Microsoft's Windows Phone 8.1 update takes Cortana to China, UK, and three other countries

The new versions of Cortana come as part of the Windows Phone 8.1 update

Microsoft's voice-activated digital assistant Cortana is coming to China in a beta version nicknamed "Xiao Na", as part of several new functions packed into a Windows Phone 8.1 update.

The company announced the features on Wednesday, including beta versions of Cortana customized for China and the U.K. In addition, Microsoft's digital assistant will also be arriving as an alpha version in Canada, India and Australia.

The Windows Phone 8.1 update is first launching as a preview to developers this week, and then to consumers in the coming months, according to Microsoft. With Cortana, the company is trying to play catch up with Apple and Google in the mobile digital assistant race.

The update also includes new security functions such as the ability to secure data transmissions using a VPN when connecting via a public Wi-Fi hotspot, and a sandboxing tool, Apps Corner, that can be used to restrict the apps used on a phone without resorting to a full enterprise mobile device management platform, Windows Phone head Joe Belfiore wrote.

Other new features include a live tile for the Windows Phone Store, highlighting new apps available right on the phone's start screen, and "Live Folders" allowing the organization of apps (and their updates) into folders on the start screen. There are also improvements to the Xbox Music app, he wrote.

In China, the arrival of Cortana could help Microsoft bring some brand awareness to the Windows Phone OS, which has struggled to compete against iOS and Android, said Wang Jingwen, an analyst with research firm Canalys.

By offering Cortana to the market, Microsoft hopes to offer consumers a convenient way to look up data on driving conditions, weather, and the English translation for Chinese words, among other functions.

But it's doubtful the digital assistant will translate into device sales, Wang added. In this year's first quarter, Windows Phone had less than a 1 percent share of the Chinese smartphone market, according to Canalys.

Apple has offered a Chinese version of Siri since 2012, but digital assistants are more of a nice novelty than an actual application users frequently rely on, Wang said.

"It's not that important for Chinese consumers," she added. "Like consumers in other countries, most of the time we just try them to see what reaction we get. But in normal life, people will just type in the text to find the answers."

Wang hasn't used Cortana, but she has tried Microsoft's Chinese chatbot known as "Xiaobing", an artificial intelligence program available on local social networking Sina Weibo. She was less than impressed with it.

"Some of the answers I got were not related to my questions," Wang said. "I tried to chat with her, like a normal person, but its replies are not like that of a human being."

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