MICROSOFT HAS ANNOUNCED Windows Phone 8.1 with its long awaited virtual personal assistant called Cortana front and centre.
In the first major announcement of Microsoft's annual Build Conference, the latest iteration of Windows Phone sees Cortana completely replace the search function in previous versions.
A preview video showed a rather disturbing array of images including the birth of a baby girl, placing the initial impression of the service somewhere between the films 2001 and Demon Seed.
Referred to it definitely as "she", Cortana was designed in conjunction with "real world" personal assistants and centres around a virtual notebook where Cortana keeps "notes" including relationships with contacts, diary entries and preferences.
It is capable of supplemental and contextual questions to create a more conversational feel.
Also included is a Cortana API which already has collaboration with Facebook, Skype and Hulu, with more to follow.
Initially it will available in the US as a beta release, but rollouts to other countries including the UK will follow once US guinea pigs have helped Microsoft get some of the bugs out.
Also new in Windows Phone 8.1 are personalised lockscreens, and a pulldown "action centre" for notifications to bring the operating system into line with Android and iOS.
Under the bonnet, Windows Phone 8.1 supports S MIME encryption for email and Enterprise VPN, along with corporate control of phones with approve and deny lists, as Microsoft pushes the business credentials of its mobile software.
The Windows Phone Store has had a facelift, while the calendar application has added multiple views.
Wifi Sense has also been added, containing a database of free WiFi hotspots with credential storage for seemless transition to hotspots, as well as a bridge connection to allow friends to hook into your own WiFi network without giving them the password.
Finally, the Wordflow keyboard has been refined to include swiping without taking your fingers off the keyboard, resulting in it recently being declared the fastest typing keyboard of any smartphone by the Guinness Book of Records.
Windows Phone 8.1 will start appearing on new phones in April, with updates for existing handsets to come out this summer. µ