Build 2014 is underway, and Microsoft has wasted no time in getting started by announcing Windows Phone 8.1
Joe Belfiore took the stage to get us started, announcing two new hardware partners, Micromax and Prestigio. Those names may be unfamiliar to many of us, but they’re already hard at work on new hardware; the two phones you see Belfiore holding up above are in-development handsets from Micromax and Prestigio.
Then we jump right in to new features, getting started with an eagerly anticipated one: the Action Center. Users will see not only notifications but detailed information on phone status – including the presence of dual SIMs, letting slip another 8.1 feature. Custom quick settings will give users easy access to the options they toggle the most.
The WP8.1 lock screen adds support for new APIs to give devs fine-tuned control over look and feel, allowing for fully customized third-party replacements.
As rumored, users will be able to toggle on or off a third column of medium Live Tiles, letting them work with a much denser arrangement.
Custom backgrounds also get confirmed, as we had seen in several leaks so far. Choose your own image, and it will appear right behind your Live Tiles.
After hearing about her for months, and seeing the software turn up in leak after leak, we finally get to hear Cortana speak. As we saw in leaks, Cortana replaces the old search function, and can be pulled up via search button or through its own Live Tile. The “notebook” that holds your personal information is indeed present, letting Cortana learn about you and tailor its responses to your interests and needs.
Cortana will inform you about news pertinent to your interests, help you set appointments on your calendar, gather information on your travel plans and offer to keep an eye on changing situations – pretty much all the sorts of functionality we’ve come to expect from services like Google Now. You can even get back-and-forth conversations going, where Cortana asks you for confirmation for an action it’s about to perform, and you can give the go-ahead via voice command.
Cortana will debut as a beta service, available in the US only. As it matures and gets better at responding to a wide variety of user input, Microsoft expects Cortana to leave beta and become available in nations abroad.
While voice is clearly the input method Cortana is designed for, it also supports keyboard input, for when you’re in a situation where you need to keep quiet, or maybe your phone’s having a tough time picking up your voice thanks to background noise.
Third-party apps will be able to take advantage of Cortana’s presence, giving users the ability to control them with natural language. In one example, Belfiore adds a series to his Hulu queue by means of Cortana.
We hear a bit about changes that will give enterprise users more control over employees’ access before getting to the revamped Windows Phone Store, just like we saw leaked the other day. Quick links connect the user with lists of the latest or most popular apps, and layout changes give Microsoft new abilities to promote hot releases.
The platform’s calendar gets a nice refresh, supporting swipes to navigate through the week; we also get new week- or month-at-a-time displays.
WiFi Sense is a new tool that helps your phone track down known good, publicly accessible WiFi access points. It can even automatically sign you in to APs requiring web-based identification. By gaining it access to your social accounts, WiFi Sense can be configured to share your own home WiFi password with your friends as they visit – while also returning the favor when you visit their homes.
Improvements to Skype let you transition seamlessly from regular cellular voice calls to the VoIP service, where you can jump right in to a video call.
The WP8.1 keyboard gets overhauled with Swype-like gesture typing, and Microsoft claims the improvements make the new keyboard the fastest one around across platforms.
We also get brief mentions of IE 11, better sync with Windows PCs, and more. But enough about features; when will you be able to get your hands on it?
Updates from OEMs for consumer devices will arrive “in the next few months.”
New phones running WP8.1 will be available beginning in late April or early May. Belfiore teases we’ll be hearing more about that later, which bodes well for our chances of learning about new Nokia phones later today.
Developers will get access to the WP8.1 preview “this month;” we’ve heard that could come as soon as next week, but Microsoft has not confirmed a firm date.