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.
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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.