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Meet Cortana: Microsoft announces sweeping Windows Phone 8.1 update

Brad Chacos | April 3, 2014
Microsoft revealed the grand Windows Phone 8.1 update at Build 2014, and don't let the ".1" fool you: It's a doozy.

The added info is designed to give Cortana a more personal touch and provide contextual, "just-in-time" notifications a la Google Now. But fear not, privacy freaks: The digital assistant has a granular and customizable "Notebook" that allows you to block or grant Cortana access to specific information silos and functions.

Cortana responds to natural-language commands, and the mixture of deep data and personal information allows her to perform Google Now-esque tasks, such as finding nearby restaurants, finding and converting information on the Internet, or scheduling alarms and reminders, all using natural language.

ms build 2014 windows phone joe belfiore appointment
Cortana can juggle reminders and appointments and alert you to conflicts.

In fact, Cortana's smart enough to know if a newly scheduled reminder conflicts with a previous appointment, notifying you of concerns and offering to reschedule something if necessary. Microsoft's also allowing developers to access Cortana's voice commands. Belfiore used Cortana to verbally add a show to his Hulu Plus cue and open up Terry Myerson's Facebook page on stage. 

Cortana's launching as a beta in the US before eventually expanding to UK, Canada, China, and beyond in the coming months. Between that and the Action Center, Windows Phone 8.1 is starting to look mighty tempting... but there are still more new features coming to Microsoft's mobile OS.

Not just for fun
Microsoft also revealed that the similarly long-awaited Windows Phone Enterprise FeaturePack-which adds business-friendly tools like S/MIME support, enhanced MDM policies, and application-triggered VPN support (or application-specific blocking-is coming with Windows Phone 8.1.

Internet Explorer 11
Windows Phone 8.1 also upgrades the browser to Internet Explorer 11, complete with Reading View, InPrivate tabs, and so on.

Other tweaks
The Windows Phone store also received a revamp, with featured apps and the ability to sweep left-to-right for quick navigation. Windows Phone's calendar received a similar tweak for moving from day-to-day.

ms build 2014 windows phone typing joe belfiore
Windows Phone 8.1 will use what it knows about you and your contacts to make typing more context-aware and faster to guess or auto-correct.

Belfiore also walked through a new "Wi-Fi Sense" tool, which you can configure to automatically connect to free Wi-Fi hotspots. The tool can automatically agree to a hotspot's terms of service for you if you'd like, or even provide the hotspot with your name and personal information if it's required (and you agree to it). Seems pretty darned nifty! Windows Phone 8.1 boasts additional helpful tools such as Battery Sense, Belfiore said.

The Windows Phone keyboard was also enhanced with Swype-like fast typing capabilities.

 

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