Microsoft has announced its first update to its Windows Phone 8.1 platform, which will most notably see its Cortana digital assistant expand outside of the US for the first time.
The company says that the service is being launched as a beta in China (where it is named ‘Xiao Na’) and the UK, while users in Canada, India and Australia will be able to access an alpha version. The new versions will include localized spelling, pronunciation, accent and other data that Microsoft hopes will make Cortana “more locally relevant”.
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Though Windows Phone accounts for a minority of smartphone sales in China, Microsoft has put plenty of effort into localizing Cortana there:
Our team in Microsoft China developed a number of additional features specifically for China. 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.
Cortana isn’t just being shipped overseas; the US version of the service will include a few new features, such as snooze times for reminders, impersonations, and a hands-free mode to enable it to be used with an in-car Bluetooth setup.
Away from Cortana, the Windows Phone 8.1 update finally brings folders to the home screen to enable users to keep their apps and content in a more orderly fashion. Microsoft says this was a popular request, which isn’t surprising considering it’s a basic feature on iOS, Android and other platforms.
The update also includes minor improvements to the Xbox Music app, new options for SMS — forwarding and merging — and new settings for developers. Enterprises will be able to ‘sandbox’ specific apps, or boot them directly, while VPN access has been expanded to support WiFi hotspots too.
Microsoft says that the update will reach those on the Windows Phone 8.1 Preview for Developers program next week. And now the bad news: all other users will receive the update “in the coming months”.
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