When Joe Belfiore unveiled Microsoft Cortana to the world earlier in April, he said she looked a little excited herself to be up there in the podium with him. “The user is in control of his/her relationship with Cortana,” he continued later. A few years ago, some of us could have gone can this really be? But given our introduction to other personal assistants like Apple’s Siri and Google Now, we are more likely to wonder if Cortana can outdo her leading counterparts or at least keep pace with them.
One of the best things about having a digital assistant on your phone is the constant reminders and suggestions tagged along with your search that allows you to explore all your options and stay on top of things. But it’s even better when you phone keeps track of your tastes and preferences and helps enhance your search and future requests. According to Microsoft that is exactly what Cortana does for you: she gets to know you better during your interaction with her and uses it to serve you better.
She has been designed to be socially intelligent. So even in case of something as mundane as a conversation you want to have with a friend or colleague, all you have to do is set a reminder and Cortana will prompt you about it each time you text or call that person. For those of us who just can’t seem to keep things in mind, features like these can truly endear us further to our phones. Of course there’s more to Cortana than just that. Here’s a look at her other capabilities.
Cortana will be a live tile on your device. Apart from mobile devices, Microsoft hopes to create other platforms for its personal assistant too. You can choose your mode of communication with her: if you simply type in a question, she’ll respond without speaking a word to you. On the other hand, if you prefer to talk to her, she can be voice activated too. So whether you ask her for updates on a game, a weather forecast or just ask her to wake you up at the crack of dawn, she’ll do it all on just voice command.
Cortana’s notebook is the foundation for her social intelligence. It has primary components like interests, reminders, quiet hours, inner circle, music searches and settings, which help log your preferences and allow her to use it for future inference. For instance, once you allow her to scan your emails, she can collate flight details and other travel plans from your email, save it in her notebook and prompt you and keep you posted about your flight timings, arrivals and departures. She’ll even keep your boarding pass handy. And during your quiet time, she’ll know if she has to put through a caller to you or not.
Your privacy is factored in too, so your digital assistant displays all this information and relies on your confirmation to proceed with any of these tasks. Going beyond information stored in your phone and that includes emails, reminders and information stored on her notebook, Cortana relies on Foursquare, Bing and other databases to access information for you. Her design is a simple but effective one: two animated circles, one tucked into another, which indicate clearly when she is communicating with you or when she’s busy with a search.
As you can expect out of a personal assistant, Cortana obliges you with information from all portals and tucks into her memory and manages your calendar accordingly. So when the doctor’s assistant confirms your appointment, you can simply tell Cortana to put in your calendar and she will warn you if there are prior engagements that will conflict with your appointment.
Cortana’s speech recognition capabilities too have been developed to enable a rather natural conversation with your digital assistant, making the overall experience very user friendly.
How does Cortana hold up against her competition?
Microsoft’s promise now is that Cortana will go beyond listening to you: she will anticipate your needs and based on your location and preferences, she will execute commands and keep the information ready for you. If you are at an airport terminal and she has your flight details, she will keep your boarding card ready in your phone when you unlock it. If you want to book a hotel room, she will list suggestions based on your budget and your usual specifications without you listing them each time.
While Siri and Google Now too came up with similar concepts, it still remains to be seen if Microsoft can deliver the same with Cortana. Possibly the biggest advantage here is that Cortana will be available for third party developers unlike Siri’s exclusive availability for Apple products and services.
Its compatibility with Skype, Facebook and a few other apps have already been proven, making her ready to reach a much larger audience post her worldwide launch. Cortana has been launched as a beta in the US and will be available across the UK and China by the end of the year as part of Windows Phone 8.1. An exact release date for all regions has not yet been communicated but this looks interesting so far.