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With Windows Phone 8.1 update, Cortana learns to speak Chinese

Microsoft's smartphone personal assistant is also now equipped to work in United Kingdom, and early versions have been pushed out for Australia, Canada, and India.

Cortana Microsoft

Microsoft announced updates to Windows Phone 8.1 today, including features that will let people in China use localized versions of Cortana , the company's intelligent smartphone assistant. It also introduced a version tailored for users in the UK.

At the same time, Microsoft took an unusual step by offering an even earlier, "alpha" version of Cortana for users living in Canada, India, and Australia.

Tech companies often use their customers as guinea pigs, pushing out unfinished technologies that get improved over time with the help of user feedback. 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.

Some local content will accompany the alpha versions of Cortana, but the offering will be more limited than what someone in China or the US can access. The system is based on machine learning, though, and Microsoft is confident the product will improve as more people use it.

In its official press release, Microsoft said that the UK version of Cortana has been tailored to support UK spellings and pronunciations. It also features local information on sports, the London Stock Exchange, and commuter conditions, among other features.

The updates extend to the US, where Cortana will include more natural-language scenarios and snooze times for reminders. Drivers will also be able to interact with Cortana hands-free when their phones are connected to vehicle Bluetooth kits integrated with their contacts list.