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Microsoft announces Windows Phone 8.1: Highlights include Cortana, notifications centre and new enterprise features

Windows Phone 8.1 coming soon

Microsoft announced some big changes to its mobile platform with the Windows Phone 8.1 update at BUILD 2014. Besides cosmetic changes, it brings some much-needed functionality to the OS. It will be rolled out to consumers “in the next few months,” and new Windows Phone 8.1 devices will on sale this month or early May.

Headlining the changes is Cortana, Microsoft’s rival for Apple’s Siri, Samsung’s S Voice, Android’s Google Now. Like many other voice-based digital assistants, Cortana will let you manage basic phone functions such as phone calls, messages, emails etc and also allow you to set calendar appointments, reminders, perform searches, play back music etc. It will also remind you in people-based circumstances such as when you ask it to remind you to tell your roommate to pick up the milk, next time you speak to him or her.
The new Start Screen
 
Much like Google Now, Cortana can also track your online searches and keep a note of any new calendar entries through your emails. It will show you alerts for flight changes and other data. Microsoft says it will allow third-party apps to access Cortana and showed this off with a way to get to a Facebook profile right through Cortana. Cortana will launch in beta in the US, with the UK, China and possibly India being in the next batch of countries to get it.

Windows Phone 8.1 also brings a new Action Center, the notification center that we have been desperately waiting for. Users can set which apps have access to it and can customise the alerts on a per-app basis. There are also some toggles at the top, which can seemingly be cutomised, but Microsoft has not announced any details about that.
Word flow keyboard
 
The Start Screen and the lockscreen both see changes. Now you can set any image as your Start Screen background and it will take up the background on a Live Tile, instead of the solid colours in the previous version. It adds some much-needed life to the Start Screen. The lock screen can now be customised with notifications from third-party apps thanks to Microsoft releasing a new set of APIs for the same.

Support for enterprise VPN and S/MIME, allowing users to encrypt and sign emails, have been added keeping enterprise users in mind. In addition, Microsoft has revamped the Store app, the Calendar app and also the incoming call interface to easily allow you to switch to a Skype video call from a regular phone call. A new feature called Wi-Fi Sense would allow users to hop between free hotspots without needing to re-enter their login credentials. It would also allow your friends to connect to your personal network, without you having to share the password. It’s not yet clear how this works or whether you would need to have the same OS running on both ends for this to work.
Signed messages
 
Finally, Windows Phone 8.1 has a new keyboard, which Microsoft calls word flow and it’s essentially a swipe-based keyboard. The company claims to have set the Guinness World Record for fastest typing on a phone keyboard with this new keyboard.

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