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9/13/2013
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Microsoft's Answer To Siri: Cortana

Microsoft reportedly aims to leapfrog iOS's Siri and Android's Google Now with a digital assistant called Cortana.

10 Hidden Benefits of Windows 8.1
10 Hidden Benefits of Windows 8.1
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Microsoft reportedly is readying a virtual assistant for Windows Phone 8 that not only will compete with iOS's Siri and Android's Google Now, but will also serve as the backbone of the entire Windows ecosystem, including tablets, PCs and the Xbox game system.

Allegedly called "Cortana" after the artificially intelligent character in the video game Halo, the technology is at the very least a potentially major upgrade for Windows Phone users. It also could be a validation of Steve Ballmer's "One Microsoft" blueprint, and of the company's cash-hemorrhaging Bing search engine, whose intelligence engine Cortana is expected to use.

Cortana has factored into Windows Phone rumors since June, when a lost Nokia prototype running an early Windows Phone 8.1 build showed up on Craigslist. The updated OS, which is expected in early 2014, contained only references to Cortana at the time, with no functional elements on display.

[ Will Azure play a role? Read Microsoft Azure Grows More Open. ]

Cortana anticipation has been building again in recent days, after several purported Windows 8.1 images leaked online. Citing an inside source, ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley subsequently reported that Microsoft is indeed readying a digital assistant technology, but that it will involve more than smartphones; rather, it will be a "shell" that harnesses the cloud to personalize and unify user experiences across Microsoft devices and services.

Apple's Siri already follows voice commands and intelligently aggregates information in response to certain user queries. Android's Google Now goes a step further in some ways; if the user chooses, it will scan emails, calendars and other data in order to learn more about the user and anticipate his or her needs. Cortana reportedly aims to outdo both competitors thanks to Microsoft's Satori technology, which is currently used in Bing.

Satori powers Bing's Snapshot feature. Snapshot functions like Google's Knowledge Graph, intelligently linking the user to content that's indirectly related to his or her search. If the query is a celebrity's name, for example, Bing not only delivers direct search returns, but also populates a right-hand column with links to the celebrity's Twitter account, Facebook page and other tangential content.

In June, Microsoft used Build, its conference for developers, to illustrate ways the technology might be expanded. A keynote demonstration illustrated, for example, how new Bing APIs will allow Windows devices to perceive the user's geographic location, and to tailor results accordingly. At the time, Microsoft VP Gurdeep Singh Pall said the APIs would allow developers to view Bing as a platform, and to bring the "unbounded knowledge" of the Internet to their apps. If Microsoft can filter the technology through an engaging digital assistant, the company could convince skeptical developers to invest more time in Bing, Windows Phone and the Modern UI, all of which trail their rivals in popularity.

Bing senior developer Stefan Weitz added fuel to the fire in late July, telling CNET that Siri and Google Now "have a fairly shallow understanding of the world," and that Microsoft will not ship a competitor until it can disrupt the market. "We could come out with something like [Siri and Google Now], but it wouldn't be state of the art," he said, noting that Satori's brain is powered by more than 50,000 nodes in Microsoft's cloud.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates and retiring Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer also have chimed in with hints. In the memo that announced the "one Microsoft" restructuring plan, Ballmer wrote that the company's technology "will understand people's needs and what is available in the world, and will provide information and assistance." He said Microsoft services will anticipate each user's daily needs and provide insight when it's needed.

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Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
9/17/2013 | 7:37:41 PM
re: Microsoft's Answer To Siri: Cortana
That's a great point. A speech-based virtual assistant takes more of an investment from the user. The payoff has to be obvious and appealing, and the learning curve can't rely too heavily on awkward commands. There's a lot of complexity in developing for this sort of interaction model that's just not present in other models.
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
9/16/2013 | 8:44:59 PM
re: Microsoft's Answer To Siri: Cortana
It's going to take a long time before people are really comfortable talking to virtual assistants. You can experiment with the Web and figure out how things work but I've yet to see anyone do the same kind of experimentation out load with voice recognition software, perhaps because it's frustrating to speak and not be understood.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
9/16/2013 | 6:16:29 PM
re: Microsoft's Answer To Siri: Cortana
Good point, Michael. Zune didn't learn from iPod, either.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
9/13/2013 | 8:43:43 PM
re: Microsoft's Answer To Siri: Cortana
Lots of good points. Microsoft is talking a good game in the abstract-- but it's all vaporware at this point. Still, if the technology is really supposed to anchor a major part of the "one Microsoft" vision, Microsoft has to believe it has something special, right?
jasonscott
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jasonscott,
User Rank: Strategist
9/13/2013 | 8:34:54 PM
re: Microsoft's Answer To Siri: Cortana
Your question, Lorna, is exactly why Google Now is of so little interest to me: unless I'm missing something, it only does searches. Sure, it may do a better job of presenting the results than Siri, but it's a one-trick pony. If what you want isn't a search, it isn't going to help you.

Siri, on the other hand, can schedule appointments, initiate calls, initiate texts, initiate emails, take dictation, adjust system settings, tell me the weather, get me directions, play my music, set alarms, lookup addresses, and a ton more ... including searching the web for info. Siri is invaluable to me, especially when I'm in the car and can't type or shouldn't be looking at my phone.

For Cortana to improve upon Siri or Now, MS can't just rely upon Bing, it needs to out-Siri Apple with all the local stuff that you're asking about AND out-Now Google's search results. And, if history has shown us anything, it's that MS is a better follower than leader when it comes to such endeavours. MS has an unbeatable ability to make "good enough" copies of others' (often Apple's ... or Google's ... or Netscape's ... or Novell's ... or whomever's) solutions that most folks will be willing to settle for if they can't use the Real McCoy solution for whatever reason.

The natural language translation in MS' TellMe demo video was impressive, but it was just a demo. Apple had a similar one way back in 1987 (the Knowledge Navigator: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v.... The real proof is in the pudding, and I suspect Cortana will be a few ingredients short. Then again, it might just be good enough for the masses.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
9/13/2013 | 7:01:59 PM
re: Microsoft's Answer To Siri: Cortana
Good point. But Microsoft had several years to learn from iOS and Android before it finally launched Windows 8 and Windows RT, and the extra time didn't exactly help. We know Microsoft's been watching and taking notes-- but will it come to the right conclusions? Its potential sounds tantalizing, but the tech industry is littered with the dead carcasses of failed "game changers."
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
9/13/2013 | 6:34:28 PM
re: Microsoft's Answer To Siri: Cortana
Siri quickly lost her charm with many users, but Microsoft will get to learn from Apple's experience.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
9/13/2013 | 4:01:35 PM
re: Microsoft's Answer To Siri: Cortana
That's a great question, Lorna. To some extent, I think so, but it will probably get tricky. It's one thing for Cortana to scan my personal email; it's my email, after all. But if it's a corporate account, I, as the user, wouldn't have the authority to authorize that kind of scan-- at least not without oversight of some kind. How granularly could Microsoft allow IT to restrict content without detracting from Cortana's strengths? If there's a work-personal separation, is it elegant and simple, or is it as clunky and annoying to the end user? Microsoft has all the money and security expertise in the world to throw at this problem. But this is a different sort of puzzle, I think.
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
9/13/2013 | 3:14:37 PM
re: Microsoft's Answer To Siri: Cortana
Michael, Do you see Cortana being able to bridge someone's personal and work content? For example, if I had a Win8 device, could I ask questions based on my corporate Outlook account or even the Word Docs on my PC?
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