• May 5, 2014
  • By Leonard Klie Editor, Speech Technology and CRM magazines
  • FYI

Microsoft Introduces Cortana, Its Answer to Siri

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At its Build developer conference in San Francisco in early April, Microsoft Windows Phone Vice President Joe Belfiore demonstrated a test version of Cortana, a voice-activated personal digital assistant application for Windows Phone.

Rumors had circulated for months that Microsoft was working on a direct rival to Siri, which debuted on Apple's iPhone in 2011, and the Google New application available for Android smartphones and tablets. Cortana is powered by Bing, Microsoft's search engine.

Cortana can respond to conversational requests entered by voice or text input to search the Web, set alarms, manage calendars, make and receive calls, send and receive text messages, control settings and other apps on the phone, take notes, get driving directions, play music, issue reminders, and perform a host of other actions. Cortana can respond with her own voice or text output, which is being outfitted with traits for 16 emotions.

Cortana's voice and persona are based on a character in Halo, a popular video game for Microsoft's Xbox game console. Microsoft also met with real-life personal assistants while designing Cortana, according to Belfiore.

Over time, Cortana becomes a truly personal assistant by learning and storing personal information about the user, including likes and dislikes, interests, locations, personal contacts, and more, in her Notebook, a knowledge database that the system will rely on to deliver more personalized search results.

One area where Cortana separates herself from Apple's Siri is multistep search. When asked to search for a restaurant, Cortana returns one result, based on the data she collected in her Notebook as well as on Yelp reviews. Once the restaurant listing is displayed, the user can say, "Get directions there," and Cortana, unlike Siri, understands that "there" refers to the restaurant she just pulled up. This multistep search creates more of a conversational feel rather than a series of disjointed questions and answers.

"Cortana is the first truly personal digital assistant who learns about me and the things that matter to me most," Belfiore said. "She detects and monitors the stuff you care about, looks out for you throughout the day, and helps filter out the noise so you can focus on what matters to you."

Belfiore said Cortana will be a standard feature on Windows phones. The mobile application should be available in the United States in the first half of this year, in the United Kingdom and China in the second half of this year, and in other countries in 2015.

Mobile industry analyst Jeff Kagan isn't surprised by Microsoft's entry into the space. "Microsoft is finally joining the party," he says. "It started with Apple and then Google and now Microsoft. I don't think many thought that Siri was going to be duplicated, but apparently it's the new battleground."

How successful will Microsoft's entry be? Kagan says Cortana is "needed and wanted," but the world will have to wait and see just how good it is. "If it's as good as Microsoft says, this will be important for [its] growth going forward," he adds.

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