As Microsoft unveiled their new Windows Phone 8.1 software update yesterday, undoubtedly the most memorable takeaway was their showcase of Cortana. Competing directly against Apple's Siri and Google's Now, Cortana is Microsoft's entry into the digital voice assistant fray, and the official replacement to their search app.
Cortana's name and voice are adapted directly from the AI in Microsoft's Xbox Halo game, and she's meant to be aware, informative, and at times a little fun.
Powered by Bing, Cortana stores information about you in a Notebook, allowing you to view and modify the information that is keep in the service.
Much of the information stored can be figured out automatically, either through previous searches, location data, etc. But you will also have the ability to add and edit information manually, giving you complete control over what Cortana knows about you.
Possibly the biggest advantage over Siri is Cortana's people-based reminders, an aspect of their event-based reminders. Instead of a simple "remind me to call mom", you can say something to the effect of "next time I speak to mom, remind me to tell her I won the lottery." Check out the video below around the 36 second mark to see an example.
Now the next time you call mom, you'll see Cortana's reminder right on the call screen. And of course it's not just limited to calls, as you could also say "next time I'm at work, remind me to email Nelson".
Mimicking a feature found in Google Now is Cortana's contextual awareness. Simply put, this feature allows for a more conversational type of communication, rather than one way. Check out this example of search for a sushi restaurant, obtaining the relevant results, and retrieving directions and traffic information:
As you can see, the second query didn't require the name of the restaurant, as you can simply ask for directions to the "1st one".
As another example, let's say you're curious about Bill Clinton. You can ask "Where is Bill Clinton from?", get your answer, and then ask "How old is he?". Based on your previous query, Cortana knows that you're referring to ol' Slick Willy when you say "he" in the follow up question.
A separate, but smart aspect to this "awareness" is typing questions or searches into Cortana. We're not always going to be in a position to speak to our assistant—concerts, crowded bars and restaurants—and when typing in a query, Cortana is smart enough to hold off on the verbal feedback. She assumes that if we're not in a position to speak, we're also not in a position to easily hear the response.
Cortana also integrates seamlessly with a large number of third-party apps. Using Hulu Plus as an example, you can ask Cortana to add shows to playlists, which launches the app, sets the playlist, and exits back to Cortana. Of course, you can also play shows directly from Cortana's UI.
Oh, snap! Cortana's "personality" is something Microsoft put a lot of work into, and that's obvious when you ask certain questions. As a Microsoft engineer said, "She's charming, especially for a circle."
Of course Siri has jokes too, but there's just something about Cortana's delivery makes it seem less contrived than her counterparts. Truth be told, I sort of cracked up at the "space man" joke.
What are your thoughts on Cortana? She seems like a home run for Microsoft, enough that I may consider a switch from Android. Of course, I have a lot faith in Google Now, and many of Cortana's features (contextual awareness, a "Notebook" like database) are already baked into Now—plus, my world is currently powered by Google services, making the switch much harder to Microsoft Bing and Live.
So while the comparison is more on par to Google Now, it's Apple that should be worried here. Lots of third-party voice assistants are capable of doing as much or more than Siri, and Cortana just blew her out of the water. Of course, now that Microsoft has played their hand, Apple has a few months to catch up before they unveil the iPhone 6, and presumably the next iteration of iOS and Siri.