Microsoft announced Wednesday that the first update to Windows Phone 8.1 will come in the next several months.
The update will bring a handful of small yet useful features to Windows Phones, but more importantly, it focuses on further fine-tuning its virtual assistant, Cortana.
Cortana will now support more natural language scenarios for users in the U.S., Microsoft says. This means you’ll be able to speak even more naturally when performing a search query. For example, rather than saying: “Find emails from John Smith,” you could say something like “Do I have any emails from John Smith?”
When the company initially unveiled Cortana, it emphasised the fact that it should feel like you’re talking to a person, not a computer. Microsoft even interviewed real-life personal assistants to get a feel for the types of things they pick up on during their daily routine.
Microsoft is working to add some “neat additions” to her personality as well, which will include the ability to perform impersonations. When we spoke with Microsoft’s Partner Program Manager Marcus Ash in April, he cited Cortana’s personality as one of its key advantages.
If Cortana feels more like a person, people will be more willing to share information with her, Ash explained. The more information you share, the more intelligent Cortana gets.
With the new update, you’ll also be able to snooze reminders from Cortana and speak to her hands-free in your car.
Microsoft is also expanding Cortana to new markets with its latest update, which include China and The United Kingdom. A beta version of Cortana is coming to Canada, and an alpha version will be landing in Australia and India.
When creating Cortana for users in China, the company says it took careful attention to include information specifically relevant to users in the region, which include presenting information such as air quality in weather cards and information about driving restrictions. She also has an overhauled appearance and supports the Mandarin language.
The same goes for Cortana in the UK — Cortana is tailored to support British English spellings and will also provide information that’s more locally relevant.
Cortana appears to be progressing faster than Apple’s digital assistant Siri. Siri isn’t contextually aware the way Cortana is, and is mostly limited to simple actions like search and controlling basic functions on your phone like text messages and alarms. Google Now, the digital assistant that comes with Android phones, is more in line with Cortana and shows you the information you need when it thinks you need it.
Microsoft is debuting some new features for the rest of Windows Phone too. Live Folders allows you to create a new folder for apps by dragging and dropping one app on top of another. The new Apps Corner will be a guest mode option for Windows Phone devices.
You can hand pick which apps you’d like to include in Apps Corner, and when the feature is turned on, the user can only access those predetermined apps. To get back to your standard Windows Phone interface, you’ll need to type in a PIN.
Microsoft is also announcing some tools that users won’t see immediately, but will benefit from in the future. Windows Phone will now support smart phone covers and Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0 technology, which the chip maker says can enable your phone to charge more quickly.
Microsoft is hoping these additions will put Windows Phone where it needs to be to compete with Android and iOS. Windows Phone only accounted for 3% of mobile device usage as of Q1 2014, according to Canalys Insight, while iOS accounted for 16% and Android dominated with 81% of the market share.
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