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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.

  • Speaking of Cortana, this video was just shown at the keynote:

  • 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.

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