Microsoft unveiled this week the latest iteration of its Windows Phone mobile operating system, Windows Phone 8.1, with a host of upgrades that should help the company better compete with Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS.
The update brings a number of tweaks to the third-place OS, most notably Cortana, Microsoft’s long-rumored rival to Siri, Google Now, and other voice-activated digital assistants. Microsoft says that the whole thing is set to arrive on new handsets, and as an update to current Windows Phone 8 devices, in the “coming months.”
The various upticks included in Windows Phone 8.1 are Microsoft’s way of catching up to its mobile rivals. Some common sense changes make the OS more competent as a whole, according to Gerry Purdy, chief mobility strategist of Compass Intelligence, a market analytics and consulting firm based in San Antonio, Texas.
“Normally, Microsoft has had a sort of ‘NIH’ sort of attitude — not invented here,” Purdy said. “They sort of felt that it was ‘our way or the highway.’ And they weren’t really up to offering the services that you see on other mobile platforms. I think they’ve realized that if they don’t catch up, users won’t give it consideration.”
What’s new in Windows Phone 8.1
Windows Phone head Joe Belfiore introduced the 8.1 update at Microsoft’s annual Build conference this week. Various leaks had detailed Windows Phone 8.1 over the past several weeks, so while its changes aren’t too surprising, they appear to make Microsoft’s mobile platform a more stable, modernized piece of software.
For instance, the update adds a drag-down notification hub called the “Action Center,” which functions much like the menus that exist on Android devices. It gives quick toggles for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, airplane mode, and the like, and displays a stream of actionable app notifications directly underneath them.
Also included is a new feature dubbed Wi-Fi Sense, which, according to Belfiore, can automatically connect users to free nearby hotspots. The app is also able to automatically share your own Wi-Fi spots with friends, without having to manually give them your password, he said.
Along with that comes a number of minor tweaks and additions that combine to make Windows Phone feel like an improved whole. The native keyboard now supports Swype-style typing, for one, while the native Calendar app supports more views than before. The lock screen is more customizable, supporting a number of new themes and layouts. The home screen can now display a higher density of tiles at once, and can be fitted with a still, customized wallpaper to create a parallax scrolling effect.
Business users now have fuller VPN and S/MIME support, while the Windows Phone Store makes featured apps and personalized suggestions a priority upon opening. The mobile rendition of Internet Explorer has been bumped up to IE11, and the call screen now gives the option to turn your voice call into a video call through an videoconferencing app like Skype.
Cortana, a new virtual companion
Windows Phone 8.1’s largest addition, though, is that of Cortana. Much like Siri, Google Now, and Samsung’s S Voice before it, Cortana is a personal digital assistant that can take calls, schedule events, compose texts, search the web, provide wiki-like info, and perform other basic functions. It can be operated through either voice or text commands.
Named after the trusty AI companion from Microsoft’s own Halo series of videogames, Cortana is powered by Bing, but it wholly replaces the Bing search interface of Windows Phones past. It occupies its own live tile on the home screen, and takes the form of a blue ring that pulsates and spins as you interact with it.
In practice, Cortana appears to work like a hybrid of both Google Now and Siri, mixing the former’s predictive tendencies with touches of the latter’s personality. Like Google Now, it’s able to read your emails and web browsing history, and remember the people you talk to and the places you frequent.
It’ll then use that info to give contextually sensitive prompts — so, for example, if Cortana sees you have an email with flight info in it, it’ll ask if you want it to remind you about that flight in the future. All of the info it learns is stored in its own “notebook,” where you can see what you’ve asked Cortana to do in the past, and customize its database be more accurate.
Cortana can be extended to third-party apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Hulu Plus, and can be directed to perform specific functions within those programs on its own. It can prompted to remind you about customized notes when a certain person or event pops up. And it’s also able to answer incomplete, follow-up questions to your original queries. For example, you can ask something like “how about in Kelvin?” after inquiring about the temperature in a particular city.
All of this is prompted by tapping an onscreen search button; there doesn’t appear to be any “okay Google Now”-style voice prompts here. Cortana does have a “voice,” and although it sounds a bit more computerized than Siri’s, Microsoft has clearly made strides to make the assistant sound relatively natural. It’ll start sentences with an “okay,” “alrighty,” or “just so you know,” and it’ll respond to normal-sounding questions like “what’s up with X?”
Cortana will launch in a beta form when Windows Phone 8.1 arrives later this month, as Microsoft is still working on perfecting its voice recognition tech, Belfiore said. It’ll only be available in North America to start, with other regions getting in as the software improves. It’s worth noting that Belfiore did experience some hiccups during his live demo; but on the whole, Cortana’s operation appeared fairly fluid for something that’s still a work in progress.
Enough to turn Windows Phone around?
Windows Phone’s hook has long been its status as legitimately different OS next to iOS and Android. In many ways, though, it’s been behind the curve from a functionality standpoint. Purdy believes the 8.1 update’s changes will help rectify that.
Windows Phone’s biggest shortcoming, however, has traditionally been its app selection. Generally speaking, iOS and Android’s significantly higher market share has helped it maintain a larger, more varied selection of apps in comparison to Microsoft’s mobile OS.
Once again, though, Microsoft has taken steps to change this. The company was light on specific details, but it briefly introduced an initiative to bring “universal Windows apps” to all Windows devices. This could pave the way for Windows Phone devices to run scaled-down versions of Windows PC apps.
Purdy believes this move can help populate Windows Phone with more content, but that it’s not a long-term solution that will give users the more complete experiences they’d find in Android and iOS’ app stores.
“It definitely could help,” he said. “However, I don’t know if that is necessarily the right solution for Windows Phone long term. If you’re really thinking today about good mobile apps, the best user experience is in a native app. A native app under Windows Phone 8.1 is still going to need to be made for that particular platform.
Purdy continues, “Microsoft still has Windows Phone being thought of by developers like, ‘when I develop for mobile, I need to think of three platforms.’ They think of two today, and will consider Windows when the demand comes up. They still have some way to go on that.”
Ultimately, he says, it won’t serve as a full substitute.
“It’s a good move, because they have the asset and they can leverage it. “Does it help? Yes,” Purdy said. “But does it solve the problem? No.”
While Windows Phone’s app selection may still be a hindrance, it appears that Microsoft is willing to step outside its usual comfort zone to make the OS a more competitive third option in the mobile arms race. Yesterday, for instance, it said it would make a version of Windows completely free to manufacturers of devices with screens smaller than nine inches.
This aggressive play for market share is a positive shake up to Microsoft’s usual policies, and another instance of the company showing its willingness to adapt to be more competitive, Purdy said.
“I think that demonstrates Microsoft’s want, in particular, to catch up to Google,” he said. “Google doesn’t charge device royalties and has learned that services are where the action is. Microsoft seems to have fallen in line with that. It’s like they’re saying that their old mantra of, ‘we make money on device royalty, and we’ll hopefully make some service revenue’ is finally changing.
“This is important, because it shows that Microsoft is willing to play the way its competitors are playing. These are good signs, and Microsoft hasn’t always had a lot of good news out of their mobile parts” Purdy said.
Will Windows Phone 8.1 mark the beginning of a wider momentum boost for Microsoft? It’s unlikely, said Purdy, but the changes should make the OS more robust either way, and they point to a Microsoft that may be a little less stubborn in mobile than it was before. If nothing else, Purdy believes this could improve its public perception going forward.
“I think Microsoft’s credibility went up this week,” he says.