“What can I do for you, David?”

There’s a woman inside my Lumia 1020 who greets me every time I hit the search button. Her name is Cortana, and she’s very friendly. She keeps my schedule in order, she knows how long it’s going to take me to get to the airport, and she knows that thanks to traffic I’m almost definitely going to miss my flight so really why am I even trying? It’s okay, she’ll help me book another flight tomorrow. Oh, and she has a great idea for where I should go to dinner tonight.

She’s the centerpiece of Windows Phone 8.1, one of the biggest changes Microsoft has ever made to its mobile operating system. She’s also part of Microsoft’s vision for how we’ll interact with our phones in the future — we won’t open a dozen apps to do a dozen things, we’ll just ask our virtual assistants. Who may or may not be named after Halo holograms from 500 years in the future.

On one hand, Windows Phone 8.1 is a push toward the future, full of new things and new ways to do old things. But it’s also simply Microsoft’s biggest effort yet to bring its mobile platform closer in line with iOS and Android, to make it seem less alien to those who might switch. Its changes are designed to make Windows Phone 8.1 feel more singular, more unified, and more powerful. To do everything your phone can already do, and to add Microsoft’s unique powers on top. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but it’s Microsoft’s best chance in the ultra-competitive mobile market it was late joining in the first place.

Cortana, I have a question: are you up for this?