But arguably the best representation of Cortana's potential dates back to 2011, well before the current crop of rumors had begun to sprout. Microsoft produced a video to demonstrate how TellMe, the speech-recognition technology it acquired in 2007, might evolve. The video focuses on a smartphone interface that superficially resembles the iPhone's Siri, but that is substantially more responsive to conversational language. The Microsoft virtual assistant is shown handling complex requests with ease; rather than simply aggregating Web returns, for example, it makes complex recommendations that involve the user's location, friends' recommendations, and even criteria such as whether a venue has open-air space. The video shows the virtual assistant's content being easily transferred to a TV, where users use a gesture-based interface to engage content. It also shows the content on a tablet with a vaguely tile-based UI.
The video, in other words, depicts a blueprint in which personalized information is automatically shared between Windows Phone 8 handsets, Windows 8 tablets and TVs connected to the Xbox One. It's the "one Microsoft" ideal in the flesh: Many products combined into a single, cohesive and unique user experience.
[ Is Microsoft targeting the right audience? Read Microsoft's Journey May Leave Too Many Behind. ]
If Microsoft releases a digital assistant that actually leapfrogs competitors, it could bolster many of the "one Microsoft" strategies of which investors are most suspicious. Even if the technology is only available on smartphones when it launches, it would bolster Windows Phone 8, which has solidified itself as the third major handset platform, behind Android and iOS, and which is making impressive gains in emerging markets. Apple's failure to meaningfully improve Siri has been one of iOS's ongoing letdowns, and Microsoft could send a powerful message if it reaches the next stage ahead of its rivals.
Indeed, if Microsoft expands Cortana into a larger, ecosystem-wide service, the impact could be immense. Microsoft has tried so far to sell Windows 8 on the strength of laptop-tablet convergence, and on mobile access to Microsoft Office. Neither tactic has worked, and many have criticized Microsoft's insistence on pursuing consumers. If Cortana delivers a unified experience that lives up to Weitz's grandstanding, Microsoft could have the killer consumer app that it needs, one that not only sells individual products but also incentivizes users to adopt other products within the Windows ecosystem.
Cortana would also demonstrate why Microsoft has resisted investor pressure to abandon Bing. The search engine has lost billions of dollars, and even its defenders credit it mostly for blocking Google's would-be monopoly. But if Bing becomes the lifeblood of other product lines and revenue streams, Microsoft's persistence could prove wise in the long run. It would blend the Windows RT kernel, Bing, Azure and a number of other disparate technologies under a single user experience, achieving the kind of product cohesion that Ballmer's critics say the company has lacked under his leadership.
It's not clear how quickly Microsoft will debut Cortana, nor how much functionality the assistant will have if it debuts with Windows Phone 8.1. There is also no known timeline for Cortana's expansion to other elements of the Windows ecosystem. But Microsoft demonstrated with its Nokia acquisition that it is serious about catching up in the mobile arena. A truly cutting-edge digital assistant could be just the weapon it needs to lead the charge.