In the smartphone race, Windows Phone remains a scrappy underdog which is trying to prove it's not a permanent also-ran. And with major upgrades to both Android and iOS in the works, Microsoft's mobile operating system is at risk of falling further behind.
So rather than follow Apple and Google's pace of one major upgrade every year or so, Microsoft is adding new features at a faster clip. Earlier this month, it started rolling out Windows Phone 8.1, a meaty revision to Windows Phone 8 whose highlights include Cortana, Windows' answer to Siri and Google Now. And with that rollout still in progress, it is announcing its first upgrade to Windows Phone 8.1.
Here's a rundown of some of what's new.
In the past, Microsoft has maintained that Windows Phone's start screen—which lets you arrange oversized Live Tiles for your favorite apps to your liking—eliminated the need for folders akin to those in iOS and Android. Windows Phone users, apparently, were unconvinced: The Windows Phone 8.1 Update introduces Live Folders, which let you cluster multiple Live Tiles for related apps.
Microsoft is improving Windows Phone's ability to let you select multiple items at once, such as contacts, text messages, and calls in your history, for actions such as bulk deletion.
A new feature called Apps Corner will let users set Windows Phone to run one app and prevent anyone from getting into other apps, the home screen, or settings—handy for scenarios such as when a merchant hands the phone over to a customer for mobile payments.
The Windows Phone 8.1 update will offer improved interaction with hardware in a variety of ways. Bluetooth accessories such as fitness bands will be able to trigger notifications on the smartphone, and the operating system will support smart covers (similar to ones already available for Android phones). During the update process, it will also be able to make use of any free space available on storage cards. And it will permit phone makers to offer Qualcomm's Quick Charge 2.0 technology, which allows for high-speed recharging.
The Cortana voice assistant debuted in an English-language version for U.S. users. Now it'll be available in preview form, as either a beta or an alpha, in China, the U.K., Australia, and India.
The Chinese version speaks Mandarin, of course, but Microsoft went further to tweak the whole idea for a new culture. Greg Sullivan, director of Windows Phone, told me that in China, Cortana will have a "big sister" personality, and will offer an optional interface that has eyes, rather than being represented purely by an abstract circle.
Cortana will also deliver information that Chinese users particularly care about, such as air-quality data and alerts concerning dramatic changes in temperature.
Windows Phone 8.1 already offers Virtual Private Networking (VPN) security designed for business use. The Windows Phone 8.1 update will add a version of the technology aimed at consumers, helping them protect themselves from unwanted monitoring.
Sullivan, incidentally, says that Microsoft decided not to mention the new VPN feature as part of Windows Phone honcho Joe Belfiore's formal announcement of the update at a conference in Beijing. But some of the most ardent VPN fans I know live in China, since the technology is invaluable for punching through the Great Firewall's censorship.
The Windows Phone 8.1 Update will ship first as a developer preview next week. After that, it will show up on new phones, and will be made available as an upgrade for current Windows Phone 8.1 users thereafter.
Sullivan won't commit to when the next update after this one might appear—but he does say that "past performance might be a future indicator" of Microsoft's intention to continue improving Windows Phone at a pace measured in months, not years.
[Image: Flickr user Bhupinder Nayyar]