Yes, that Cortana. Fresh leaked footage (see the video below from Unleash The Phones.com) has shown us the first images of Microsoft’s new Siri and Google Now-competitor in action – though details are still lacking in the lead-up to its unveiling alongside Windows Phone 8.1.
There’s reason to be sceptical here, and not just because this feature’s fictional Halo namesake was most recently seen going insane due to poor programming: Never forget that this is the company that brought you Clippy, the dreaded “helpful” Office paperclip.
Microsoft owns a number of speech recognition and synthesis technologies, along with the second-biggest English search engine, but this will be its first real stab at bringing them together into a consumer-ready whole. Complicating matters is the fact that Cortana isn’t just a mobile helper, but is being positioned as a central feature of the Windows brand – for desktop, mobile, and even Xbox One.
When it comes to Windows Phone, “Me three!” has seemed like Microsoft’s rallying cry. Since the platform’s launch in late 2010, the company has released precious few meaningful software updates, struggling mostly to keep its app store populated with the top 10 sellers on Android and iOS. However, personal assistant software has the potential to define and differentiate smartphone brands over the next few years – and what Microsoft’s mobile strategy needs most is an identity. That they’ve decided to name that identity Cortana is… interesting… but she could still end up changing the value proposition for phone buyers.
Microsoft wants Cortana to do much more than just listen, Bing search, and speak results aloud; in the same vein as Google Now, Cortana will attempt to learn your schedule and preferences, manage your social obligations, and constantly bring useful or desired information to the fore. It wants to learn your goals, both immediate (“going to the store”) and abstract (“When going out to events, I’m most often interested in learning”). Late last year, former CEO Steve Ballmer called its technology an “advanced, almost magical, intelligence in our cloud that learns more and more over time about people and the world.”
That might not be much of an exaggeration. Microsoft has spent years constructing its own knowledge engine called Satori, much like Wolfram Alpha and Google’s own search assistant. While Satori would be hard-pressed to beat Wolfram in a test of pure mathematics, its intent is much more general. Like that program, it attempts to interpret questions posed in natural language, find the corresponding data, and reconstruct that data into a sensibly organised answer from scratch. However, Satori is meant to do that in response to the much more varied (and often nonsensical) demands put to general purpose search engines.
It’s one thing to ask a search engine which actors are in a movie – but another thing entirely to pose more complex questions, like which local Indian place has the best butter chicken, or how inflation has progressed in the pound over its history (on a log scale, please). Microsoft has provided the rather odd example of learning about whale migration patterns while you whale-watch – the point they seem to be making is that Satori is an extremely ambitious project, one aimed at computationally mapping the interrelationships between literally every facet of the world. They want Satori to understand the aesthetics of colour and the psychology of weather, the mathematics of baseball and the broadly predictable aspects of human behaviour.
On paper, Cortana combines many of the best parts of Apple and Google’s assistant offerings. Like Siri, Cortana is a named personality with a (still unknown) voice. Like Google Now, she tries to worm her way into your life to the point that, when faced with buying a new handset, she’s the only one you can imagine trusting to organise your life’s back-end.
As interesting as all this might sound, it’s coming at arguably the worst possible time. People are just now beginning to distrust the motivations of their most inquisitive electronic devices. Microsoft will have to go a long way to convince people that Cortana’s insight will never be given to advertisers – or governments. A feature called the Notebook will allow users to specifically tailor (and restrict) what types of information Cortana can access. This is also, presumably, where users could choose to turn off Cortana’s purported passive listening features.
Remember though: While Satori is a nice name, other companies have been working on much the same functionality with less fanfare, and for just as long. Just as Microsoft wants Satori to power Cortana through its integration with Bing, so does Google use its databases to power Now through Google Search. Interestingly, Satori looks to be slightly more curated than Google’s databases, with Microsoft specifically refusing to draw information from Wikipedia – sticklers, rejoice!
All three major mobile software companies can see the computational writing on the wall, but Microsoft’s place in distant third means it is perhaps best positioned to rebuild its brand entirely around the assistant feature. A strong launch across multiple platforms could be just the shot of energy that Windows Phone (badly) needs, a genuine value feature to offset the so-called “app gap” and the less traditional user interface. The assistant is set to launch with Windows Phone 8.1 at the upcoming Build conference in early April.