In the Halo video-game series, Cortana is the AI system tasked with guiding Master Chief—that’s the player—through all sorts of interstellar nastiness. While Cortana occasionally takes holographic form as a blue woman, she’s usually a voice advising the Chief about the aliens about to perforate him.
Most smartphone users don’t face galactic warfare on a daily basis, but Microsoft is reportedly borrowing the “Cortana” moniker for the digital-assistant technology it’s developing in-house. According to ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley, the Cortana app will allow users to interact with Windows Phones via voice commands; the system will leverage machine learning and other analytics tools to anticipate users’ needs and wants. Microsoft hasn’t officially confirmed Cortana’s existence, but recent statements from Microsoft executives hint that such digital-assistant software is indeed in the works; and considering how Apple and Google already have similar products on the market, it would be odd if Microsoft didn’t follow its usual modus operandi and produce its own version.
Mary Jo Foley thinks that the digital assistant is a key reason why Microsoft won’t sell or shut down Bing, despite the company’s Online Services division continuing to burn through money at a terrifying clip: the technologies underlying the search engine, particularly the ability to index objects, could come in useful in Cortana.
But if and when Cortana finally comes to life, it will face quite a bit of hardy competition on a number of fronts. This is the theme of Microsoft’s recent years, and the fate that awaits many a so-called “fast follower” in the current tech environment: unless the product from a “first mover” company fails in some spectacular way, it’s often difficult for rivals hitting the market years later to gain any sort of significant advantage. That’s the difficulty many companies have faced when trying to battle the iPad, and it’s harmed Microsoft’s efforts over the past few years to compete in the mobile and consumer arenas.
Cortana’s biggest rival is Google Now, Google’s own digital assistant. Google Now can access a trove of user data, allowing it to anticipate daily needs—for example, it will pop up “cards” showing an Amazon delivery en-route, or the amount of traffic on the morning commute. Google is committed to Google Now to the point where the technology is a central element in the new Moto X smartphone from Motorola (Google’s hardware subsidiary).
Although Apple’s Siri isn’t quite as advanced as Google Now, it’s rapidly iterating into a more comprehensive form; if Apple decides to make voice activation a key element in subsequent versions of iOS—and figures out how to flood more user data through its system—Google could end up with a real fight on its hands.
Google and Apple aren’t the only players out there. Facebook recently acquired Mobile Technologies, which builds speech-recognition and machine translation software. “Voice technology has become an increasingly important way for people to navigate mobile devices and the web, and this technology will help us evolve our products to match that evolution,” Tom Stocky, director of product management at Facebook, wrote in a note posted on his Facebook wall. “We believe this acquisition is an investment in our long-term product roadmap as we continue towards our company’s mission.”
That acquisition fueled rumors that Facebook intends to incorporate voice control into its mobile apps in some way, possibly in conjunction with its much-maligned Facebook Home app for Android. If that indeed proves the case, Facebook’s size would pretty much guarantee it emerges as a major player in the digital-assistant arena.
So that’s the competition facing Cortana (again, if and when such a system emerges). Master Chief had it easier facing down hordes of ravenous aliens.
Image: 343 Industries