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3/5/2014
03:40 PM
Michael Endler
Michael Endler
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Cortana: Windows Phone 8.1's Killer App?

Halo attracted users to the Xbox. Will digital assistant Cortana do the same for Windows Phone 8.1?

7 Mistakes Microsoft Made In 2013
7 Mistakes Microsoft Made In 2013
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Does Microsoft finally have a killer consumer app? The company hasn't publicly acknowledged Cortana, its much-rumored competitor to Apple's Siri and Google's Google Now. But evidence of Microsoft's alleged digital assistant continues to leak online, pointing to a possible debut in April, when the company is expected to reveal Windows Phone 8.1 at its Build Conference for developers.

Microsoft representatives often point out that Windows devices can "do more" than competitors. In some ways, this is true. Unlike iPads, Windows 8.1 tablets offer true multitasking, and unlike iPhones and Android handsets, Windows Phone devices boast subscription-free access to mobile Office apps. But there's a difference between a product with which people can do more and a product people choose to use -- and lately, consumers and businesses have increasingly chosen non-Windows platforms. That's why Cortana could be so important.

[Is Windows really losing share to Chrome OS? Read Where Are All The Chromebooks?]

Cortana details began trickling out last June, when, in an incident that evokes the iPhone prototype left in a Bay Area bar, a lost Nokia phone ostensibly running an early build of Windows Phone 8.1 was left on a bus and subsequently offered on Craigslist. Since then, new details have been gleaned from the Windows Phone 8.1 SDK, which Microsoft recently pushed to select developers, as well as from new leaks, including a YouTube video posted by the site UnleashThePhones.com that purports to show Cortana in action.

A screenshot from a video posted by UnleashThePhones.com allegedly shows Cortana, Microsoft's rumored competitor to Siri and Google Now.
A screenshot from a video posted by UnleashThePhones.com allegedly shows Cortana, Microsoft's rumored competitor to Siri and Google Now.

Cortana appears to offer many of Siri and Google Now's capabilities, including the ability to address the user by a preferred nickname; answer questions about weather, stocks, and other news; remind users of upcoming appointments and events; and provide context-based recommendations using location-aware services.

It will purportedly appear as a circular icon that will animate when it is processing a request, potentially giving Cortana some personality. The digital assistant unsurprisingly seems to rely on the user's Microsoft account, which will reportedly include granular controls to limit how much personal data, such as emails and calendar appointments, Cortana can scan. Well-connected ZDNet reporter Mary Jo Foley, who accurately reported many pre-released Windows 8.1 details, reported in September that Cortana will eventually expand from Windows Phone to other Microsoft platforms -- a plan that, with Apple now integrating Siri into cars, seems reasonable.

Cortana appears to be at least broadly feature-competitive with market leaders, but to succeed, Microsoft will need to not only deliver superior functionality, but also navigate a potential minefield of security and privacy concerns. Nevertheless, known features aren't what make Cortana enticing; rather, it's the rhetoric with which Microsoft leaders have hinted at the product.

According to ZDNet, Cortana will rely on Microsoft's Satori technology, which is currently used in Bing. Bing director Stefan Weitz teased as much in July, telling CNET that Siri and Google Now offer a "shallow understanding of the world" and that Microsoft would not ship a competitor "until we have something more revolutionary than evolutionary." He commented that Satori is powered by more than 50,000 nodes in Microsoft's cloud.

Retired CEO Steve Ballmer added kindling to the fire in July, when he announced the company's "One Microsoft" reorg. The company's technology "will understand people's needs and what is available in the world, and will provide information and assistance," he wrote in a publicly-released memo, adding, "Our UI will be deeply personalized, based on the advanced, almost magical, intelligence in our cloud that learns more and more over time about people and the world."

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has made similar remarks, stating in July that Microsoft software can become a "powerful assistant" and adding in February, shortly after agreeing to mentor new CEO Satya Nadella, that Microsoft's investments in machine learning are among its most promising.

"Cloud" has probably been the biggest Microsoft buzzword during Nadella's brief tenure -- but "machine learning" hasn't been far behind. The concept played heavily into the company's recently revealed Office 365 roadmap, for example, which seeks to facilitate more collaborative projects by predicting individualized user needs.

The contextually aware, predictive, and personalized technology likely to drive Cortana is about more than smartphones; it's about providing a layer of intelligence and individualization across the entire Windows ecosystem. If successful, it could recast how many Microsoft critics think about investments such as Bing. As a search engine, Bing is a multibillion-dollar loser whose greatest accomplishment has arguably been blocking Google from an all-out monopoly. But as the core of a platform of intelligent and individualized apps, Bing and its underlying technologies aren't as easy to dismiss.

Microsoft execs have been touting Bing as a development platform for more than a year, and the effort hasn't yet proved disruptive to app makers' priorities. The company clearly believes digital experiences will be shaped by the cloud and machine learning, but it needs a focal point to crystalize this enthusiasm. Compared to competitors, Cortana is late to market -- but if Microsoft offers a product that's worth the wait, the company could finally turn a crucial corner in achieving mobile relevance.

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Michael Endler joined InformationWeek as an associate editor in 2012. He previously worked in talent representation in the entertainment industry, as a freelance copywriter and photojournalist, and as a teacher. Michael earned a BA in English from Stanford University in 2005 ... View Full Bio

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luffy1969
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luffy1969,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/21/2014 | 5:22:26 AM
Machine Learning, Bing and Cortana
I am using a Nokia WP8 phone and I am in the Philippines. Since we all know that bing powers WP, I was pleasantly surprised and was thrilled to find out that - as discussed and described in the article - Bing is really a machine learning platform. Iwould like to share a good example.

I have used several Android smartphones and have never been happy or satisfied with how their predictive text input works whether you are searching or send SMS/text message, email or creating a document. Most of the time, I immediately turn it off. Lately, I again tried using the predictive text input since my boss is using a Lenovo smartphone and I can tell there is a big difference in the words that the 2 platform suggests for input.

Whenever I send a text message, I usually do it in the local language (Filipino) and the first few times that i did this on my Lumia, I totally ignored the suggestions but then by my 5th text message, i began to notice that Bing is now suggesting Filipino words together with the tradional english words. Now, that is really smart - for Bing to be able to predict what Filipino word I want to put into my message is really something I boasted to my friends and officemate about it almost to the point of drooling saliva. I was ecstatic to say the least. I acknowledge that Bing really learns and in a big way. Right now, whenever i need to type, Bing can actually predict instantaneously whether i plan to use Filipino or English words for my text message or documents.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
3/5/2014 | 4:44:53 PM
Re: The UI issues
True, anon-- Siri is fun but doesn't always work well. When Apple introduced Siri, I think most people assumed the tech would be a little further along by now. That's why the Microsoft execs' veiled boasting interests me. They play up this sort of "deep learning" predictive tech a lot-- enough to make me think they're confident they can step beyond what Apple and Google have already accomplished. The notion that Microsoft feels confident doesn't necessarily mean anything, given their recent missteps-- but still, all of the hinting has become intriguing.

I didn't mention it in the article, but Microsoft reps talk a lot about natural language technologies too-- which might mean Cortana will address some of the weaknesses you see in Siri (though the Xbox One suggests Microsoft isn't quite there). It's certainly possible Microsoft reps are hyping a product that will simply copy what Apple has already done. But if they're actually prepared to offer a smarter assistant that understands your requests and lives up execs' previous hints-- different story.

 
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
3/5/2014 | 4:37:18 PM
Re: The UI issues
Siri will end up being more than a nice add-on. Voice interfaces are going to become much more common for the Internet of Things, if only to save the cost of building in touch displays. I don't expect Siri or Google Voice Search or Cortana to exhibit deep understanding any time in the next decade but I think voice interaction will become a popular way to communicate simple commands to computers.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
3/5/2014 | 4:36:50 PM
Re: The UI issues
I'm sure Microsoft hopes Cortana will encourage more people to consider Windows Phone-- but there might be more to it than that.

At least some online chatter states Cortana will eventually become cross-platform, extending not just to the rest of the Windows ecosystem, but also to iOS and Android. If Cortana is actually better than Siri, a cross-platform version is interesting; just as Google is ostensibly trying to use Chrome to put a Trojan Horse inside Windows 8, Microsoft could use Cortana to put a Trojan Horse in iPhones. If Cortana is tied to a Microsoft ID, that encourages use of other Microsoft services-- calendars, documents, OneDrive, Skype, etc. I think Microsoft can live with the reality that a lot of people are going to continue to buy iPhones-- as long as Microsoft services are running on most of those iPhones. I suspect Cortana will be WP-exclusive for a while, just as Office has remained exclusive to Windows tablets. But I also expect Nadella will be more aggressive than Ballmer about pursuing cross-platform opportunities.

 
anon8224748607
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anon8224748607,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/5/2014 | 4:32:23 PM
Re: The UI issues
Siri is at best a nice little add-on.  She works some of the time and can understand you...some of the time, so this is not going to be a killer app unless there is something truly unique in the software that allows "common sense computing".

Otherwise this will just be another reason for people to say someone copied Apple

http://techsplyce.wordpress.com/
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
3/5/2014 | 4:21:21 PM
The UI issues
I don't think of Siri first when I think of why people like the Apple user experience. Are you skeptical Cortana could overcome the reluctance of people to embrace the MS mobile UI, readers?
rradina
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rradina,
User Rank: Ninja
3/5/2014 | 4:16:40 PM
Agree: Microsoft Needs To Leap Competitors
Microsoft must leap competitors with Cortana.  The question is, can they do that?  IMO-- this is not generally written into Microsoft's DNA.  Usually they see a good thing, copy it and, arguably, improve it.  Sometimes they make it worse because they pin it to franchise technology.  For instance, Internet Explorer and Windows.  They are still paying for that nearly 20 year-old mistake.  Even today they STILL don't let folks run multiple versions of IE outside of a virtual guest approach.
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