Microsoft to roll out new Cortana beta and alpha releases in more countries

Microsoft is releasing Cortana, its personal digital assistant for Windows Phone, in beta in China and the U.K., and in 'alpha' form in Australia, Canada and India.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft is rolling out beta versions of its Cortana personal digital assistant in China and the U.K. the week of August 4, as part of its Windows Phone 8.1 Update 1 release, officials disclosed on July 30.


The company also is rolling out Cortana to a few other countries -- Canada, India, and Australia -- earlier than planned. It will make Cortana available in "alpha" form in these three regions as of next week. Alpha means Cortana will be opt-in for these "early adopter" users and will use U.S. and U.K. English at this point.

The U.S. version of Cortana, which Microsoft initially released as part of the Windows Phone 8.1 operating system developer preview in April 2014, also was designated as a "beta." Cortana is still classified as "beta" even in the final versions of the Windows Phone 8.1 operating system rolling out to existing Windows Phone users.

The Chinese version of Cortana, nicknamed "Xiao Na," will work like the U.S. version does. However, the Chinese version does include some features customized for the Chinese market, such as the option for a different visual appearance (a face-like oval with eyes), animations and sounds.

The Chinese version supports Mandarin Chinese in voice, text and speech, as well as customized suggestions for those in China, like the ability to track local celebrities and weather cards with air quality information. (The U.K. version likewise includes customizations specific for those in that market.)

Microsoft also will be adding some new features to Cortana in the U.S., according to company officials. Earlier this week, Microsoft execs noted that Cortana now shows local Foursquare recommendations. Beyond that, the U.S. Cortana beta, will get "new natural language scenarios, snooze times for reminders, and a number of neat additions to her personality (try asking “do an impersonation” and see what happens)."

With Windows Phone 8.1 Update 1 -- a developer preview of which will be out the week of August 4 -- Microsoft is adding the ability to invoke Cortana hands-free in your car for phones connected to car Bluetooth kits that are integrated with your contacts list.

"If your car kit is integrated with your contacts, you can now treat Cortana as a contact to invoke her, simply saying 'Call Cortana' and then talking to her as you normally would," explained company officials in a blog post.

Currently, Cortana is a feature of Windows Phone only. Microsoft officials have hinted Cortana is coming to Windows, as well (possibly as part of the "Threshold" release in the spring of 2015, tipsters have said). Cortana also is expected to come to the Xbox One platform at some point, too. Microsoft execs have left the door open as to whether and when Microsoft might also make Cortana available on non-Microsoft operating systems.

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