana ends up being. The mere fact that it's an MS product doesn't guarantee future dominance, nor should it.
      John L. Ries
    • Do you mean WP is now only a lap behind?

      Voice assistant from Halo: Really? WP had no voice assistant till now? About time then, isn't it?
      "VPN support is built in" See comment above.
      "User-selectable background": See comment above.
      "There's now a third column of tiles": Wow, three rows. Aren't they worried about Windows users getting all confused and flustered with all those tiles?
      • No Worries

        Three rows are not the same as three columns. Columns are vertical while rows are horizontal and there has never been a limit to how many rows one can have. The option will allow the user to have up to either 6 small, 3 medium, or 1 large tile(s) per row, or a combination thereof.

        Now as confusing as that might be to you - the big kids get it and when you are all done with your learnings, you will too!
        • So you are saying you couldn't adjust it before?

          Gee... my systems could do that... back in 1995.
          • It Has Been Fully Adjustable Since Day One

            and your own words have proven that you know not what you are talking about and are thus no more than a flaming idiot!
      • Microsoft did Have Voice Assistance

        Microsoft has had voice assistance, just not as robust as SIRI. However, it was resident on the phone.
      • No

        There is currently a voice assist and it works as well as the others. Cortana is a better version of it. I use it often enough. Probably as much as an iPhone user uses Siri... which is hardly ever. I've never seen an Android user use the voice assistant. It's pretty awful.
        • Voice assist in Windows Phone

          Pretty basic but works very well. Voice text and commands work almost perfect everytime. Siri was always more entertaining. It will be very interesting to see where Cortana falls between these extremes.
          The Heretic
    • Right on time for MS....3 years behind the competion.

      Owl:Net you drooling fool, you have nor even touch the device but you have decided it is far superior. Your intellect goes hand and hand with that of a dust mite.

      Time will tell which is superior but it usually takes 3 release from MS to get what it copied correct. I look forward to seeing the first comparative tests to see the true story.
      • It's never too late to be awesome.

        Microsoft has been doing AI research since before the iPhone existed, so I'm pretty confident Cortana will not need three releases to get it right.
        • You must be new to IT

          MS had been making OS way before AI and have you seen Vista and W8?

          Your confidence is miss placed my friend and history backs up this statement.
          • History backs the confidence in MS

            You're listing Vista and Win8 as negatives. I personally had no issues with Vista and while I didn't like Windows 8 originally, I like it now. History says Microsoft gets it right every other time (Win98/XP/Win7). Look for Microsoft to take what they learned from Windows 8 and Windows 9 will likely be another hit. :) I love my iPhone and am typing this on it right now, but am seriously considering Windows Phone for my next device.