Nikhil SubramaniamApr 04, 2014 15:29:57 IST
Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8.1 update gives us a lot of reasons to be excited about the platform. Chief among them is Cortana, the know-it-all (if you allow her to) digital assistant, that’s being seen as the Siri or Google Now killer. But is it? Before we get to the point where we can answer that question, let’s take a closer look at what Cortana can do.
For the uninitiated, Cortana was first seen in Halo, one of the cornerstones of Xbox 360’s success. In the game, Cortana is an artificial intelligence being, which guides the Master Chief during the course of the game. The idea is that legions of Xbox fans will relate to the name and would no further introduction the concept, because just like in Halo, Cortana will take care of you during the course of your Windows Phone experience.
From what we saw when Joe Belfiore first fired up Cortana on stage at the BUILD keynote, the assistant has a very light presence, even though the functionality is deeply integrated. And there are some neat touches, that really deliver the personalised feel that Microsoft is aiming for.
Cortana will show up as a hollow ring on your phone when it has something to say to you and it can even express a few ‘emotions’ when that’s called for. Expect it to become animated and happy when you favourite team wins or sad when they have had a bad day on field. It’s a simple yet powerful concept, one that will make any user feel as if Cortana is really happy or sad with them. It's also funny, as demonstrated by Belfiore on stage. When he asked Cortana about the next Halo game, he got a stern "You are not authorised for that information" in reply.
When you first call upon Cortana, it will try to get information about you, your likes, your relations and also ask for access to your email, messages etc. Users can decide which information should be shared with Cortana, which will be stored in a Notebook. The Notebook is easily editable so you can add or remove entries as and when you please. It’s a really neat take on selective sharing, which is reassuring for users who may think Cortana is a little too intrusive.
Based on the information shared with the app, Cortana will present contextual alerts, similar to how we see cards in Google Now. These include live scores, travel itinerary, reminders, calendar appointments etc. The list is practically endless as Microsoft says third-party app makers will have access to Cortana APIs to make use of the digital assistant to perform actions within their app.
Cortana is obviously powered by Bing, just like Siri, but unlike Siri, it gets to make full use of all of Bing’s various platform services as well as its partners. So if you want to look for the best restaurants around you, it will show you the top rated results from Yelp. This is of course standard in Siri and Google Now too, but Cortana goes a step further and modifies the result based on your query.
The Verge says, “If you search for "What’s the best restaurant near me" you won’t get a big list of results like you do with Siri, you’ll get a single restaurant that’s rated the best in the area by Yelp users.”
One of the USPs of Cortana is that it can prompt you with reminders when it comes to yoru contacts, just like a real assistant. If you tell your personal assistant to remind you to talk about next month’s board meeting with your CFO when you meet him later in the day, they make a note and remind you. Similarly, Cortana will send you an alert for a specific requirement when it comes to your contacts. Want to be told to talk to your roommate about getting a pet dog? Cortana can do that, when it sees you getting a call from him or sees an incoming message. It’s a small addition, but none of its rivals yet have that capability.
Another impressive feature is the stepped voice search feature. So you ask Cortana about the weather in London, but it tells you the temperature in Fahrenheit, which you are not accustomed to. Simply say, “How about in Celsius?” without repeating the whole question and you will get a more familiar looking result. Similarly, it can understand when you continue asking questions related to a previous query, such as saying ‘Call it’ to book a table, after searching for streetside cafes in your area.
Google showed off such search capabilities during I/O last year when it revamped the desktop search experience to bring in voice-based hotwords and natural language recognition, but Google Now still lacks this functionality. It’s rumoured to be included in the next major update for Google Now, which is expected to be announced at Google I/O in June.
Microsoft says that Cortana work is ongoing and we should expect improvements to the app in the coming months, even after the official roll-out. And this could be the biggest stumbling block as far as Cortana is concerned. It’s taken Microsoft considerable time to add some much-desired features in Windows Phone. But Siri and Google Now have a headstart, which is their greatest advantage. With Microsoft still trying to build on the initial features of Cortana, it could be caught in a cycle of development, while its rivals push out newer features.
At the moment, Cortana will be in beta mode with a US-only release followed by other markets. So Cortana will have a limited user base initially, which is great for bug testing, but not so much for adoption. Windows Phone has been very successful in non-English speaking markets such as Latin America, parts of Europe, the Middle East, India and South East Asia. Voice recognition support for various accents will still take some time.
Cortana looks and feels like any modern digital assistant, and Microsoft has gone to great lengths to ensure that it feels truly personal and works just as well on high-end as well as entry-level phones, but it has to push the pedal on speed of development.
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