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In Brief: Start Menu returns to Windows 8, Cortana Is Real

By Will Smith

The first keynote of Microsoft's developer conference just wrapped up. You can expect to see a favorite feature return to Windows next week and meet Microsoft's personal assistant, Cortana.

During the epic three-hour keynote presentation at BUILD, Microsoft's annual developer conference, the company highlighted a handful of tidbits that will be of interest to normal users, in addition to the developers in the audience. The biggest announcement highlighted updates to Windows 8.1, which leaked earlier this year. The update will be available on April 8th, and will feature better integration between traditional desktop apps and Modern-style apps that were introduced with Windows 8. You'll be able to run Modern apps in a window on the Desktop, they'll shop up in the taskbar, and you'll be able to minimize and maximize them. I haven't been able to confirm details, but it also sounded like traditional desktop apps would be available for purchase and download in the Windows Store. Also, later this year Microsoft will quietly bring the Start Menu back to Windows 8.1.

Microsoft also demoed Cortana, which is Windows Phone's answer to Siri and Google Now's voice search. While the extended on-stage demo was repeatedly plagued by flubbed recognition, it appears to fall somewhere between Siri and Google Now in terms of functionality. With APIs for third party apps to tie in and more granular support for personalized information (your inner circle, your interests, etc) than either Google or Apple give right now, Cortana could offer unique benefits for Windows Phone 8.1 users if it works better than it did on stage at BUILD. We won't really know how it fares in the real world until we have phones with our info on them to test, but I'll have a chance to spend some time with Cortana later this week.