Windows, Windows Phone, and Office Updates Headline Build 2014 Keynote

Microsoft went big at the Build 2014 conference this year, with a massive 3+ hour keynote at which they showed off a whole lot of upcoming Windows, Windows Phone and Office goodness. They also showed off some Nokia phones, which Ben Roethig wrote about earlier.

Windows Phone 8.1

CortanaWindows Phone 8.1 brings a whole host of changes, including a new price model, a new personal virtual assistant right out of video games, and a new look in general.

First off, it comes with Cortana, the much-leaked and much loved character from the Halo video game franchise, who will act as your personal assistant. Cortana is clearly Microsoft’s answer to Siri, Google Now, and all the other voice-activated assistant applications that are out there these days. Cortana looks and sounds really good, and performed reasonably well during the demo, with only a few glitches to hold things up.

Like Google Now, Cortana has the ability to retain context on queries, so if you ask for the temperature in your location and then ask “How about in Celsius?” she’ll remember the previous question and be able to respond naturally.

Besides Cortana, WP 8.1 will have an Action Center for notifications, entering airplane mode, customizing the lock screen and more. VPN and S/MIME will be making an appearance for business users, and “Wi-Fi Sense” will locate and connect to free Wi-Fi hotspots that it detects. A new version of Skype will allow you to convert a phone call into a Skype video call, which sounds handy.

Windows Phone 8.1 should be available as an over the air update sometime in the next few months, while new devices will begin shipping with the OS sooner, starting in very late April or early May. They didn’t announce full pricing details, but they did reveal that for phones and tablets with screen sizes less than 9″, Windows Phone 8.1 will be free.

Windows 8.1 Update 1

Windows 8.1 Update 1 Start ScreenWindows 8.1 is getting updated as well, with the appropriately named Update 1. It will make it much easier to switch between the desktop and Windows Store apps. Store apps will be pinnable to the taskbar, and the taskbar will be accessible from within Store apps when you mouse down to the bottom.

On the Start Screen you’ll be able to right-click tiles to bring out a drop-down menu to work with the tile, which replaces the bottom ‘ribbon’ Windows 8 and 8.1 users are familiar with. When you install new apps from the Store, they’ll be tagged as New with a clear interface marker.

Windows Universal

UniversalThe similarities of Windows 8+ and Windows Phone 7+ have long suggested that Windows is becoming a single platform across many devices, and that convergence is finally becoming a reality. Microsoft is rolling out universal Windows apps, programs that share a single code base and run across Windows desktops, tablets, phones and even on the XBox One.

This is good news for developers, in particular, as writing for all the platforms will be very easy. It’s also cautiously good news for users, who can enjoy greater numbers and diversity of apps on all of these platforms, but there’s one potential gotcha; Microsoft is allowing developers the option to make users pay for the same app on the different platforms separately. Buying an app on the PC does not guarantee you’ll get it for free on your phone and your XBox. I’m sure many developers will let users use their apps on all their devices, but you should be aware that some developers can and will squeeze you for more.

Redesigned Office for Touch

OfficeSpeaking of apps that will work across phones, tablets, PCs and XBox, Microsoft unveiled a redesign of Office that will work on all of these things, and will work beautifully with touch interfaces. The version they showed was a work-in-progress preview, with some interface elements replaced with functional stand-ins. It greatly resembles the Office for iPad Microsoft released not long ago, though it looks more full-featured.

There’s no information yet on when the new version of Office will be released, but we can hope it will be soon; a proper native touch-enabled version of Office has been overdue for quite some time now.