Microsoft‘s voice-activated digital assistant “Cortana” will be available in India, China, UK, Canada and Australia through the first update to Windows phone 8.1 platform, Microsoft’s corporate vice president and manager for Windows Phone Joe Belfiore announced on the Windows Phone blog. The update will roll out in Developer Preview next week.

The “beta” version of Cortana will be made available to users in China and UK with the update, while users in India, Canada and Australia will have to be content with an “alpha” version for the time being. Belfiore mentions that the update will have a number of customised features for Chinese users, and few for users in the UK. Since the Indian users will get the “alpha” update they have to opt-in and select either the US or the UK version of Cortana. This basically means that Indian users won’t get any localised features at present.

Custom features: The Cortana interface and experience has been heavily localised by Microsoft for China and to a certain extent for the UK. For instance, the Chinese edition will sport a custom visual appearance, as well as tweaked animations and sounds. A small yellow bouncing character with eyes will be the face of Cortana in China. This feature won’t be available in any other country.

The update will include localised information such as the air quality information and local TV show results for Chinese users, and EPL scores, London Stock Exchange information, etc for the UK users. Plus, the UK and the Chinese versions of Cortana will have different voices from the Jen Taylor-voiced US version.

Beyond Cortana

Other than Cortana, the new update will bring Live Folders, Xbox Music, Store Live Tiles, Apps Corner and SMS merge and forwarding to Windows Phone 8.1 phones. Live Folders adds the ability to put your apps in folders on the start screen which can then be renamed and resized as per a user’s preference. Microsoft claims that the update will improve app loading and list scrolling on the Xbox Music app. The update will also offer the ability to sync in the background and swipe to advance. Store Live Tile will updates information about the newest titles available every 6 hours when pinned to the start screen.

Apps Corner is mostly an update for businesses. The utility displays apps in a special “sandboxed” mode which restricts which apps are available for use. SMS merge and forwarding does the obvious, it adds the ability to merge messages for deletion or forwarding. Microsoft has also included some security features such as the ability to connect through a Virtual Private Network to a Wi-Fi hotspot, in this update.

Hardware changes: Qualcomm’s Quick Charge technology has been added to Windows Phone 8.1. This will enable faster charging of compatible devices. Users of existing devices like Lumia 930 and Lumia 1520 will benefit from this right away.The update will also support a screen resolution of 1200 x 800 and 7-inch displays.

Competition: Cortana will compete with other digital assistants like Google’s Google Now and Apple’s Siri. Cortana is clearly targeting the Chinese market, as is evident from the exclusive features made available for Chinese users. That Microsoft considers Apple’s Siri a strong competition for Cortana is clear from the new video commercial it released a few days back. Cortana can’t afford to take Google Now lightly either. Google has integrated Google Now with several e-commerce platforms in India.

Other developments

Interestingly, Microsoft has recently integrated Foursquare with its digital assistant, Cortana for location based discovery of food places. It was spotted by a Reddit user this week and later confirmed by Microsoft. To turn on the feature, pull up Cortana’s notebook, go to interests and toggle the “best nearby” ON.

Earlier in March 2014 Jet Airways had integrated the Google Now service on its website and mobile app. Passengers who booked tickets using a Gmail ID were provided alerts for flight departure time and terminal, flight status, upcoming flights, etc.

It’s worth noting that Google Now tracks tickets booked through BookMyShow and offers location based information, such as when it’s time to leave for the movie. Google Now also started letting users track packages from Flipkart, Myntra and Jabong among others.

Also worth noting, Google added a new feature to its voice-based search assistant Google Now, as indicated by a BGR report. Following this update Google Now can scan a user’s Gmail account for hotel bookings, and based on that offer suggestions for ‘things to see’, ‘where to eat’, ”things to do’, and more.