The latest version of Microsoft’s mobile operating system, Windows Phone 8.1, only began trickling out to users a couple of weeks ago, but the company is already prepping the release of another update that will bring additional features and support for new devices in the coming months.
After some early leaks, Microsoft Corporate Vice President Joe Belfiore officially announced the first update to Windows Phone 8.1 today at an event in Beijing. Among the more noteworthy (and overdue) additions is support for Start screen folders, so you can group together related apps or files. The folder system will work much like those that have long been available on iOS and Android where you just drag a tile on top of another and name the folder.
Taking another page from Android, the update adds support for smart cases. This gives phone manufacturers the ability to build accessories for Windows Phone devices that let you interact with the phone and view notifications even when the screen is covered by a case, much like HTC’s Dot Case for the HTC One.
Cortana, Windows Phone’s voice-controlled personal digital assistant, is also adding some new skills to her resume and expanding to more markets. Previously only available in the U.S., Cortana is coming to China and the U.K. In addition, Microsoft is opening an early adopter program for Canada, Australia and India where Windows Phone owners can opt in to use a limited version of Cortana.
Meanwhile, U.S. users will soon be able to call up Cortana hands-free in the car as long as their phone is connected to a Bluetooth car kit. Cortana will also be able to add snooze times to reminders.
On the hardware side, the Windows Phone 8.1 update is adding support for qHD (960×540) screen resolutions and screen sizes up to seven inches. So, you know, if the gargantuan six-inch Lumia 1520 wasn’t big enough for you, it’s your lucky day.
Some other features of the update include:
- Multi-select and SMS merge/forwarding: You’ll now have the option to select multiple items at once. With SMS, you can select multiple messages and merge them into a single thread to forward to another recipient.
- The Windows Phone Store live tile will now refresh every six hours to show you the latest apps and games.
- Apps Corner: A special mode where you can restrict which apps are used. It’s similar to the Kids Corner feature introduced in Windows Phone 8.1, but Apps Corner was designed with businesses in mind.
- Ability to send and receive data over a virtual private network when connected to Wi-Fi hotspots.
Microsoft didn’t provide an exact timeframe for when the first Windows Phone 8.1 update would be pushed out, but said the release cycle would be similar to Windows Phone 8.1, with the developer preview being made available first, then shipping on new devices a month or two later, followed shortly by a general rollout. As of now, the developer preview is expected to be available some time in August.
While it’s nice to see Microsoft updating its OS at a frequent clip and the platform has slowly gained some marketshare, Windows Phone is still playing catch-up to iOS and Android in many areas. It’s something Microsoft is certainly aware of, though it concerns itself more on getting the features right, rather than being first.
“How a feature is implemented is just as, if not more important, as to when we add a feature,” said Greg Sullivan, director of Windows Phone at Microsoft, in a phone interview with Re/code. “One of the things I’m personally proud of is that we embarked on this path to deliver an exceptional user experience and aesthetic to Windows Phone, and we haven’t departed from that philosophy. So, even when we do something like live folders, we’re doing it in a thoughtful way.”
“Of course, we’re aware that people have seen features on other platforms and asked for it on Windows Phone. But it goes both ways,” added Sullivan. “There are many examples where Windows Phone has set the pace, despite what the numbers would have you believe. I mean, the flat design of iOS is the sincerest form of flattery to Windows Phone.”