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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.