Feeds

Back off, Siri! Microsoft debuts Halo beauty Cortana

Major Microsoft mobile OS update to arrive in coming months

The Power of One Brief: Top reasons to choose HP BladeSystem

Build 2014 Windows Phone took center stage at the opening keynote of Microsoft's Build developer conference on Wednesday, with the main spotlight falling on Cortana – a new personal digital assistant designed to compete head-to-head with Apple's Siri and Google's Google Now.

Redmond has been promising a major revision to its smartphone platform for months, and although the Windows Phone 8.1 update still isn't ready to ship, Build, here in San Francisco, gave developers a first look at many of its new features.

Among them are a few long-anticipated capabilities, such as the new Action Center for displaying notifications, an onscreen keyboard that supports Swype-style gestural typing, and the ability to personalize a phone's lock screen with a variety of themes.

But by far the biggest change is Cortana – named after an AI character from Microsoft's Halo videogame franchise – which Redmond is positioning as an entirely new way for Windows Phone users to organize their data and interact with their devices.

"Cortana is powered by Bing," Joe Belfiore, corporate VP of Microsoft's operating systems group, explained during the Wednesday Build keynote. "So she understands the entire internet. You could say she understands everything about the world."

Yes, Microsoft insists on referring to its new assistant software as "she" – perhaps the folks in Redmond have never heard of a male personal assistant before – and has given it a female-sounding synthesized voice to match.

Belfiore said Microsoft even met real-world personal assistants to find out what they thought made them good at their jobs, with the aim of making Cortana feel as close as possible to a digital replacement for the real thing.

Photo of Microsoft's Joe Belfiore at the Build 2014 conference

Microsoft's Joe Belfiore made Cortana the star of the opening keynote at this year's Build conference

Ask Cortana questions like "What's the weather in Hong Kong?" or "What are the best Chinese restaurants in San Francisco?" and the software will crunch thoughtfully for a moment before producing an answer derived from Bing's various data feeds.

Cortana also replaces the built-in search function on Windows Phone, providing an all-new, interactive user interface for searching and retrieving local data.

You can even give Cortana commands, such as, "Set a doctor's appointment for 8am on Tuesday," and the software will update your calendar accordingly.

According to Microsoft, Cortana tailors its answers to individual users' needs by remembering past search queries and even scanning email stored on the phone for relevant information (if the user gives it permission to do so).

It stores these customizations in an area called its "notebook," which is fully accessible to the user – and editable, should Cortana develop any unwelcome obsessions.

Belfiore ran through various features of Cortana during the keynote, but not every demo went off without a hitch. The software misheard several vocal cues and it repeatedly refused to convert Celsius temperatures to Kelvin, which helps explain why Microsoft has chosen to do a soft launch.

"We're launching Cortana as a beta because we're training the service on the back end with lots and lots of voice utterances to improve its speech recognition," Belfiore said, adding that Redmond is also training the software to be better at answering sports-related questions.

Other than Cortana, Windows Phone 8.1 will also deliver a few new features for enterprise users, such as support for enterprise VPNs and S/MIME encrypted email. It will also update the bundled web browser to Internet Explorer 11, bringing Windows Phone's HTML engine up to par with that of the latest desktop Windows.

But developers who were hoping to leave Build with the new OS installed on their devices came away disappointed, as the code is still not yet ready for wide deployment.

According to Belfiore, registered Windows or Windows App Studio developers will be able to download and install Windows Phone 8.1 "starting this month," though he didn't give an exact date.

Brand-new phones with Windows 8.1 preinstalled will go on sale "as soon as very late April or early May," he said, with the first such devices reportedly to arrive from Microsoft's soon-to-be-subsidiary, Nokia.

As for when owners of existing Windows Phone handsets can expect the update to arrive on their devices, Microsoft said only that it is working with carriers and hardware makers to ensure the code is reliable on each device, and that Windows Phone 8.1 will begin rolling out to consumers as an over-the-air update "in the next few months." ®

Securing Web Applications Made Simple and Scalable

More from The Register

next story
Whoah! How many Google Play apps want to read your texts?
Google's app permissions far too lax – security firm survey
Chrome browser has been DRAINING PC batteries for YEARS
Google is only now fixing ancient, energy-sapping bug
Do YOU work at Microsoft? Um. Are you SURE about that?
Nokia and marketing types first to get the bullet, says report
Microsoft takes on Chromebook with low-cost Windows laptops
Redmond's chief salesman: We're taking 'hard' decisions
EU dons gloves, pokes Google's deals with Android mobe makers
El Reg cops a squint at investigatory letters
Big Blue Apple: IBM to sell iPads, iPhones to enterprises
iOS/2 gear loaded with apps for big biz ... uh oh BlackBerry
OpenWRT gets native IPv6 slurping in major refresh
Also faster init and a new packages system
Microsoft's anti-bug breakthrough: Wire devs to BRAIN SCANNERS
Clippy: It looks your hands are shaking, are you sure you want to commit this code?
prev story

Whitepapers

Top three mobile application threats
Prevent sensitive data leakage over insecure channels or stolen mobile devices.
The Essential Guide to IT Transformation
ServiceNow discusses three IT transformations that can help CIO's automate IT services to transform IT and the enterprise.
Mobile application security vulnerability report
The alarming realities regarding the sheer number of applications vulnerable to attack, and the most common and easily addressable vulnerability errors.
How modern custom applications can spur business growth
Learn how to create, deploy and manage custom applications without consuming or expanding the need for scarce, expensive IT resources.
Consolidation: the foundation for IT and business transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.