Cortana: Windows Phone's Answer to Siri?
Apple's iPhone has Siri and Android has Google Now, but it looks like Microsoft is developing its own counterpart: a virtual assistant based on the Halo character "Cortana." In fact, "she has the potential to be a star for Microsoft," said analyst Rob Enderle. "Xbox is Microsoft's strongest platform and Halo is the strongest brand, with Cortana being the cutest character."
For players of Microsoft's Halo video game series, the computer AI character known as "Cortana" can do much more than just provide directions and plot advances in the game. Soon, however, Cortana could become part of Windows Phone users' real lives as well.
Specifically, rumor has it that a Cortana app is in the works and could arrive on Windows Phone early next year. Much like the artificial-intelligence character from the Halo series, Cortana in app form is meant to be a virtual assistant that can learn and adapt similar in many ways to Apple's Siri and Android's Google Now. It will likely rely on machine-learning technology as well as the "Satori" knowledge repository that powers Microsoft's Bing search engine.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, in fact, alluded to such a feature back in July when he announced the company's reorganization.
"Our UI will be deeply personalized, based on the advanced, almost magical, intelligence in our cloud that learns more and more over time about people and the world," Ballmer wrote at the time. "Our shell will natively support all of our essential services, and will be great at responding seamlessly to what people ask for, and even anticipating what they need before they ask for it."
Microsoft did not respond to our request for further details.
More Than a Pleasing Voice
Cortana is much more than just a voice-recognition system with a recognizable and arguably pleasing voice. While it is based on a popular character, Cortana is also meant to become an integrated component of the new interface for Windows across its various platforms.
Why a gaming character?
"In itself it doesn't bring something that crucial to the table," said Mike Morgan, senior analyst for mobile devices at ABI Research. "Having this functionality brings something, and that is a step forward towards being able to have greater interaction with a device.
"Microsoft has quite a bit of experience with speech recognition technology," Morgan told TechNewsWorld. "Using the Halo character is just the packaging, and is just the voice. There is the likelihood that the voice could be changed."
Yet while Microsoft has created quite the franchise with Halo, Cortana isn't exactly the face of the game.
"It is a bit 'inside baseball,'" Billy Pidgeon, independent video game and social media analyst, told TechNewsWorld, referring to the popular metaphor. "However, the target audience is clearly wider than gamers, and this could work as long as the voice is properly implemented.
"It could actually be great for marketing as well," Pidgeon added. "It won't put people off that it is based on a game character, and those who do know the character will likely enjoy it. There aren't really any negatives to using the character."
Throughout the Halo series, Cortana helps direct Master Chief -- the persona the player takes on -- and serves to aid him. If anything, Cortana acts very much as reliable and trusted assistant.
"What this really comes down to is how well the system works," Pidgeon noted. "It certainly is a lot more than the voice."
'Microsoft Is in a Good Position'
Cortana is clearly intended as Microsoft's answer to Siri, the voice assistant for the iPhone. However, users' results with Siri have seemed to vary widely.
"No speech recognition is perfect," Morgan noted. "We're brainwashed by things like Star Trek, where someone merely says, 'computer' and it works to complete the task.
"That is the ideal goal, and we're getting closer to it," Morgan added, "but even Watson -- the IBM supercomputer that competed on Jeopardy -- wasn't technically relying on voice recognition."
Instead, questions were provided to Watson via text strings.
"The assistant capabilities are layered on top of the recognition technology," explained Morgan. "The tasks are handled either on a device itself or performed in the cloud, and Microsoft is in a good position because it can do either."
More importantly than its current capabilities on the technical front, however, may be Cortana's ability to tie tougher the various Microsoft ecosystems.
"In a greater sense, using this Halo voice allows Microsoft to extend the various pieces beyond their Xbox family and into their mobile device family, Morgan suggested.
'The Potential to Be a Star'
There is also little denying that Microsoft's Windows Phone could benefit from a "hot" character, and Cortana is arguably hot in more ways than one.
"She is an attractive character, and she has the potential to be a star for Microsoft," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group. "Xbox is Microsoft's strongest platform and Halo is the strongest brand, with Cortana being the cutest character. The Marine [Master Chief] wouldn't have the same impact."
In short, Cortana could appeal beyond gamers, Enderle told TechNewsWorld.
"Microsoft could show that Siri is out of date," he said, "and Cortana is the hot and current AI assistant that you can trust."