Microsoft today announced details about the first update to Windows Phone 8.1, which is being made available in preview form for developers next week. Besides new features, the update will bring Cortana in China and the UK as a "beta," and in Canada, India and Australia as an "alpha."
The huge Chinese market has a bunch of different expectations and needs than the US or other countries - so while Cortana (nicknamed "Xiao Na") generally works the same way in China as the US and the rest of the world, China did get some "special features". "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 specialized 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.
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.
Microsoft is also bringing some improvements for Cortana in the U.S., 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). Microsoft 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.
The Windows Phone 8.1 update will also allow you to organize your apps into folders on your Start screen, through "Live Folders."
The Xbox Music app has been updated to deliver much better performance in areas like app load and list scrolling. It’s also brought back features that were missing in the Windows Phone 8.1 Preview for Developers. And in the coming month, there will be a "quickplay" of recent playback activities, and support for Kids Corner. Some of these features/improvements are already there in the latest Xbox Music app with the Windows Phone 8.1 release, but some (Live Tile in particular) are specific to the Windows Phone 8.1 Update.
In addition, Microsoft made it easier for you to see the latest info about the latest apps and games available in the Windows Phone Store through its Live Tile. If you have the Store pinned to your Start screen on your device, you’ll get updates on the newest titles – refreshed every 6 hours – streamed dynamically to you throughout your day.
You will be able to select multiple SMS messages for deletion and forwarding, making it easier to manage your text messages.
With Apps Corner, you can specify which apps are displayed in a special "sandboxed" mode (like a protected Start screen) that restricts which apps are used. This feature is for businesses so they can allow access to select apps in cases where a full MDM solution isn’t required. Apps Corner can also be used to boot straight to an app.
Security improvements include the ability for you to send and receive data through a virtual private network (VPN) when connecting to Wi-Fi hotspots.
If you’re already on the Windows Phone 8.1 Preview for Developers then this update should be rolling out next week. The Windows Phone 8.1 Update will roll out to anyone with devices running Windows Phone 8.1 in the coming months.
New 'Selfie' phone preview
In related news, Microsoft's hardware chief gave employees a sneak peek at a 'selfie' phone featuring a 5 megapixel forward-facing camera.
Stephen Elop showed off the phone in front of thousands at the company's annual employee meeting in Seattle on Monday.
The 4.7 inch screen 'selfie' phone, plus another high-end Windows Phone, are expected to launch soon.
The 5 megapixel camera on the front of the device is much more powerful than Apple's iPhone 5, with a 1.2 megapixel front camera.