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Microsoft's Build Developer Conference

Join Fast Company's Alice Truong as she reports live from the Moscone Center in San Francisco during Microsoft's Build developer conference.

Microsoft kicked off its Build conference in San Francisco with a three-hour marathon keynote that introduced a bevy of new Windows products for consumers and developers.

Windows Phone 8.1 brings a host of new features, most notably Microsoft's Siri challenger Cortana. Powered by Bing, the personal assistant is capable of running commands by voice, managing calendar events, keeping users updated on flight changes, and more.

To demonstrate the potential of this operating system for Windows smartphones, Nokia executive vice president Stephen Elop debuted three smartphones: the new flagship Lumia 930 as well as two cheaper options, the Lumia 630 and 635.

In addition, Microsoft introduced its Universal Windows App platform, which will allow developers to build apps that run on its smartphones, tablets, PCs, and Xbox game console. The company also teased out a future Internet of Things version of Windows that will open up the operating system to other types of hardware.

Closing the keynote, CEO Satya Nadella took the stage to urge developers to build applications for the Windows platform. Catch up on the conference with Fast Company's updates below.

  • With Microsoft's personal assistant Cortana front and center at Build conference, I figure this would be a good time to drop an article from Rebecca Greenfield on why smartphone assistants have such strange alien-like names.
  • Speaking of Cortana, this video was just shown at the keynote:

  • David Treadwell, corporate vice president of operating system, introduces Universal Windows Apps, allowing developers to build apps that can run on Microsoft's smartphones, tablets, PCs, and Xbox game console. 

    "Google and Apple, they have a different approach," he said in a jab to Microsoft's competitors. "They want you to create one app for phones and tablets and a different app for computers."

  • The Build conference kicks off with Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president of operating system, introducing two Windows 8.1 phones. In his left hand is a phone made by partner Micromax and in his right a Prestigio phone. 

    Windows Phone 8.1 will roll out to existing customers in the next few months and come default on new smartphones by April or May, says Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president of operating system. A summary of some of the Windows Phone 8.1 announcements from day one of Microsoft's Build conference:
    • In addition to partners announced at Mobile World Congress--which include HTC, Huawei, Lenovo, LG, Nokia, and Samsung--Belfiore introduced two more on stage: Micromax and Prestigio.
    • Windows Phone 8.1 includes a new "action center," similar to the notification pull-down menus on Android and iOS devices.
    Image: Microsoft 
    • Emphasizing personalization of Windows Phones, the lock and start screens include a number of customization options. "We think when a phone knows you, you have a better experience. There is no other device so personal," said Belfiore.
    • Wi-Fi Sense is a feature found in the networks menu that helps users find the best wireless networks in an area. It can automatically connect to free wireless hotspots, accept terms of use, and provide name and email addresses if needed. Two similar features, Data Sense and Storage Sense, will help users track their data and storage usage.
    • The new Word Flow keyboard on Windows Phone 8.1 is similar to Swiftkey, allowing users to swipe over letters on a keyboard. According to Belfiore, it now holds the world record for the fastest typing on a smartphone.
    • The phone's long-awaited personal assistant Cortana made its debut (more on that in a separate post).
    • Calendar has a new week view.
    • The camera has an added burst mode to shoot multiple photos continuously. Photos will be organized by date and location.

  • Image: Microsoft 

    Named after an AI character in the popular Xbox video game franchise Halo, 
    Cortana is Microsoft's new personal assistant for Windows Phones. On stage, Cortana, which is powered by Bing, has proven to have some of the same sass as Apple's Siri. For example, when Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president of operating system, asked Cortana for the storyline of the upcoming Halo game, Cortana responds by saying he doesn't have the proper clearance for that information. Here's a rundown of some of Cortana's capabilities:
    • Cortana knows the places you frequent, can tell you the music you're playing, can compose tweets, fetch sports scores, and more.
    • Developers can build speech-enabled Cortana apps, letting users launch apps and specific commands by voice. (On the iPhone, for example, Siri can only execute commands on native apps.) To demonstrate this, Belfiore makes a call via Skype, adds a TV show to his Hulu queue, and opens a user's Facebook timeline.
    • Users can give Cortana rules for Quiet Hours, which is the equivalent of iOS's Do Not Disturb feature. "I can turn on quiet hours and explain what I want my quiet hours to be, and Cortana has a set of rules here for letting my inner circle break through during quiet hours," said Belfiore. "That level of control is entirely up to the user just like you would have in a real world relationship with a real personal assistant."
    • Cortana can also recognize flight itineraries in emails with TripIt-like functionality, tracking flight changes and telling the user when it's time to leave for the airport.
    • Cortana will also tell users if there are conflicting events on the calendar.
    • The assistant can also add notes and reminders for certain contacts that show up automatically during relevant emails, chats, and phone calls.

  • Image: Microsoft 

    When it comes to the Windows 8.
    1 update, the focus is on serving users who prefer to use mouse and keyboard over finger taps.
    • Linked to a user's Microsoft account, the computer will automatically sync app downloads, themes, and other changes with mobile.
    • The start screen now features power and search buttons on the top-right corner. The start button is also back in Windows.
    • The operating system can boot to desktop mode by default.
    • Moving the mouse to the top of the screen will display close and minimize buttons. The taskbar will also show up when the cursor is at the bottom of the screen.
    • Windows Store is pinned by default to taskbar for easier app discoverability.
    • Following in Apple's lead, the Windows 8.1 update will be available to users as a free update April 8.

  • Nokia executive vice president Stephen Elop introducing the company's new flagship Lumia 930 smartphone running on Windows 8.1. 

    Nokia executive vice president Stephen Elop took the stage at Build to debut three new Lumia phones.

    The company's new flagship phone, the Lumia 930 features a 5-inch 1080p display, 20-megapixel camera, 2.3 GHz Snapdragon 800 quadcore processor, 2 GB of RAM, and 32 GB of storage. It also comes in "vibrant colors, sometimes matching wardrobe, which is a necessity," Elop said, pointing to orange-accented sneakers. In addition to high-resolution sensor, Zeiss optics, and image stabilization, the Lumia 930 also has four microphones that can record both directionally and multidirectionally. "You can capture and relive your video in surround sound," he said. The phone will be available beginning in June (hitting the U.S. in July), retailing for $599 before taxes and carrier subsidies.

    Nokia's flagship Lumia 930. Image: Nokia 

    Nokia also introduced two lower-priced smartphones: the Lumia 630 and 635. The 3G Lumia 630 comes in two versions: a single-SIM version for $159 and a dual-SIM for $189. The 4G Lumia 35 retails for $189. Both these phones, which will be available beginning in May, will "deliver people an entry point into the Windows phone experience," Elop said.

    Lumia 635 (the Lumia 630 looks very similar). Image: Nokia

    These new smartphones also include a low-power sensor called SensorCore that turns the devices into fitness trackers. Elop demonstrated how the Bing Health and Fitness app can track a user's movements and calories burned, but the introduction of the SensorCore SDK means developers will be able to build their own low-powered motion- and location-aware apps.
  • Free has certainly been a theme at Microsoft's Build conference.

    Not only will Windows 8.1 be available as a free update, but the upcoming "Internet of Things" version of Windows will also be free. Furthermore, to encourage developers to build for Windows, the operating system will be free for devices with screens measuring less than 9 inches.

    Terry Myerson, executive vice president of operating system, had an Oprah moment of his own when he told the 5,000-member audience they would be receiving an Xbox One and $500 gift card to purchase a Windows device. That announcement got the audience cheering and applauding--keep in mind the price of admission to this conference was about $2,000.

    The choice of the Xbox One as the conference freebie highlights Microsoft's hope that developers will build apps for this platform. With 80 million Xboxes penetrating living rooms, Myerson said "there's no better TV out there than the Xbox." Xbox One users are spending five hours a day on the platform. Furthermore, with Universal Windows Apps, it should be a relatively easy process for developers to build for the living room.
  • Looking ahead, Microsoft teased out an Internet of Things version of the Windows operating system. 

    Running on a small Intel chip the size of a pencil eraser, the operating system will enable developers to build for other types of devices, presumably wearables, such as smartwatches. "This is a PC chip right there. You have to ask yourself: What's possible? What kind of devices are possible when a PC can run on something the size of an eraser?" asked Terry Myerson, executive vice president of operating system. 

    An overhead view of Joe Belfiore playing an oversized piano running on the Windows Internet of Things operating system. 

    To demonstrate its potential, Myerson had Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president of operating system, play an oversized piano on stage by hopping across different keys to produce a melody. "I think it's the first-ever piano that runs on Windows," Myerson said.

  • CEO Satya Nadella caps the keynote urging developers to build on the Windows platform. 

    Closing the three-hour keynote for day one of Microsoft's Build conference, CEO Satya Nadella urged developers to build for the Windows platform. 

    "Why build for Windows? That's the question of the conference," he said. "We're going to come at this by innovating in every dimension of hardware, the software experiences across the Windows family, and go after this in such a way that you see us make progress with rapid pace."

    He emphasized the Universal Windows App platform that will enable developers to build apps for Windows smartphones, tablets, and PCs as well as the Xbox console. "This completely opens up a huge base of users for your applications that you are targeting Windows with," he said, emphasizing the opportunity that comes with more than a billion PCs upgrading in the future.
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