Microsoft Takes a Step Down the Mobile Path

Microsoft and Nokia sign
Lehtikuva Lehtikuva—Reuters

The onetime technology leader now finds itself struggling to compete in mobile and media markets. With a new operating system set to debut this week, it’s looking to strengthen its chances.

On Wednesday, Microsoft is set to unveil Windows 10, the newest version of its flagship operating system. The time has come, the company says, to introduce a “new Windows…built from the ground up for a mobile-first, cloud-first world.” Most critically, the new products will make it easier for developers to build apps for mobile devices, including Microsoft’s own smartphones.

The news couldn’t come a moment too soon. The onetime technology leader has been struggling to compete in mobile and media markets. Currently, Windows models account for less than 5% of phones in use. So while Microsoft wants to be seen as the fourth member of the current pack of tech titans, alongside Apple, Amazon, and Google, it still has a ways to go.

Mobile weakness notwithstanding, Microsoft remains the world’s largest software producer, with a stock market value of $381 billion (north of Goo­gle’s) and $90 billion in cash on hand. Revenue from selling and licensing products like Windows to companies—about half of Microsoft’s business—grew by an impressive 10% last quarter. Revenue from Xbox, one of the world’s most popular gaming consoles, grew more than 58%. Meanwhile, the company released its latest cellphone to positive reviews. The stock stands at a near 15-year high.

Still Facing Headwinds

A lot is riding on the success of Windows 10. Demand for personal computers has fallen off, thanks to smartphones and tablets. Sales of Microsoft’s own tablets, such as the Surface Pro 3, have picked up recently but lag far behind those of the Kindle Fire and iPad.

The company’s smartphone—$600 at its most expensive—is “too high cost, and it’s too late,” says Mary Mona­han of research company Javelin. A tardy entrance gave Google and Apple valuable lead time and made Windows a less desirable outlet for app developers. “The value of the iPhone is that you get all of these great apps,” says Monahan. “When you buy a Microsoft phone, what do you get?”

The Outlook for Investors

Prospects for Microsoft aren’t ugly, but they’re not great either. While Xbox, with its legions of dedi­cated customers, has proven popular, analysts believe long-term success requires an untethered platform. “The future is more control of your day-to-day life with your phone,” says Monahan.

Windows 10 is part of new chief executive Satya Nadella’s strategy to prioritize investments in mobile, like its 2014 purchase of Nokia’s handset division; Microsoft is likely to use its cash kitty to fund further deals.

Microsoft’s forward price/earnings ratio is near Apple’s, and it has a higher-than-average dividend yield: 2.7%, vs. 1.6% for its information-technology peers. That means investors are paid well to hold the onetime personal computing champion and wait for a turnaround. With the release of Windows 10, that reversal may be one step closer.

Read Next: Who Will Win the Battle of the Tech Titans?


How to Flip Your ‘Kill Switch’ and Protect Your Smartphone from Thieves

Nathan Alliard—Getty Images

Starting next summer, every smartphone sold in California must have an anti-theft device. Here's what you can do to safeguard yours right now.

Smartphone theft just got a whole lot less lucrative. Yesterday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill requiring that all smartphones sold in the state include a “kill switch,” software that makes it impossible for thieves to use stolen phones.

Here’s something you may not know: Your phone could already have such a switch. Both iPhones and Samsung phones have new software that “locks” the device so that unauthorized users are unable to activate it. According to the San Francisco Police Department, the city saw a 38% drop in iPhone thefts in the six months after Apple released its kill switch. In June, Google and Microsoft promised to offer kill switch technology in their next operating systems, and for now, both offer other apps to help you protect a lost phone.

The California bill requires that tech companies make the kill switch feature standard on all phones starting July 1, 2015. In the meantime, you can enable your phone’s available security features by turning on the right settings. Here’s how.


Do this right now: Make sure you have iOS7 software (if you haven’t already, you can download the upgrade on iTunes). Go to Settings, then iCloud, and then flip on “Find My iPhone.” If your phone gets lost, you’ll be able to track it on

Do this if your phone gets stolen: Go to and sign in using your Apple ID and password. There, a button lets you play a sound on your iPhone to help you locate the device. You can also put the phone in “lost mode,” which gives you the option to display an alternate phone number and a message explaining that the phone has been lost, so Good Samaritans will be able to find you.

If you’re sure your phone has been stolen, erase the data. Remember that this is a last resort: Once you’ve erased your phone, you won’t be able to track it. But that way, the only way someone will be able to activate it is by entering your Apple ID and password. (And in the event that you find your phone again, you can restore the data using iCloud backup.)


Do this right now: Android doesn’t have a kill switch yet, but it has still some helpful anti-theft features. Start by downloading the free “Android Device Manager.”

Do this if your phone gets stolen: Sign in to the Android Device Manager using your Google account and password. Again, you’ll be able to play a sound, track your phone, reset the screen lock PIN, and erase the data. (Remember, once you erase the data, you won’t be able to track the phone anymore.)

However, hackers may still be able to reset and reactivate the device. Expect a tougher kill switch feature in Google’s next software upgrade.


Do this right now: If you’ve got a Samsung Android phone, you’re in luck. Go to Apps, then Settings, and then Security. Check the box next to “reactivation lock.” You’ll be prompted to either sign in to your Samsung account or create one.

Do this if your phone gets stolen: Go to and log in with your Samsung account. Like “Find My iPhone,” Samsung lets you track your phone, play a sound to help you find it, and lock your device remotely.

If your phone has been jacked, the reactivation lock renders it useless. Once you’ve turned the feature on, no one can reset the device without your Samsung account and password.

Windows Phone

Do this right now: Windows phones don’t have kill switches yet either, but they do have a device tracking feature. Go to Start, then App, then Settings, and then “Find My Phone.” You can opt to save your phone’s location every few hours, which could give you a more accurate reading of its last known location if the battery dies.

Do this if your phone gets stolen: Go to and sign in with your Windows Live ID. You’ll be able to track your phone, play a sound, lock your phone with a message, and erase your data.

Windows also plans to add a kill switch in the future.

TIME Advertising

Microsoft Gets Revenge for Those Old ‘Mac vs. PC’ Ads

Cortana vs. Siri, round one: Fight!

Correction applied Tuesday, July 29

One of Apple’s first effective assaults on Microsoft’s tech empire was the Mac vs. PC ad campaign, which cast Windows computers as devices for schlubby nerds and Macs as tools for cool creatives. The battlefield has now shifted from desktops to smartphones, but Microsoft is taking a cue from Apple’s old campaign with a put-down ad of its own.

In a new pitch for Cortana, Microsoft’s digital personal assistant, the company pits a Windows Phone boasting the software against an iPhone with Siri. As Cortana effortlessly answers a user’s questions, Siri fumbles its responses and is eventually forced to admit, “Now that is a smart phone.”

The ad, which features a Lumia 635 Windows Phone, mainly shows off Cortana’s contextualization abilities. The assistant can use geofences to issue reminders when users arrive at a specific location or automatically serve up messages when a specific person calls. Some reviewers have still found Siri to be a more helpful assistant overall, so it’s likely this new version of “Mac vs. PC” will continue to be hotly debated.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the feature set of Siri. The software does use geofencing to set location-based reminders.


TIME Smartphones

Microsoft Windows Phone Ad Pokes Fun at Siri

Apple’s Siri virtual assistant seems equal parts nervous and impressed in the above video, as Microsoft’s new-ish Cortana virtual assistant breezes through a list of date- and location-based reminders before informing her owner that he’d better hop in the car so he can beat the traffic. Frequent Google users might be quick to point out that Google Now can perform similar feats, though this beef is between Microsoft and Apple.

The ad is reminiscent of Microsoft’s previous Surface Tablet versus iPad ads, though perhaps somewhat buried in this newest one is that the Windows Phone handset being used — the Nokia Lumia 635 — cost $129 without a wireless contract. The iPhone 5s shown in the ad costs $649 contract-free from Apple, for comparison.

Still, showing off virtual assistants makes for a futuristic demo, regardless of how often people in the real world actual leverage the features shown in the ad. Microsoft has infused the latest version of Windows Phone with a bunch of other neat tricks, too, so maybe it’ll show some of them off in future ads as well.

[The Verge]


Here’s a Look at How Apple and Microsoft Really Stack Up

On Tuesday, both Apple and Microsoft released their quarterly earnings reports, with Apple showing a 12.3% profit jump—and Microsoft showing a 7.1% decline. How do they compete on other measures? Here's a look at how the two tech giants stack up.

TIME Microsoft

Making Sense of Microsoft’s Windows Phone Plans

Satya Nadella, chief executive officer of Microsoft Corp., speaks during a keynote session at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference in Washington on July 16, 2014.
Bloomberg/Getty Images Satya Nadella, chief executive officer of Microsoft Corp., speaks during a keynote session at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference in Washington on July 16, 2014.

Microsoft's low-end push doesn't exactly match up with its high-end ambitions.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is wasting no time distancing himself from his former boss, Steve Ballmer.

After making clear last week that Windows is not the center of Microsoft’s universe anymore, Nadella took another swing at his predecessor’s “devices and services” strategy by announcing 12,500 layoffs at the Nokia team. Combined with the 5,500 layoffs at other parts of Microsoft, it’s by far the largest round of job cuts in company history.

With the layoffs will come a shift in strategy. Microsoft says it’ll push harder into low-cost Windows Phones, while terminating Nokia’s other affordable phone projects. Nokia X, an experiment in putting Microsoft services on Android-based handsets, will go away as Microsoft loads future designs with Windows Phone instead. Nokia’s other low-end platform, Asha, will also disappear, according to The Verge.

On the high-end, Microsoft sees Windows Phone–and other devices like Surface–as a showcase for Microsoft services. Future flagship phones will be timed to launch alongside major versions of the operating system and new releases from Microsoft’s Applications and Services Group.

One might imagine, for instance, a future Windows Phone integrating a new version of Office, or an upgrade for Cortana that works across phones, tablets, PCs and Xbox consoles. Microsoft will likely pitch its hardware as being the best way to experience those services. (“We want to show the way,” Nadella said at the Worldwide Partners Conference last week.)

The problem is that Microsoft’s high-end and low-end strategies don’t really square with one another. While Microsoft has enjoyed some success in the affordable phone market, the company’s newfound focus on productivity and “getting stuff done” mean that those high-end users are the real prize. They’re the ones who are most likely to use premium Microsoft services like Office 365 and OneDrive.

From Nadella’s latest memo, it seems Microsoft is committed to the low end mainly because it’s done well in certain markets. But how does that help Microsoft with its productivity focus?

One could argue that building the user base, even with low-cost phones, helps attract the app developers that Windows Phone really needs. But low-end users don’t necessarily spell dollar signs for app makers. Apple’s iOS App Store, for instance, pulls in far more revenue than Android’s Google Play Store, despite Android having far greater market share. Windows Phone has neither the volume nor the demographics to lure app developers on a large scale, and cheaper phones aren’t going to change that.

That’s why I think Windows Phone’s best shot at survival will come from deeper hooks into other Microsoft products that people use already. As I wrote in my Windows Phone 8.1 review, things like tighter OneDrive integration, better Office tools and more links between phone and console gaming all come to mind.

Microsoft is rumored to be moving in this direction with a unified version of Windows codenamed Threshold, which is reportedly coming next year. It’ll be interesting to see what Nadella does between now and then.

TIME Windows Phone

30 Days with Windows Phone 8.1


Microsoft's latest smartphone software makes some big improvements to keep pace with iOS and Android. Is Windows Phone worth another look?

When Microsoft announced Windows Phone 8.1 a couple months ago, it seemed to have finally caught up to iOS and Android in many meaningful ways.

I’ve had bad experiences with Windows Phone in the past, but I wanted to give Microsoft’s underdog platform another shot. So in mid-May, I asked the company to loan me a Nokia Lumia 1520, and installed the Windows Phone 8.1 Developer Preview when the handset arrived. Over the next month, I used it as my primary phone, with my own AT&T SIM card.

For me, Windows Phone 8.1 has been a mix of delight and frustration. I can finally see the appeal of using Windows Phone, but spending some quality time with the platform also revealed major cracks in an otherwise solid foundation. Here’s what I liked and disliked about Windows Phone after living with it for a month:

Start Is Still the Best Part

After using Windows Phone for a while, I’m convinced that Microsoft has come up with the best app launcher, even if it takes some adjustment coming from iOS and Android. The Start screen, as Microsoft calls it, lets you set up your favorite apps–or “Live Tiles”–in a vertical stack. You have a choice of three sizes for each tile, and the larger each one gets, the more information it can show you directly on the Start screen. At a glance, I can see the day’s forecast, recent social networking updates from a group of friends and the latest Techmeme headlines.

Of course, Android has a similar system with widgets, but they aren’t as neat and orderly as Windows Phone’s tiles. You also have to spread them across multiple screens, instead of having one compact, flowing list, so it’s more of a chore to see what’s happening. With Android, you’re more likely to forget what you’ve put on those far-flung screens. I’ve said this before, but the Windows Phone’s Start screen is fun. It’s begging you to check out this or that diversion, which is perfect when you’re killing a few idle minutes.

Nice Touches Are Everywhere

This is a tricky thing to quantify, but Windows Phone has a lot of little clever designs to help users feel at home. Some of it’s cosmetic, like the way everything scrolls smoothly, and how the screen seems to squish together as you scroll past the edge of a page. But there are also little breadcrumbs that make Windows Phone easier to use.

For example, in most apps you’ll see a few action icons at the bottom of the screen, along with a “…” button next to them. Pressing that button may bring up more options, but it also slides the other buttons upward and shows some text to describe what they do. This prevents you from resorting to trial-and-error as you figure out how to use an app.

Also, I like how Internet Explorer puts the address bar at the bottom, making it easier to reach with a large phone like the Lumia 1520. And the new gesture keyboard is one of the best I’ve ever used, as it builds on Microsoft’s responsive, clutter-free touch keyboard. Things like these don’t show up on a spec sheet or feature list, but they show how Microsoft has really thought things through.

Notifications Need a Lot of Work

The Start screen is no replacement for a proper notification center, so I was happy that Microsoft finally added “Action Center” in Windows Phone 8.1. Similar to the notification bars on iOS and Android, Action Center is a condensed list of all incoming messages, e-mails and alerts, which you can swipe down from the top of the screen. You can also toggle a handful of quick settings from this menu, such as rotation lock and airplane mode.

As a high-level way to see what you’ve missed, Action Center is a fine start, but it has one huge problem: When you tap on a notification, many apps don’t actually take you to the thing they’re notifying you about. For example, if you tap on a Twitter alert, it only takes you into the main screen of the Twitter app, not to the actual message. I suspect this is a matter of developers programming their apps to handle notifications properly, given that Microsoft’s Mail app handles notifications just fine. But because Windows Phone has weak developer support (more on that later), I’m not holding my breath for widespread improvements.

Microsoft also has another notification problem: Just as it’s finished playing catch up with Action Center, it’s falling behind again on actionable notifications. With Android, for instance, you can delete e-mails, reply to messages or “favorite” a tweet straight from the notification bar, and Apple will add similar capabilities in iOS 8. Microsoft’s notification system is lifeless by comparison, and that could become a big disadvantage if notifications become a key aspect of wearable tech.

Apps Are an Annoyance

A common argument from Windows Phone fans is that the app gap has closed considerably over the last couple years, and that most users don’t need a ton of apps anyway. While it’s true that you can get by with Windows Phone’s app selection, you’ll probably still have some headaches when the app you want doesn’t exist on Windows Phone, or isn’t as well-supported compared to iOS and Android. Here are some of my app issues:

  • We at TIME use HipChat to communicate during the day. There’s no Windows Phone version, so I have to use the desktop-optimized website, which doesn’t work well.
  • I would have liked to use Uber or Lyft for transportation while I was in Los Angeles covering E3, but those apps aren’t available for Windows Phone.
  • I subscribe to Rdio for streaming music, but the Windows Phone app is garbage compared to the iOS and Android versions. Many features, including radio and the ability to shuffle an album or collection, aren’t available.
  • Spotify has a free version on iOS and Android that includes radio stations and shuffled playlists, but you need a subscription to use the Windows Phone app.

None of these things keep me from being able to use Windows Phone. They just make the experience more annoying.

There’s Still No Great Gmail Experience

Technically, the default Mail app in Windows Phone works with Gmail, but it’s far from perfect. It takes a long time to load long conversation threads, and it’s slow to sync any messages you’ve deleted, so you might see those messages again if you sit down at your computer a few minutes later.

I worked around this by using a third-party app called MetroMail for those longer threads, but this app doesn’t handle notifications properly (see above), and it takes several seconds to load new messages each time you open the app. In other words, I’m stuck with two half-solutions instead of one really good Gmail app, like the one Google offers on iOS and Android.

There’s a Well of Untapped Potential

If there’s one thing that would really help sell me on Windows Phone, it’d be greater connectivity with Microsoft’s other platforms. So far, Windows Phone still feels like its own little island. OneDrive cloud storage isn’t built into the file system like it is in Windows 8.1, and there are not enough strong ties back to the Xbox for gaming. (I’m still dreaming of a way to attach a game controller and take smaller-scale Xbox games on the road.) The version of Office that comes with Windows Phone is still a shadow of what’s available on Windows devices. Microsoft likes to tout “one experience across all devices,” but Windows Phone needs more work for that promise to become a reality.

The Verdict

Like I said earlier, I can see some appeal in Windows Phone now. It might especially make sense for novice smartphone users that don’t want an iPhone (mainly because of differences in price and available screen sizes), and aren’t looking to use a lot of apps.

But for me, Windows Phone needs a better hook than a great app launcher and some clever design flourishes. It could be in the form of killer hardware that no other platform has, but more likely, it’d have to be through tighter integration with the rest of Microsoft’s ecosystem. I already use a Surface Pro on the road and Windows desktop at home, so more “continuity” (to borrow a term from Apple) might convince me to forgive Windows Phone 8.1’s other shortcomings.

TIME Smartphones

This Is Google’s Plan to Stop Smartphone Thieves

Woman using a smartphone
Getty Images

Microsoft's too

This post is in partnership with Fortune, which offers the latest business and finance news. Read the article below originally published at

Google and Microsoft will both add a “kill switch” to upcoming versions of their smartphone operating systems, following the success of Apple implementing the anti-theft protocol in its mobile devices last year.

The two companies’ commitment to incorporate the kill switch into their respective Android and Windows operating systems was announced jointly Thursday by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón. Schneiderman and Gascón have been leading the charge to reduce smartphone theft by getting mobile hardware makers to add the kill switch feature to their products through the Secure Our Smartphones (S.O.S) Initiative.

The point of the kill switch is to render mobile devices useless after they are stolen, thus removing the incentive for criminals to steal them in the first place. When Apple introduced its iOS 7 operating system in September, it included an “activation lock” feature that lets users remotely lock and disable an iPad or iPhone that has been stolen.

For the rest of the story, go to

TIME Windows Phone

Windows Phone 8.1 Can Reportedly Lift Passes from Apple’s Passbook


Passbook support could fill the gaps in Microsoft's Wallet service if Apple doesn't do anything about it.

Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8.1 has a hidden trick that Apple might not be thrilled with.

Users can apparently download passes from Apple’s Passbook system and access them through Windows Phone’s Wallet app. This capability was discovered by Tom Warren of The Verge, who says it worked perfectly for boarding passes.

Passbook is Apple’s system for digital payment cards, loyalty cards, coupons and tickets. It allows iPhone users to pull up all their passes from one place instead of having to dig through multiple apps.

Although Windows Phone and Android offer similar services, they’re not as widely adopted by app developers as Passbook. Microsoft may be supporting Passbook passes as a way of filling the gap.

This isn’t the only case of Passbook being supported on other platforms. On Android, third-party apps such as Pass2U and PassAndroid can display Passbook passes as well.

As iMore points out, there’s nothing particularly special about the Passbook data itself. Passbook files are basically a package of web languages that the Passbook app reads and formats, so it seems Microsoft has simply found a way to read and format the same bits of code in its own Wallet app.

The special sauce for Apple is in the way cards are added and updated on users’ iPhones. Some apps allow users to add cards to their Passbooks by pushing a button within the app, but this option isn’t available through apps on other platforms. Instead, users can only download passes from an email or text message, or by scanning a barcode.

Also, Apple has its own system for pushing updated information (such as a gate change for a flight) to users’ devices. A third-party system may have to employ workarounds, such as periodic checks for updated info.

Maybe that explains why Apple hasn’t cracked down on other platforms’ use of Passbook. The experience just won’t be as good, and may end up luring people back to iOS.

Besides, neither Google nor Microsoft are advertising Passbook support as a key feature of their operating systems. If they did, it’d be kind of like when Palm advertised iTunes sync support for its Pre smartphone in 2009. Apple did take action in that case, prompting a cat-and-mouse game in which Palm tried (and ultimately failed) to get around Apple’s roadblocks.

TIME Technologizer

Windows Phone 8.1 Review: Microsoft’s Game of Catch-Up Is Just About Done

Microsoft Cortana, Windows 8.1's voice-activated personal assistant

From the Cortana voice assistant to a zillion little refinements, this smartphone underdog is in solid shape--as long as you aren't overly demanding on the app front

When you’re number two in a business category, as Avis famously told us, you have to try harder. Which would tend to suggest that whoever’s in third place needs to work even harder still.

That’s certainly been Microsoft’s strategy with Windows Phone. Its mobile operating system still lags far, far behind Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS in market share, but the company has never behaved as if it thinks the game is over. It started by giving the software a fresh and imaginative interface and has been at least as serious about upgrades as anybody else, trying both to match the competition’s features and carve off its own niche as a more people-centric approach to the smartphone.

Two weeks ago, at its Build conference in San Francisco, Microsoft announced the operating system’s next version. There’s enough that’s new in this version that it wouldn’t have been false advertising to call it Windows Phone 9. But its name is Windows Phone 8.1, bringing the version number in line with that of Windows 8.1.

That consistency isn’t just a marketing ploy. Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1 are based on the same technical underpinnings, and Microsoft is rolling out tools to let developers create a single application that can run on Windows PCs, Windows phones and the Xbox One console, with an interface and capabilities that adjust themselves appropriately to the device in question. Over time, that could help address Windows Phone’s single biggest shortcoming: It’s rarely near the top of the priority list for companies that make apps.

Windows phone
MicrosoftWindows Phone 8.1’s home screen

People who are registered as Windows Phone developers–which is free, and doesn’t require you to actually be a developer–can download a preview version of 8.1 and update their Windows 8 phones starting today. Microsoft says that the software will ship on new phones–such as three upcoming Nokias–starting in late April or early May, and will be available to all current Windows phone owners within the next few months. I tried the preview on a Nokia Lumia Icon phone provided by Microsoft.

Windows Phone 8.1’s flagship new feature is Cortana–the voice-controlled intelligent assistant that’s its answer to Apple’s Siri (introduced in 2011) and Google’s Google Now (2012). The name is an allusion to the holographic, artificially intelligent advisor in Microsoft’s Halo games; that Cortana’s voice actress, Jen Taylor, did some recording for Windows Phone’s Cortana, although for the most part, Siri, Google Now and Cortana sound like robotic triplets.

You can call up Cortana by pressing a Windows 8.1 phone’s search button. Microsoft is labeling it as a beta, and says it’ll get smarter as millions of people use it. It’s awfully ambitious, striving to deliver both the personality of Siri and–with the help of Microsoft’s Bing search engine–the deep trove of knowledge of Google Now. And it performs some new tricks of its own.

In that last category, Cortana understands some complex requests beyond the ken of Siri and Google Now, such as ”Schedule the Reno trip for Monday through Thursday.” It’s also particularly adept at reminders. For instance you can tell it to remind you to buy key lime frozen yogurt the next time you’re at Safeway—either a specific Safeway, or any Safeway. Or to nudge you to ask your boss for a raise the next time you talk to him on the phone.


Besides handing your questions and requests—which you can either speak or type—the service shows you news stories (based on interests you specify). It has a do-not-disturb feature called Quiet Hours, which can shield you from calls, texts and notifications while permitting people you specify as part of your Inner Circle to break through. Like Google Now, it can scan your email so it can issue helpful reminders related to matters such as travel plans. The section where you set up all of this is called Cortana’s Notebook, and it makes it easy to determine what the service knows about you, your preferences and your relationships.

Cortana matches Siri and Google Now in a bunch of areas, and surges ahead in some. But there are at least a few where it’s surprisingly shallow. I tossed what I thought were some softball questions its way—such as “What time is it?”—which stumped it. Nor could I figure out a way to use it to send e-mail; neither “Email Marie” nor “Send an email to Marie” worked. I can’t imagine these issues will linger for long.

The service is also less clever than Siri and Google Now in some cases when it comes to keeping track of the subject of your queries: All three services understand “How old is Barack Obama?”, but only Siri and Google Now get the follow-up question “How tall is he?” (Then again, if you use Cortana to pull up a list of sushi restaurants, it understands “Call the third one,” which Siri and Google Now do not.)

Cortana is personified on-screen as a simple pulsating animated circle, but it doesn’t want to be thought of as mere software: Like Siri, it calls you by name and provides jokey responses to questions such as “Will you marry me?” and “Which is better, Windows Phone or iPhone?” I’m at least as happy with Google Now’s less aggressively ingratiating approach, especially since its on-screen interface–with swipeable little cards displaying tidbits of information–is the most fully evolved of the bunch.

(Of course, all three of these assistants are capable of being eerily helpful one moment, and hopeless the next: For instance, none of them gave me a direct answer when I asked “What time is Mad Men on tonight?”)

Overall, Cortana doesn’t set a new standard for the category, but it’s already impressive in multiple respects–and a solid platform for future invention on Microsoft’s part.

Beyond Cortana, Windows Phone 8.1 sports lots of other little improvements. Here’s a non-comprehensive list of highlights:

  • Action Center appears when you swipe down from the top of the screen. Replicating features already in Android and iOS, it provides one-tap access to settings such as Airplane Mode and, for the first time in Windows Phone, a way to review notifications from apps if you didn’t happen to be looking at your phone when they arrived.
  • You can choose a wallpaper to display behind the Live Tiles on your home screen — although it shows through only with certain tiles that are transparent, resulting in a pretty darn subtle effect.
  • Word Flow, a new feature in the on-screen keyboard, lets you blast through text input by gliding your fingertip around without lifting it from the display–a concept that originated with Swype and is now standard functionality everywhere except on the iPhone. Microsoft’s version gets no points for creativity, but it’s a very credible implementation; it set a Guinness record for input speed.
  • Internet Explorer now sports several features seen in other mobile browsers, including a private browsing mode, a password manager, a de-cluttered reading mode and the ability to get to open browser tabs across all your copies of IE.
  • A super-clever feature called Wi-Fi Sense lets you give friends you specify access to your home wireless network–automatically, and without revealing the password to them. (Friends who also also have Windows 8.1 phones, that is.)
  • The calendar has some tweaks, including a new weekly view, and Xbox Video, Xbox Music and podcasts have been broken up into more powerful, stand-alone apps.
Action Center
MicrosoftWindows Phone’s new Action Center

At this point, for the first time since it debuted in 2010, Windows Phone is nearly free of glaring gaps in its functionality compared to Android and iOS. The last striking one I can think of is the absence of full-blown speech-to-text dictation; a rudimentary version is available in Messaging and Mail, but not throughout the operating system. And maybe the lack of folders for organizing apps, although Nokia has a fix for that.

Other than those, all the big holes in the Windows Phone story involve third-party apps. The situation is nowhere near as dire as it once was: I was relieved, for instance, to discover that both of the banks I do business with offer wares in the Windows Store. But among the no-shows I pined after were Flipboard, Secret, Facebook’s Paper and Dropbox’s brand-new Carousel.

Bottom line: We still live in a world in which only iPhone users can be reasonably confident that they’ll get versions of hot new apps at least as early as anyone else. For Windows Phone owners, the app situation, for now, is still “maybe, eventually.”

For those who can accept that reality, and are willing to consider dumping whatever smartphone platform they’re currently using, Windows Phone 8.1 offers an experience that’s fun, fluid and just about feature-complete. It may be an outlier, but it’s a choice, not an echo, and it’s clearly viable in a way that the fourth-place mobile OS, BlackBerry 10, is not. If you hear this operating system calling your name–most likely on a Nokia Lumia–there’s no reason not to answer.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at