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Cortana 'alpha' coming to Australia with Windows Phone 8.1 update

Australians will soon have access to Microsoft's smartphone personal assistant thanks to a preview program being rolled out with Windows Phone 8.1.

Cortana Microsoft

When Microsoft first announced the rollout of the Windows Phone 8.1 update at Microsoft Build in April, one of the big features grabbing headlines was the arrival of Cortana -- the Siri-esque voice assistant that uses Bing search to provide natural responses to users' questions.

While users in the US were set to get their hands on Cortana first, Microsoft Australia confirmed that the feature would not arrive in Australia until 2015.

Australia is, however, one of three countries that will get access to a preview "alpha" program of Cortana, set to come to devices through the Windows Phone 8.1 update in "the coming months". The update will begin rolling out next week through the Windows Phone Preview for Developers program, though no official date has been set for the consumer release.

According to Microsoft, "fans around the world have been asking for the ability to start using Cortana" and the company is responding by launching the alpha program in Australia, Canada and India.

"This early adopter program will be opt-in and gives users in these countries the ability to use Cortana with the English speech models from the US and UK," a Microsoft spokesperson said. "By using Cortana alpha, users will help Microsoft improve the product to bring a high quality Cortana experience in more countries."

While the Cortana system is based on machine learning and is designed to improve the more people use it, early adopters will still be the first to test the feature in Australia. However, Microsoft resisted suggestions that the company was "throwing stuff over the wall" to see what works.

Millions of people now use Cortana worldwide and many were changing their settings to "US" in order to access the program, according to a Microsoft executive who asked to remain unidentified.

"The team wanted to make sure Cortana worked very, very well out of the gate," according to the official, who acknowledged that Microsoft was sensitive to the perception that with its early-adopter program it might be relying on its users to work out any lingering technical kinks.

"Hopefully, as a company we haven't abused this as much as others," said the official.

Alongside the alpha program, the update will also bring a localised version of Cortana to China, as well as spelling and pronunciation support for the UK, and more natural language scenarios and Bluetooth hands-free support for drivers in the US.