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Summary:

Microsoft crammed numerous announcements into a three hour keynote event on Wednesday at its Build event. Windows, Windows Phone and Xbox all get new features and some of them are shared, bringing more consistency to the Windows user experience.

Windows consistency
photo: Kevin Tofel/Gigaom

After 180 minutes of non-stop news at Wednesday’s Microsoft Build 2014 keynote event, I’m finally coming up for air. I’m breathless because Microsoft packed the three hours with announcements for Windows 8.1, Windows Phone 8.1 and even the Xbox platform. I covered the play-by-play in a live blog session but here’s an overview of what’s new in the world of Windows.

Windows Phone 8.1 is filled with goodies

Although all of Microsoft’s platforms have news of their own, the biggest focus was on the mobile one: Windows Phone 8.1. The software update starts rolling out to consumers in the next few months although new Windows Phone 8.1 devices should be launching in late April or early May.

As expected, the update will add a new Action Center: Just pull down from the top of the screen to see app notifications and quick access to important settings. You can also customize the background image of the Windows Phone 8.1 home screen.

Satya Nadella Delivers Opening Keynote At Microsoft Build Conference

Not all new features are visual, however. Windows Phone 8.1 now has Cortana, a natural language processing personal assistant. Cortana can handle basic functions — placing phone calls, setting event reminders and play music on command — but integrates with third party apps. For example, Cortana will open a friend’s Facebook stream when asked. Cortana is powered by Bing and essentially replaces the Windows Phone search feature. If you let Cortana scan your device’s email, she’ll provide contextual information, similar to Google Now.

windows phone cortana 2

Enterprises will appreciate the advance mobile device management (MDM) features in the update. Apps can be blocked on enrolled devices and IT can control what mail or attachments can be downloaded. De-enrolling a device — in the case of BYOD, for example — will revert changes to a consumer friendly Windows Phone experience.

Wi-Fi Sense is a new app in Windows Phone 8.1 to get connected to public hotspots easily. It also helps you share a home network with friends without giving them full access to every device on the network. And the already impressive Windows Phone keyboard is improved with Shape Writing; Microsoft’s version of Swype.

Windows 8.1 gets modernized (and cheaper)

Microsoft clearly listened to feedback for Windows 8, bringing more integration in Windows 8.1 between the Desktop and modern metro apps. Touch friendly apps can be pinned to the Desktop taskbar and can run in their own window, reducing the need to jump between two different user experiences.

The Windows Store is also pre-pinned to the taskbar and Search will find relevant apps to help users find and install software faster. And for those still tied to a keyboard and mouse, Microsoft has added three buttons to the Start screen: Power, Search and Settings are all on-screen instead of an off-screen swipe away.

windows start

Microsoft says Windows 8.1 will be available on April 8. Hardware partners will also be happy because Microsoft is eliminating the licensing fee for Windows on all phones and all tablets with screens of 9-inches or less.

One runtime to rule them all and bind them

Perhaps the biggest news Microsoft shared is using the Windows Runtime to create Universal Windows Apps and bring consistency across Windows devices.

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This lets developers create an app for Windows 8.1, for example, and easily port it to Windows Phone 8.1 with minimal effort. Consumers can then buy a single app and run it on a desktop, laptop, tablet or phone. Or an Xbox since Universal Windows Apps will also run on Microsoft’s entertainment and gaming hardware. DirectX 12 will tie the platforms together from a graphics standpoint, allowing for solid gaming experiences regardless of device used.

A touch version for Office is in the works

Although it’s not yet available and no target launch date was announced, Microsoft did show off a modern version of PowerPoint as an example of how it’s making Office more touch friendly.

windows powerpoint

Much of what was shown can be seen in Office for iPad: Large touch targets with a ribbon-like interface and little (if any) need for a mouse or hardware keyboard. The modern Office apps will be Universal Windows Apps so the experience will generally be the same on a Windows Phone 8.1 handset as it is on a Windows 8.1 computer.

 

 

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  1. nice to have one now in my hand

  2. How is it considered “desktop friendly” when the “restored” Start Menu is nothing but a reformatted version of the universally loathed Metro UI Start Screen? Microsoft is completely insane. Their first attempt at “restoring” the start menu was just a button that took you back to the dreadful Metro UI. Now the second attempt is just a miniature version of Metro UI which accesses ONLY Metro UI apps and NOT DESKTOP PROGRAMS! I wonder who they think they are kidding? Certainly not their bread and butter enterprise and SMB customers. If anything, these pretend-restorations just continue to demonstrate the utter contempt that Microsoft has for their rapidly fleeing customers.

    1. How is the ‘loathed UI Start Screen’ anything but a reformatted Start Menu? I get it that people miss the comfort of seeing something they are used to (the start menu) and when they hit start they see a full sized version of that start menu, but that’s all it really is, so I have never understood the intense hate for it. Desktop apps ARE ON THE START MENU and will be on the restored start menu..

  3. To Asok Smith,

    I was one of the Metro interface haters for a long time, however then I actually spent 2 days using it (my Windows 7 notebook died and I was given an amazing Dell XPS 15 with a touch screen). Now I use two screens one (the notebook) is touch and the other is a 24″ non touch in an extended desktop user.

    The touch interface now is second nature to me, it is like an iPad to me, I use the machine for work however, so I don’t play touch based games on it, other than maybe chess and the like. I use a mouse and keyboard for absolutely everything, apart from resizing the pages in Office 2013 or my browser. The Metro interface is simply a start screen for me, full of large icons that make it easy to start my WORK apps.

    To be very fair to Windows 8, it is virtually the same as Windows 7 in the way that I use it, apart from the fact that I have more resources available to me from the same spec machine, I feel that the multi tasking is better.

    But I don’t use the Windows Store, as I don’t need it for work, and apart from the Dilbert Reader what really is of value in it from a work purpose, I get my Office from a download from the network, as does my AV, as does Visio, as does my ERP system as does anything of importance.

    I am curious to your statement that the Metro Interface is universally hated, as honestly I don’t think that you can hate something that you use no more than 3 times a day. Perhaps a little overreaction to something so small.

    I know that this is off topic, however I think that the ecosystem that Microsoft has designed, from the phone, tablet, XBOX, Windows Desktop, the Windows Server, to the Hybrid Cloud Option to Azure, is the only complete end to end solution from any vendor, so if you agree with the ecosystem concept you have to work with the solutions involved. Therefore a fault with something that I use 3 times a day for 5 seconds per time, that has no impact on my ability to function effectively, could be overlooked in the quest for the value of an end to end solution.

    Now back to the tirade that will come. (BTW I wrote this on my Galaxy Tab, so I believe that I am relatively unbiased on interfaces)

  4. Craig Campbell Thursday, April 3, 2014

    What interests me is the cross-platform apps – in particular, if we could take an app already written for Windows Phone and easily port it to Windows 8.1/RT. If that were possible, it could be a much needed kickstart for Windows RT…. It seems from the announcement though, that the intention is kind of the opposite – taking 8.1/RT apps and porting to Windows Phone. That’s disappointing if it doesn’t work both ways, since as poor as the Windows Phone store may be in comparison to iOS/Android, it’s still leaps and bounds better than the desktop 8.1/RT store!

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