This week, Microsoft finally unveiled Cortana, its long-rumored digital assistant that will roll out with Windows Phone 8.1.
Like Apple’s Siri and Google Now, Cortana can interpret and act upon voice commands; it also keeps a “notebook” loaded with the user’s personal information, the better to serve up useful data about nearby restaurants, latest sports scores, and more. Other features include event-specific reminders (for example, you can ask your Windows Phone to prod you to bring up a particular topic the next time you call someone) and the ability to serve up a single answer to a query, rather than leave the user to pick through a long list of results.
Cortana—which is named after the artificial-intelligence program that assists Master Chief in the bestselling Halo games—draws the bulk of its power from Microsoft’s Bing search engine. Microsoft’s engineers have spent the past several years improving Bing’s natural-language processing and other back-end services, the better to eventually serve Cortana’s needs.
Will Cortana prove the “killer app” for Windows Phone, which is suffering from low adoption rates? That’s a question Microsoft surely wants answered in the affirmative, although Google and Apple will make any attempt to seize market-share a difficult one. Every year, Apple layers Siri with new features, although the company’s lack of a search engine (aside from the narrowly focused Wolfram Alpha) prevents it from drawing tons of usable data in the same way as Google or Microsoft. And Google has made no secret of its intention to make voice-activated search and services the center of its consumer efforts going forward; Google Now is only getting more prominent and powerful.
For developers, app-builders and startups, this means one thing: voice control is coming in a big way, and software over the next few years will need to adjust accordingly. For example, rumors suggest that Apple is working on ways to integrate Siri with third-party apps in a way that doesn’t require a one-to-one business arrangement between Apple and the app’s creator. In light of that, it’s perhaps worth sketching out whether voice control would boost your app’s usability and feature-set.
- Will Cortana Help Windows Phone?
- Siri vs. Google Now vs. Cortana
- Forget Voice: Is Gesture Control the Next Big Thing for Devices?