At Microsoft's Build Developer Conference today, Microsoft made two major announcements: Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows 8.1. Joe Belfiore, the executive president of Microsoft's operating systems group, took to the stage and gave a lengthy talk about Windows Phone 8.1.
"We believe Windows Phone is the world’s most personal smartphone and with Windows Phone 8.1, we’ve added a bunch of new features that make your smartphone even more a reflection of your personality and desires," he said.
Perhaps the most notable feature of Windows Phone 8.1 is Contana, Microsoft's answer to Siri and Google Now. True to previous rumors, Microsoft is indeed working on its own personal digital assistant. Belfiore looked proud like a father, calling Contana the world's first truly personal digital assistant. Contana is named after a fictional character in Halo, the company's video game series, and it is powered by Bing, Microsoft's search engine. According to Belfiore, Cortana will launch first as a beta in the U.S. It will later launch in the U.K. and China in Q2 this year.
Another major feature is the improved Start Screen that adds the ability to customize the Start background. Also, Microsoft is now enabling the three-column layout on all phones running Windows Phone 8.1. The layout was previously available only on larger phones.
Windows Phone fans will also love the new lock screen feature which will show visuals and animations such as time, date, and phone notifications. Microsoft has prepared a set of themes to choose from.
The update will also add an "Action Center," a feature that is already available on Apple and Android devices. The Action Center will provide instant access to nifty settings such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Flight Mode.
Belfiore also revealed three new features that are smart enough to monitor a phone's data, storage, Wi-Fi connectivity, and battery. "Data Sense" will track data usage on your phone, while "Wi-Fi Sense" will help save cellular data by automatically connecting to free Wi-Fi hotspots in an area. The "Storage Sense" lets you manage apps on the SD card, while the "Battery Saver" will provide a detailed breakdown of an app's battery usage. There's also an automatic mode to extend a phone's battery life.
Microsoft's young mobile OS needs a better keyboard, and Belfiore showcased a "Word Flow Keyboard" that is said to be smart enough to learn a user's writing style. "Best of all, our new Word Flow Keyboard lets you glide your fingers over the keys to type incredibly quickly," he said.
Skype users will be happy to hear that the VoIP service will be integrated into the system's phone dialer. This works similar to Google's Hangout which dabbles SMS and IM. Even better, the new Skype will work with Cortana. This feature is huge for Skype users. The ability to make Skype calls on the dialer is personally brilliant.
Windows Phone 8.1 is also getting a new calendar. Belfiore said that the team has redesigned the calendar to add a new week view which is a top requested feature. Similar to Outlook on the PC, the calendar also displays the weather on top.
Microsoft also managed to improve the Music, Videos, Podcasts apps. For example, the Music app now lets users edit their own playlists; the Video app will now allow users to purchase or rent videos from Xbox Music, and the Podcasts app now supports RSS subscriptions and Bing-powered podcast searches. The update will also fix the buggy volume control.
The email app now supports S/MIME secure email and different accounts including Apple's iCloud.
Meanwhile, the Photos app will now turn to your most recent photos upon opening. Collections are now organized and photo albums are now supported by 3rd party apps. The update will also add a new user interface and a "burst mode" photography.
It's worth noting that many of the features here are already available on iOS and Android. Microsoft's Windows Phone OS is still very young. But the improvements are a good sign. Microsoft has yet to close the huge gap between Windows Phone and Apple's iOS and Google's Android. According to IDC, Windows Phone accounts to only 3 percent of worldwide shipments in Q4 last year. Windows Phone 8.1 will be available later this month or in May.