Microsoft shows off Cortana beta and Windows Phone 8.1 operating system

Microsoft officials finally and officially revealed Microsoft's Cortana personal assistant and Windows Phone 8.1 operating system at Build 2014.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

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). 


Editorial standards