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Microsoft announces Windows Phone 8.1 update

During its annual Build developer conference, Microsoft shows off the latest features of its mobile operating system.

Microsoft's Joe Belfiore announces an update to Windows Phone 8.1. James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Microsoft unveiled on Wednesday an update to its mobile operating system. Most notable in the revamped software is the addition of an "Action Center" and the introduction of the software's long-awaited digital assistant, Cortana.

"Windows Phone 8.1 is less about technology and more about you," said Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president and manager for Windows Phone Program Management.

Belfiore said the OS would be available "in the next few months," though he said new devices will be shipping with the software in April and May. The software will be available for all Lumia devices via an over-the-air update in the summer, said Nokia chief Stephen Elop. However, Microsoft has also said the availability of the update will vary by country, region and hardware capabilities.

Belfiore also announced two new handset makers that will be creating Windows Phone devices: Micromax and Prestigio.

The Windows Phone 8.1 keyboard in action. James Martin/CNET

Other than Cortana (read more about that here), Microsoft introduced a bevy of new features, which Belfiore called "delighters." The software's Action Center, similar to features in Apple's iOS and Google's Android, lets users view notifications and toggle through various network settings, like Wi-Fi and airplane mode. Also new to the OS is a more customizable lock screen, which lets people choose from new stylized views. A new feature called Wi-Fi Sense allows you to automatically connect to nearby networks, and to share your home Wi-Fi without giving out your password.

"This helps everyone take advantage of Wi-Fi networks wherever they are," Belfiore said.

Belfiore also introduced a new gesture keyboard, reminiscent of the Swype feature available for Android. But Belfiore thinks Microsoft's version can rival its competitor in speed. To prove it, Microsoft held a speed-typing competition backstage. The stakes? The Guinness world record held by the Samsung Galaxy s4. The typer using Microsoft's keyboard typed a long, convoluted sample sentence into the phone in 17 seconds, taking the record.

Since new CEO Satya Nadella took Microsoft's helm in February, he's already made other big software announcements. Last week, Nadella introduced Office for iPad, bringing Microsoft's set of venerable productivity tools to Apple's popular tablet.