Microsoft’s first Windows Phone 8.1 update brings Cortana to new markets

30 Jul 2014

The Nokia Lumia 1320 group

Microsoft has revealed the first update to Windows Phone 8.1 with Cortana will roll out as a preview next week. However, Cortana will only be available in the UK, China, Canada, India and Australia.

Cortana is Microsoft’s artificial intelligence system named after the popular character in the Halo video-game franchise.

The voice-based assistant is effectively Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s Siri and Samsung’s S-voice on Android.

As well as Cortana, the Windows Phone 8.1 update will have several new features, including Live Folders for configuring your Start Screen, Apps Corner for configuring your phone with specific apps and features, and Store Live Tile Updates to make finding apps even easier.

Microsoft Corporate vice-president Joe Belfiore announced details about the first update to Windows Phone 8.1, which is being made available in preview form for developers next week. This update has new features for everyone around the world, and certain features customised for and by people in China.

With this update, Cortana will become available in China and the UK as a “beta,” and in Canada, India and Australia as an “alpha.”

China rising

If you read Belfiore’s post in the Windows Phone blog carefully, it is clear Microsoft is making a special push in China where Cortana is known as ‘Xiao Na.’

Perhaps Microsoft wants some of the staggering growth that Apple has enjoyed as a result of bringing its iPhone to China.

But perhaps Microsoft is also recognising how China has become the epicentre of smartphone technologies with players such as Huawei, Lenovo and Xiaomi sparking new trends in mobile devices.

“Our team in Microsoft China developed a number of additional features specifically for China,” said Belfiore. “She has an alternative form which has a different visual appearance, animations, and sounds. She supports Chinese (Mandarin) in voice, text, and speech.

“She also has specialised suggestions tuned specifically for people living in China, like air quality information in weather cards, information about driving restrictions, and the ability to track local TV shows and celebrities. She can look up English words in the Bing Dictionary for people looking to brush up on their English.

“Of course fitting a local market isn’t specific to China! For the UK, Cortana has been tailored to support UK spellings and pronunciations and Bing-provided local data on sports teams (for the EPL), the London Stock Exchange, commuter conditions, and more. The voice and accent is, of course, local, and Cortana’s personality in the UK has also been tweaked to be more locally relevant.

“We’re also bringing some improvements for Cortana in the US, including new natural language scenarios, snooze times for reminders, and a number of neat additions to her personality (try asking ‘do an impersonation’ and see what happens).

“We’ve also added the ability to invoke Cortana hands-free in your car for phones connected to car Bluetooth kits that are integrated with your contacts list. If your car kit is integrated with your contacts, you can now treat Cortana as a contact to invoke her, simply saying, ‘Call Cortana’ and then talking to her as you normally would,” Belfiore said.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years