Yesterday Microsoft finally unveiled Windows Phone 8.1, the biggest update to the platform in more than a year. It offers plenty of new features (see our top 5 here) and, unlike Windows Phone 8, it will be available for a lot of older handsets, too.
Of course, the rest of the industry isn't sitting still. Apple will likely announce its plans for iOS 8 during its Worldwide Developer Conference in just two months, while Google too will talk about the future of Android during Google I/O. Microsoft was already lagging, and a lot of the new features have already been available on competing platforms. We like to listen to you, our readers, and your comments made it clear that perhaps Windows Phone 8.1 is indeed just its way of catching up — to what's already available in Android and iOS, not to mention what will be announced for those platforms in the near future.
I think the biggest feature that caught my eye in Windows Phone 8.1 is Cortana, the company's new voice assistant. Cortana is still in beta, and won't hit consumer handsets for many months (unless you buy one of Nokia's new devices coming out in late April or early May). I like that users can customize topics and tell Cortana what they're interested in, though arguably Android's Google Now is already capable of doing this on its own. Siri isn't quite capable of really learning yet, so arguably Microsoft is making a step forward with Cortana. It may appear that Microsoft is merely catching up by offering the assistant, but if Cortana really performs as well with natural language and learning as Microsoft says, then it's actually pushing the boundaries of what's already available.
Where Microsoft is certainly catching up, however, is in some of the UI tweaks, particularly with its new Action Shade notification center. It's almost shocking that this wasn't available long ago but Microsoft once believed that consumers only needed to see notifications on the live tiles on the home screen. Now, we'll be able to see them all in one place. I also like the added option to quickly tweak settings, like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and more. The custom background isn't much to call home about, but it looks cool and adds a new layer of customization.
The lock screen themes being added in Windows Phone 8.1 are arguably a nice step forward. Android has the most custom options for this right now, but I wonder how many people actually use it and custom launchers (I mean regular consumers, not us tech heads). Microsoft will likely put a focus on this feature, especially since it's opening it up to developers. Compared to iOS, though, the options are endless, since Apple doesn't really allow much in the way of customization here.
Microsoft is also pushing the boundaries in other ways, like with its Wi-Fi Sense feature. If you use a Windows computer at home and log-in to a Wi-Fi hotspot, your Windows Phone can recognize that automatically and log you in. Also, it can be set to automatically log you in to friendly Wi-Fi networks everywhere, automatically providing your email address and credentials. That's awesome, and it's something I haven't been aware of in the past. That, to me, is a nice step forward.
There are plenty of other changes Microsoft added, a lot that will likely appeal to enterprise users, too. So while on the surface it's easy for us to sit here and think "oh Cortana, a voice assistant… yay" and feel like Microsoft is simply playing a game of catch-up, I think Windows Phone 8.1 actually adds a lot of elements that will help it distinguish itself even further from Android and iOS.