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Microsoft unveils Windows Phone 8.1 with personal assistant Cortana (thenextweb.com)
204 points by msoliman on April 2, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 117 comments

What baffles me is why the hell Microsoft didn't follow Apple's route of controlling their own distribution? Now Windows Mobile users have to figure out when their network is going to distribute the update[1]? That is hideous from a user standpoint.

Microsoft has the money to convince the carriers, and probably a lot of weight as well. Why wouldn't they avoid that nightmare?

Granted I don't have a windows phone so it doesn't affect me, but my brief foray into the Android world frustrated the hell out of me in this regard. With Android it was an extra step: Android released, phone manufacturer needed to build their own version of it, then my carrier needed to decide when I could access it.

When Apple announces an update, I can download it whenever I want it.

[1] http://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2014/04/micros...

Actually they offer an app that lets you install updates directly from Microsoft , months before Nokia releases the update. Once Nokia releases its version of the update, it automatically uninstalls the "beta" MS updates. It allowed me to run Windows phone Black update like 4 months before Nokia released them.

The app is called "Preview for Developers" and it makes you sign into your live account.


Don't you need a dev account or unlocked dev phone in order to use this?

You can go here [1] and select "Register as a developer with App Studio" - Free, and create apps to run on your own Windows Phones

[1] http://developer.windowsphone.com/en-us/featured/devpreview

Yep. Obtaining a dev account isn't terribly difficult (you can get one for free if you use MS's "App Studio" program) and dev unlocking your phone directly follows from that, but it's definitely not a perfect solution.

I think you just have to sign into your live account. Its completely free and took 5 minutes to get install/initiated. After you install , just check updates like you normally would and the new ones should appear. April 8 is when the new 8.1 will appear for anyone with this app installed and registered.

WP8.1 is apparently not available yet using this method (I am offered v8.0.10521.155)

The developer preview launches April 10.


Can someone please explain the role that carriers play in the United States? In most countries, the carrier simply provides you with a SIM card that allows you to make use of their network, but they have nothing to do with your hardware / OS. How come carriers control OS updates in the United States?

To me, this sounds as absurd as an ISP having control of your computer - imagine if you had to wait till your ISP allowed you to update your OS. Yet that seems to be your situation with respect to mobile.

Actually in this case, you even get your PC from your ISP. So i think it works out like this:

first the OS people update it. Then the manufacturers launch a device with said OS. Then your ISP gets to sell said devices to you. (or maybe you can update on your existing device but the ISP still has to approve it)

In simpler words:

In US, people do not directly buy their phones from the manufacturers. They buy the PHONE from the carrier, who also includes a SIM with said phone. And the cost of the phone is distributed over several months and is combined with your monthly cellular service charges.

Pro: you get to have expensive phones for far less.

Con: The carrier apparently gets a lot of say. In fact you can't even switch carriers easily. They make you sign a contact.

Interesting fact: Originally when the smart phones came out in the pre-iPhone era, the carrier's tried to control app stores by having exclusive, carrier specific app-stores. It was apple who convinced one carrier (can't remember which one) to let Apple control the app store and thus this revolution.

It seems to be that way in much of the world - I don't have much knowledge on the topic outside of the UK, but a month or so ago when I was waiting for the new Blackberry OS update to roll out, I had to wait over a month for my network to approve it and send out the update (Vodafone UK), so I kept an eye on stories about the update and saw that it was reaching different networks around the world at different times (for example, Vodafone hadn't put it out to their customers in any other regions either, such as Australia).

This isn't unique to the US. In most countries the carrier restricts ota updates for android and windows phone. I don't know why the iphone is the only device which doesn't need carrier approval prior to rollout. I also don't know why the carriers are involved, but it's definitely not unique to the US, most of europe is the same way.

Well there are only 8 different phones that run iOS, and they are all made by the same company. While there are hundreds of phones that run android made by tens of different companies, it's not that easy to do the same with android.

So this is one thing that puzzles me. Why can't phones have modular drivers like a PC? Phones of today are way more powerful than PC of the past, but it seems that manufacturers still want to keep an appliance like structure for the phone.

In my ideal world, I'd download (say) Android 4.4 and install it on my phone. After that, I'd hunt around, download and install the drivers for my phone like mic, camera, gyro, etc.

Why is this not possible already?

Historically a huge amount of effort went into making PC hardware enumerable at runtime and hotpluggable: BIOS, then ISA PnP, then PCI/PCIe, and ACPI. eg. There are BIOS functions dedicated to telling you, in no uncertain terms, what RAM you have and the addresses it appears at.

ARM's architecture is still quite firmly stuck with the embedded approach where you get your memory map and peripheral availability at compile time, probably by reading addresses from a manual published by your SoC manufacturer. Usually at early boot there is nothing which will tell you where your RAM is, what peripherals you have and where they are, etc. You either just have to know, or have some non-standard configuration mechanism which tells you.

Things are improving, but slowly. ACPI exists for ARM and is being actively worked on, but isn't widely deployed yet.

Don't forget that there was also a huge amount of effort invested in making the PC backwards-compatible for software; although this has (unfortunately, IMHO) become somewhat decreased these days, you can still mostly count on a PC having the same "legacy" devices (8042, 8259, 8254, 8237, MC146818) that behave the same as they did in the AT, despite them being integrated into the chipset now. Those weren't enumerable since this was before PnP, but them being there was a pseudo-standard that software could depend on.

In contrast, ARM SoCs are extremely diverse, and the only thing they all have in common is an ARM CPU core. There is no one standard for where the peripherals are, how they behave, how the SoC boots, etc. There is no "standard platform" for ARM like there is the PC for x86. The closest "de-facto" platform I can see for smartphones is the Mediatek MT65xx, which is used by the majority of the generic Chinese ones (and some branded ones, like Lenovo).

Additionally, device tree support in the Linux kernel allows many board specific ports to be packaged onto a single kernel, and the bootloader specify which peripherals and their addresses and features are there. Still nowhere near as powerful as ACPI though.

It is possible but there is no financial incentive to do so. There is no user expectation to install your own OS on a phone like there is a PC. Its just cheaper and easier to develop and test a product if you can assume the hardware/software are in lockstep and you completely control both.

Also you have to keep in mind, the driver situation in the embedded world can get dark fast. Manufacturers wanting to keep datasheets secret, drivers that are just pass-throughs so user space daemons can write to hardware so they don't have to comply with the GPL. It gets weird fast, and why bother with that mess if it won't win any more customers than just a few hardcore hackers and power users.

Sounds like a crummy world to me if you have to hunt around for drivers. I'd rather everything just worked out of the box, with the option to change drivers around later if I want. Getting drivers working is one of the worst parts of an OS install.

You are in a much better position to wrangle with a half-working PC than your phone. No hardware keyboard or mouse, for starters.

Because it makes for a terrible user experience.

I thought that was part of the deal with Windows phone. I thought they would be more on the Apple side of supporting updates on old hardware than the madness of Android. I don't seen any mention in that article about any of their current support phones being left behind. Did I skim past it?

All of the phones are getting updated. The issue is that Microsoft/Nokia/whoever else is involved doesn't have the clout that Apple does with the carriers, so even though the update has already been finished and tested thoroughly by Microsoft, you'll have to wait until the carrier does their own testing and approves it in order for the update to get pushed to everyone's phones. And that can take several months.

Can someone explain why the network controls the update ?

I get why OEMs need to test/approve an update for their specific phones but what kind of role carriers play here ?

They add their own bloatware / proprietary apps to the build. Some are useful (e.g. TMobile's wifi calling) and some are not (partnerships with various app vendors).

Also, Carrier IQ. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrier_IQ)

Kudos to MS for making their personal assistant extendable by third party apps. Neither Apple nor Google have managed to do that yet.

It's basically a pluggable Google Now with APIs. I think it's great.

Google Now is already pluggable through the in-app searches. Custom cards are not available though, hopefully they are coming soon.

I'm hoping this is announced at Google IO.

This thing appears to be more like Siri since it's so context aware and makes jokes.

I hope that as developers we're able to take advantage of this conversational style. At the moment, WP apps can hook into the rather limited "Tell Me" system that lets the user open various endpoints of an app via voice commands, and only using pre-defined parameters.

It would be awesome if the user could pass in any arbitrary data via voice commands (devs could make custom scheduler/todo list/note-taking apps that can receive data from Cortana), and even more so if voice commands could launch background tasks instead of just the entire third-party application (you could check into Foursquare without actually opening the Foursquare app and disrupting whatever you're doing).

They just did a demo of exactly what you requested for sending a new tweet.

Conversational style instead of pre-defined phrases and it just sent a tweet instead of opening the twitter app.

I think that Twitter might be entwined enough into the OS such that it'd get permissions that other third-party devs wouldn't. I would totally love to be wrong though.

I actually started watching the live stream after they demoed Cortana but going back now and seeing Belfiore demo Cortana:

- He added a show to his queue in Hulu but it stayed in the app - He said "what's up with Terry Meyerson" and it went straight to Terry's facebook profile.

And I realize that FB has some deep integration within the OS (just like Twitter)

Did you try Wit.AI? [1] It's cross platform and totally open: you can create any voice command you want by just providing a few examples of what you expect. Then the API turns speech (or free text) into JSON.

[1] https://wit.ai

Since you have access to Cortana's notebook, you can set boundaries as to what she tracks about you. This and what I heard about them making Cortana work offline, I just hope Apple and Google would follow suit. Honestly, I am just tired of storing every bit of information about me in the "cloud".

Cortana will work offline? I didn't think something like this was possible, because I was sceptical whether standard smartphone was capable of all that natural language processing...

If I remember correctly they did mention the Offline part when they first revealed about Cortana. I think their plan is to do offline language processing with possible online cross checks where cellular internet service is either terrible or nonexistent. So in parts of Asia where cellular internet is slow, it wouldn't appear laggy.

google now's voice recognition has worked offline for a while now

Voice recognition, yes. Language processing, no.

I seriously doubt that Microsoft has such advanced language processing capabilities that can work offline on a smartphone. For example, as of a year ago, Xbox speed recognition was still based on an ancient technology derived from Tellme networks, you can see it by yourself during Xbox One voice recognition demos. And now you're saying that phone has more processing power to do that better than a full blown gaming console?

I've been waiting for this, being able to ask siri(Cortana) to set my nest or lock unlock the Lockitron would be awesome. Even better would be an IFTTT app that could run certain scripts based on certain phrases. Like "Good Night Cortana" would adjust my thermostat, lock the doors, and turn off any lights that are still on and make sure my alarm is set.

This is a feature that would make me interested in switching to a WinPhone

Being extensible by third party vendors (and keeping compatibility) has always been a key to Microsoft's success.

Named after the fictional Halo character:


I think it's a fascinating move on Microsoft's part to integrate a video game character into a users day-to-day reality. I can imagine some nostalgia fueled sales happening as a result. But moreover, I can't help but be reminded of the movie Her. Where the lines between our physical reality and our digital reality start to blur

> But moreover, I can't help but be reminded of the movie Her. Where the lines between our physical reality and our digital reality start to blur

That's because it's a fallacy from the start. What happens on-line, what's digital, is as real as anything else. It's a mental dead end to think there are two separate things.

Point taken, but I'm still not entirely convinced. I agree that what happens online is just as real. But today, online is still feels like a separate space. It's like opening a window (our devices may literally represent this window but I'm using the term as analogy). I think "blurring the lines" has to do with removing the window from the equation.

To me it's a particularly intriguing move because Cortana's story wasn't a happy one. I know that most of the people aware of that fact also won't be fazed by it (if you've played that much Halo, you can probably distinguish the assistant from the character), but it's a surprisingly deep choice to take a name from a character who faced AI decay and all kinds of other scary techno-ills.

The reference to Her is especially relevant, since in the Halo series Cortana was clearly designed for sex appeal, and romantic tension between Master Chief (the player character) and Cortana was strongly implied.

Yeah that seems kinda edgy, epecially for Microsoft, long one of the blandest companies in tech.

Not being familiar with the Halo games, I did an image search for "Cortana" -- and while not exactly NSFW, I did immediately close the window, haha:


Yes, if you're 13. Why nerds are never really leaving puberty?

The beginning where he talks to Cortana, it totally reminded me of the movie Her. [1] It seemed fascinatingly real. Although that bit might have been pre-recorded, I think we will eventually get there, where a computer's voice and its interaction would seem indistinguishable from a human's.

[1] http://channel9.msdn.com/?wt.mc_id=build_hp [~1:12:50]

The link changed (it was a live stream before). Archived at http://channel9.msdn.com/Events/Build/2014/KEY01. Cortana part starts at ~12 minutes.

Apple began making Siri a character, but this takes it to another level. It's a brilliant UX play on Microsoft's part. Very cool.

Interesting, as well, that Microsoft wrote a love story between Cortana and Master Chief.

Heh. If you ever really stop to think about it, Halo is a love story between a cyborg and an AI, with the backdrop being a war for survival of the species. It probably didn't start out that way, but it surely turned into that.

They were just ahead of their time: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Her_(film)

It was one of the top-voted features to use the name cortana: http://windowsphone.uservoice.com/forums/101801-feature-sugg...

Seems odd that the article doesn't contain the word "Halo". You'd expect that somebody at TNW would have caught the reference, nevermind the writer or editor would have googled the name before clicking "publish".

Cortana, in the game, was nearly useless outside of the cutscenes.

Hopefully she's better at navigation on the phones. I don't think providing a compass heading to your destination, and constantly yelling that you need to get there is going to cut it.

and apparently voiced by the same actress.

really? :D i have been wondering about that (still haven't checked any of the videos).

If so, am definitely getting a win phone next!

Doesn't it go insane in the game though?

Careful, people. If the aliens invade make sure you're using your iPhone that day.

I am not a WP user, but this makes me want to give it a shot. Microsoft Research has some of the best researchers and some really impressive projects. I'd really love to see more of that research being put to use like Google does. I guess it is starting to happen now.

I'd like to be able to talk to my Windows 8.1 PC the same way I can talk to my Android/iOS/Windows Phone. Would be very handy I think.

Give it a few months, and I think you will see this.

They demoed this at //build/ last year...and then it never actually happened. I have no idea why. I assume it's coming, but have no idea when, at this point.

You can use Google Now in Chrome now.

I don't think you can talk to it though, you can just click an alert button and see your cards.

Separately there is the hot word plugin (I think that's what it's called) that lets you say 'ok Google' when on the US Google homepage.

In due time.

Days like this make me sad that I can't have the best of Windows Phone, iOS and Android at the same time. A "Cortana for Android" would be great. Some day perhaps phones will be standardized enough that, like the web, we can develop once and run anywhere without major sacrifices.

Can I have the launcher from Palm WebOS too?

I am slowly becoming convinced that the next killer app is the personal assistant app. My life is sharded between contact books and voip apps and IM and email that hardly if ever talk to each other or make my life easier.

Its a huge market, but space for a lot of niches.

You get a lot more integration than you probably think with Google Now. It reads my e-mail to keep track of my upcoming flights and packages being delivered. It checks out my calendar and will conveniently provide directions to events on my schedule. There's not a great level of integration for the google chat and voice features yet, but it's coming I'm sure.

But notice that that's only integration between Google services. A 3rd-party API is a whole different game.

Yeah, I guess if you want 3rd party integration via an API you're probably looking for Apple's Passbook. It'll be interesting to see what MSFT does here and how long it'll take for all three to merge into a similar set of features.

How cool would a partially-intelligent virtual secretary be?

We could all focus more on the work and let VS handle the scheduling and minutiae according to our priorities.

Google Now is already doing some of those, and keeps expanding. It's also available on iOS.

You need to watch 'Her', the Spike Jonze film ;)

What we need is to simplify our lives, not to make so complicated to the extent that we feel lost without personal assistant on our wrists, pockets and in front of our eyes. This whole trend is in reverse direction. We are slapping more complexity on top of more complexity. This is only going to make people's live more complex, requiring even more smarter personal assistants. It's a vicious cycle.

Let me compare how simple my life is compared to the life of my ancestors:

I have a toothache - I simply go to the dentist.

I need food - I simply go to a shop

I need water - i simply turn on a tap.

The "complexity" of my modern, urban life is the cost of having my life already very very simple.

Yes the noise of my daily life feels more complex, but there is a great deal of signal if I chose my perspective correctly.

requiring even more smarter personal assistants. It's a vicious cycle.

As a member of the computing industry, you should be happy about this :)

For me the biggest feature is being able to type questions in private, like Fantastical. I use Siri when I'm alone at home or in the car but I regularly find myself checking before using it. It's awkward saying "remind me to pick up extra maxi-pads for the wife on the way home" to siri when I'm at work within earshot of my co-workers. Even less private things than that can be weird.

Is there any information available about the accessibility support in 8.1 yet? I saw that Narrator will be included but no information on weather that will provide full access like iOS and Android offer. If it does I will be picking up a 520 to play with.

"Microsoft realizes mobile moves faster than the traditional desktop world it is used to, and asking the industry to wait for Windows 9 and Windows Phone 9 is simply not an option."

Other than being a bigger number, what radically different changes is the author expecting for Windows Phone 9? It seems like all the fundamentals are there. The changes to the OS at this point are rather incremental

I'm guessing threshold which would be huge if the rumors are true. It would combine a lot of the OS cores for desktop, phone, and xbox to allow developers to write once and run across Microsoft devices. http://www.digitaltrends.com/computing/windows-9-features-ne...

- How well can it handle natural language, compared to Siri?

- Can it handle an interaction such as:

-- "Michael, you've got a new message from Paul"

-- "Read it for me"

-- 'Ok, Paul wrote: "Where should we meet today?"'

-- "Answer with "in the Starbucks, at noon as we discussed".

-- 'Ok, here is what I understood: "In the Starbucks, at noon as we discussed". Shall I send it?

-- "yes"

-- "Ok, your reply has been sent.

Actually my windows phone 8 device (currently a circa 2013 820) isn't far off that already. Not joking. It goes:

1. Hold down start for 2-3 seconds

2. Say "Send text to Joe Bloggs"

3. Wait a couple of seconds for it to work it out.

4. Say your message. It gets this right nearly 100% of the time.

5. Asks you if that's ok or do you want to add some more

6. Say yes and it sends it.

It has an option to read and dictate texts to you as well but I've never used it as I think that would annoy me. Might go and play with it now.

You can do a fair bit with it. It can find a pizza place locally and call it without any trouble (my main use case :-)

Windows Phone devices already worked like that before Cortana. But in a more pre-scripted fashion. Something like -- "You've got a new message from Paul, read it or ignore?" -- Read it. And so on (including the dictation and sending of the reply)

That's not how I think of 'worked like that'. I have no interest in learning pre-scripted voice commands. Once you have everything scripted, implementing an interaction as I posted is almost as trivial as a CLI. That's why I put 'natural language' as the first criteria, which renders the second task a lot more challenging.

Watch the presentation:


It starts around 1:12:00

(And for people who don't want to watch: it appears, based on the demo, that it handles conversation flow dramatically better than Siri does, but I'll need to actually play with the real thing to know whether that's just presentation veneer.)

Wow, they're rolling this out globally next week.

I just recently switched back to Android (Motorola Razr Maxx) and will be switching back this weekend when I upgrade to the Nokia Icon. This latest update is coming out a lot sooner than I thought. Unreal.

Sounds very promising. If MS has cracked this problem, this could be a serious value proposition for Windows Phone, especially for the enterprise market they are finally going after. The new CEO, while certainly not responsible for starting these developments, seems to be focusing the company at pushing out the right kind of innovation.

Just what I need, a personal assistant named after a Rampant AI. What's next, "New Samsung Galaxy XYZZY Now With GLaDOS Personal Assistant! (neurotoxin emitters sold separately)"? :)

That would be pretty cool in my opinion, always wanted to have GlaDos as my personal assistent.

But it'd make you do tests all days

As people came to know how to use Windows powered PC without Start Button, Microsoft came back with tradition in Windows 8.1. It's great to see how Microsoft is going through transition phase and they don't want to miss a single thing that would lead them into trouble. As Microsoft is giving free Windows Phone OS to some of Indian smartphone manufacturer & Free Windows to any of the manufacturer who are making device with less than 9 inch screen. This strategy shows how much Microsoft is committed towards Smartphone & Tablet.

The story writer has entirely lost the connection with Halo.

Tribute to Halo!

This is amazing!!! I'm thrilled that Microsoft has started getting serious in more intelligent technology! I foresee in a not too distant future where Microsoft will bring groundbreaking artificial intelligence technologies to the people around the world! It's like I'm watching the movie "Her"!

Getting Harry Potter for the unveiling was quite a coup.

Do you not see the big 'A' at the start? 'At its Build 2014 conference' makes sense.

Nevertheless it's hard not to notice that the first word appears to be "tits". Is there a typesetting term for that, like keming?

"kerning"... but (meta) if you read it in an improperly kerned font it probably looking like "keming"



Microsoft has decided to gather all Halo fans with Cortana! Pretty neat

Uh, does that cartoon rendition of "Cortana" remind anyone else of the Corpse Bride?



Windows Phone 8.1 is the most massive update ever on any platforms to date

So much for the "big" update. I've had a WP8 device for over 10 months and I've actively used it for most of that period. There are many things I consider a downside of varying importance (some of which are a result of the extremely closed design) and the only thing they fix is a VPN client and that's to unknown extent. WP8 is a toy more than anything.

I'm glad Microsoft is finally catching up with the major smartphone OSs. Virtual assistant is indispensable feature (I'm using Google Now with my stock Android), it's very helpful and combined with great integration between gmail, calendar, driving history, purchases, etc. etc. it's realistically my dashboard to go a check stuff. Is Cortana doing the same? Because I think Siri is more like a useless to y to brag about, but not really helpful at anything.

This might me really nerdy but the name reminds me of the Farscape Episode "DNA Mad Scientist" (1x9 or so). A lab rat with increased intelligence enslaves the original scientific staff, and keeps the original chief scientist as an assistant, called... wait for it... "Cornata".

My first thought was that it was based on the AI character in the Halo series.


In Halo 3, wasn't it revealed that Cortana was built from DNA from chief scientist whats-her-name?

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