SAN FRANCISCO _ Microsoft opened its pivotal BUILD developer conference not with its new chief executive but the heads of its operating systems business, including Terry Myerson and Joe Belfiore, to demonstrate big updates to Windows 8 for phones and PCs.
After a quick welcome from Myerson, Belfiore announced two new Windows Phone manufacturers. He also demonstrated Windows Phone 8.1, the widely expected update that includes a pull-down action menu similar to what’s available on Android and iOS phones:
Developers will be able to build new lock screens for Windows Phone, such as this one:
Users will also be able to use images to customize the background on Windows Phone 8.1. “We think when a phone knows you, you have a better experience with it,” Belfiore said.
Belfiore also demonstrated the platform’s new virtual assistant and voice interface, dubbed Cortana after a character in the “Halo” game series.
On the phone, Cortana is powered by Bing and will be the default search interface. It also adds voice controls to the device, so users can verbally ask the phone to set alarms and check calendars. Users can also authorize Cortana to scan emails and add voice interactivity. A list of Cortana capabilities:
After one of the voice queries didn’t complete, Belfiore noted that Cortana is being launched with a Googlesque “beta” tag, because it’s still developing and will improve as it’s widely used.
Belfiore demonstrated how app developers have started using Cortana to add voice controls, including the ability to verbally add a show to a Hulu queue. A Skype demo didn’t work but the Facebook integration did – Belfiore asked the phone “What’s up with Terry Myerson?” and the phone – via Cortana – pulled up Myerson’s Facebook newsfeed.
Then Belfiore brought on Nick Hedderman, a senior product manager, to demonstrate business capabilities such as the ability to read encrypted emails on Windows Phone and create and send encrypted messages from the device. The update also gives Windows Phone 8.1 the ability to be configured remotely or on the device as a “workplace” phone with company-approved apps and settings.
Other updates include a new version of the calendar application that offers weekly views and better side-scrolling:
Microsoft is also adding a feature called “Wi-Fi Sense,” which lets users configure phones to automatically connect to free Wi-Fi networks on a list of safe networks compiled by the company.
More dramatic, though, is a new Swype-like typing capability on the Windows Phone keyboard that Belfiore demonstrated on stage. It deduces word choices from sliding gestures across the keyboard, versus tapping individual keys. Belfiore said a new Guiness record was set using the system, beating the record set on a Samsung Galaxy S4.
Without having to summon Cortana, users will also be able to toggle a regular phone call to a Skype video call with a tap in Windows Phone 8.1:
Belfiore said the update will be available in “coming months” and soon on new phones.
Coming sooner is the refresh of Windows 8.1 for PCs. Called simply “Windows 8.1 Update,” the refresh includes big changes to appease desktop and laptop users frustrated by the touch-centric design of the operating system. It’s being released April 8 as a free update to Windows 8.1.
Once the update is installed – via Windows Update – the software will detect whether it’s running on a tablet or a traditional PC. If it’s a traditional PC, the software will automatically launch in traditional “desktop” mode.
Microsoft restored mouse and keyboard capabilities, such as the ability to right-click to see options while in the software’s tiled interface.
The traditional taskbar – with frequently used programs – will also surface in either the desktop or tiled mode.
Responding to a common complaint – that it’s hard to figure out how to power down a PC in Windows 8 – Microsoft added a power button to the upper right corner of the tiled “start” screen. Power controls are still accessible via the “charms” controls that are called up on the right side of the screen. Also added to the upper-right corner is a search button: