Update is available to Developers, also adds new security fixes, VPN support, SMS improvements, and more

Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) launched Windows Phone 8.1 -- its latest and greatest smartphone platform -- in April.  The release brought a plethora of new features including the Swype-like Word Flow typing, virtual buttons (soft buttons), and the Cortana voice assistant.  Windows Phone 8.1 devices began shipping in May; most recently Microsoft launched the Nokia Lumia 530 (Rock), the successor to its best-selling Lumia 520.  Updates to older devices began to roll out in mid-July.

Looking to counter big money losses from its Nokia Devices unit, Microsoft has announced an upcoming update, Windows Phone 8.1 Update 1.  The update is available to Developers as a Preview release.

The update's highlights include:
  • Cortana
    • Improvements to U.S. build
      • "Impersonations" (funny feature)
      • Snooze times for reminders
      • Better natural language understanding
      • Invoke on on car hands-free via "Call Cortana"
      • Works for both in-car Bluetooth and Bluetooth headsets
    • Expansions outside of U.S.
    • Beta
      • China (first non-English language Cortana beta)
        • Nicknamed "Xiao Na"

          Cortana beta
        • Speaks Mandarin (voice/text/speech-recognition)
        • "different visual appearance, animations, and sounds"
        • Air quality (smog) alerts in Weather app
        • Local TV/music celebrities
        • English word lookup in Bing for education
      • UK
    • Alpha
      • Canada
      • Australia
      • India
  • Live Folders
    • Identical to similar app/widget "bins" in iOS/Android in basic functionality

      WP 8.1 update
    • To create drag one Live Tile on the homescreen over another
    • User can name or rename bins
    • Folder expands into full-size tile set when you click it

      WP 8.1 update
    • Bins will still act as Live Tiles with miniature animations
  • SMS bulk actions
    • Check box mode for deleting or forwarding multiple messages

      SMS in WP8.1U1
  • Apps corner
    • Sandboxing
    • Similar to Kids Corner

      Apps Corner
    • Weak/simple configuration-free device management tool
    • Allows untrusted users to only run certain apps
  • VPN support
    • Home
    • Wi-Fi
    • Part of several security improvements
  • Store Live Tile
    • Gives links to new games and apps

      WP 8.1 WP 8.1U1 tile for Store WP8.1U1
    • Updates stream when tile is pinned
    • Improves content "discoverability"
    • Updates every 6 hours so little impact on battery life
  • Xbox Music
    • Adds back features removed due to time constraints in original Windows Phone 8.1 bundle

      WP8.1U1 Xbox Music updates
    • Currently (re)added:
      • Decreased load times for third party affiliated apps
      • Smoother scrolling

    • Current added (new):
      • Swipe to advance
      • Background syncing
    • Upcoming (possibly in finished release)
      • Kid corner (sandboxing) support for parents
      • Quickplay for recent playlist

This update will likely become available on new devices as soon as a month from now and as an update to existing devices by September or October, although those are unofficial estimates (as Microsoft has not published a rollout timeline).
Overall these new features seem to most impact Microsoft's growing success in budget-sensitive foreign markets -- India and China -- and its hopes for enterprise adoption.  Before Update 1, Windows Phone was a pretty weak candidate compared to Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL) iOS or Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Android due to lack of VPN and other critical security features.  Now Microsoft is creeping close to those platforms in capabilities and with its discipline in keeping device prices low, it may see a substantial swell in enterprise adoption if it keeps up the good work.

Source: Microsoft [Windows blog]

"There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere." -- Isaac Asimov

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