SAN FRANCISCO--Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) announced its new, voice-activated personal digital assistant for Windows Phone, called Cortana, a move that brings Windows Phone on par with--and in some cases ahead of--Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android and Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS.
Cortana is something of a combination of Apple's Siri and Google's Now service, but users have much more control over how Cortana functions and what information it uses. Cortana represents the main feature of Windows Phone 8.1, which Microsoft also announced today.
During a keynote presentation at the software giant's Build developer conference here, Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president of Microsoft's operating systems group, said that Cortana is a "truly personal digital assistant for Windows Phone." Windows Phone 8.1 will be rolled out as a software update in the next few months but will be installed in new phones by the end of April.
The Cortana service is powered by Microsoft's Bing search engine and gets to know users as they use it more. Importantly, Cortana has its own live tile in Microsoft's Windows Phone 8.1 operating system. The service can access local content on phones and can be accessed via both speech and text. Cortana will first be available in the United States, and then in the United Kingdom, China and other markets.
Cortana can access a phone's calling, messaging and calendar functions, and can set reminders, make notes, set alarms, see what music is playing nearby, schedule appointments and answer questions about sports scores and restaurants. It can even tell a user how many calories are in certain foods.
Belfiore said that, to design Cortana, Microsoft talked to real-world personal assistants and found that what made them good at their jobs was getting to know their client--what they like, who are the people who are important to them, and when to bother them. So Microsoft incorporated that into Cortana's service. Users can also tell Cortana what their interests are, such as their daily routine and commute and what kind of news updates they want to get. Cortana also learns who the user's "inner circle" of family members and friends are. The service can be set up to have "quiet hours" where no one can contact the user--unless that person is in the user's inner circle.
Interestingly, Microsoft is opening Cortana to developers, letting them use the service as part of their apps. For example, Hulu's app can recognize a speech command to add a TV show to a user's viewing queue. And Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) users can use Cortana to see their friends' news feeds and updates.
Aside from Cortana, Microsoft also launched a new notification center and background options in Windows Phone 8.1.
"We know this is something that a lot of our users have been asking for," Belfiore said of Microsoft's new Action Center notification service. Aside from displaying updates from apps, the Action Center also gives users more details about their battery percentage and has customizable quick settings at the top for access to Wi-Fi and other features. The center is accessible from the phone's lock screen. Windows Phone's new Action Center brings the platform in line with Android and iOS: Google launched a notification feature for Android in 2012, and Apple added something similar last year in iOS with its Control Center.
Microsoft also added a new Start Screen background option that allows Windows Phone 8.1 users to use an image as the background skin of Windows Phone's live tiles user interface. Microsoft is also allowing users to customize the lock screen and updated the ways in which people can view their calendars.
Additionally, the Windows Phone app store has a more personalized stream of apps and featured apps. And a new feature called Wi-Fi Sense allows a user's Wi-Fi credentials to pass over from their PC or tablet to phone.
In order to target enterprise users, Microsoft also said Windows Phone 8.1 now supports enterprise VPN and S/MIME for encrypted email.
Finally, Microsoft announced a pair of new Windows Phone licensees. At Mobile World Congress, Microsoft announced that Foxconn, Gionee, Lava (Xolo), Lenovo, LG Electronics, Longcheer, JSR, Karbonn and ZTE will be making Windows Phones, in addition to Nokia (NYSE:NOK), Samsung Electronics, HTC and Huawei. Belfiore announced today the addition of Micromax and Prestigio as Windows Phone licensees, and said they have been working with Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) and Longcheer to make Windows Phones.
Windows Phone now has more than 250,000 apps, and the platform is gaining momentum in certain markets, especially Europe. However according to research firm Gartner, Microsoft only captured 3.2 percent of the global smartphone market in 2013. That was up from 2.5 percent in 2012. With BlackBerry (NASDAQ:BBRY) struggling to regain traction in the market, Microsoft may have a clear opening to grow its market share in 2014.
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