Move Over Siri: Microsoft Unveils Cortana Digital Assistant

By Jessica Binns, Contributing Writer — April 08, 2014

It took a while, but Microsoft finally is giving Siri an archrival with the debut of Windows Phone virtual personal assistant Cortana, inspired by the character of the same name from its popular Halo video game.

One of the biggest highlights of the Windows Phone 8.1 update announced at the BUILD developer conference, Cortana aims to level the playing field among smartphone platforms by delivering features similar to those provided by Apple’s Siri and Google Now on Android—and even brings some new capabilities to the table.

She’s all that?
Personal assistants always seem to be designated as female (though it’s unclear why) and Cortana draws “her” search functionality from Bing. Microsoft claims that Cortana’s abilities and usefulness improve over time and instead of simply assuming you’re interested in something, she’ll inquire first whether or not you might want to know more. “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,” wrote Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president and manager for Windows Phone Program Management, in his Microsoft blog.

Cortana is accessible either via a live tile on the home screen or by pressing the search button and responds to requests via voice and text—and for typed inquiries, she won’t speak back in case you’re not in a voice-friendly situation.

Similar to competitors, Cortana is designed to keep users abreast of core interests such as flights, weather, news and stock information based on their searches and on scans of their emails, and can make helpful recommendations such as the ideal time to leave for the airport based on current traffic conditions. But Cortana goes one step further by integrating with third-party apps, which means users can ask her to help compose a tweet or place a call via Skype, for example.

While the app integration might be a competitive advantage, it remains to be seen whether consumers and enterprises alike recognize it as such and buy into the Windows Phone platform specifically because of this offering, notes Wes Miller, research analyst for Directions on Microsoft in an email interview with Mobile Enterprise.

“The real key is in how well Cortana works in practice from both a voice recognition and speech presentation perspective, which you may recall were both common criticisms of Siri early on,” he said. “Results were unreliable, slow, or wrong, and speech was far from great.”
 
Drawing from how real-life personal assistants manage preferences and notes, Microsoft designed Cortana’s Notebook as the central hub where all of the information tailored for the phone user is stored.

Text Faster Than Ever
For texting addicts, the new Word Flow keyboard lets users glide their fingers over the keypad to type quickly, such that a 15-year-old used the new technology to break the Guinness World Record for fastest text message (previously held by the popular Swype keyboard) written on a touchscreen phone in January.

Given the restrictions (or bans) on texting in certain situations due to the distraction it poses, Word Flow is designed to help users text without looking at the screen, leveraging “muscle memory” and shape writing in order to do so. Texters who shape-write draw a line from one letter to another in the word they’re trying to spell, keeping their fingers on the keyboard all the while.

Data Dump
Two additional features, Data Sense and Wi-Fi Sense, aim to help users manage and conserve their data usage. Data Sense keeps tabs on how many bytes users have gobbled up, and if approaching the monthly data limit, it goes so far as to compress images during web surfing in order to minimize data consumption. Data Sense will also steer users to Wi-Fi whenever possible.

Similarly, Wi-Fi Sense auto connects to free public hotspots whenever possible so that users can conserve their data plans. Users can toggle Wi-Fi on and off via Wi-Fi sense and leverage Cortana to enable Wi-Fi when they’re in a designated favorite place.

IT-Friendly
Ever the friend of the enterprise, Microsoft built in some features that should satisfy security-conscious IT managers. In Windows Phone 8.1, IT gets customizable MDM enrollment and enhanced VPN, MDM policy and line-of-business application support. “The security and management features in Windows Phone 8.1 features should help businesses more readily justify Windows Phone, but unfortunately here the platform is playing catch-up to competitors in many cases,” according to Miller. “Still, the business-focused features could help in business-centric scenarios where businesses themselves, not consumers, are buying and provisioning the devices.”

AirWatch by VMWare already is supporting the new Windows Phone release on its MDM platform. “Customers will be able to take immediate advantage of the new Windows Phone 8.1 features for the enterprise on the day of release, as they leverage AirWatch for centralized management of their ecosystem of Microsoft enterprise solutions and devices,” said John Marshall, senior vice president and general manager, AirWatch by VMware.

“The pace of mobile innovation continues to accelerate, and by providing same-day support for Microsoft’s update, we enable our customers to smoothly execute on their next generation of mobile initiatives," he adds

New Devices
Three new Lumia smartphones based on Windows Phone 8.1 were also introduced at the event. Nokia confirmed that Windows Phone 8.1 is scheduled to be available across the entire Lumia Windows Phone 8 portfolio as an over-the-air update this summer following testing and partner approvals.

At-a-glance:
-The Nokia Lumia 930 is its flagship smartphone, meant to deliver the best of Microsoft and Lumia for the ultimate video and imaging experience.
-The Nokia Lumia 635 and Nokia Lumia 630 offer an uncompromised Windows Phone 8.1 experience and bring Microsoft and Lumia innovations to more affordable prices.
-The Nokia Lumia 630 comes in two variants and introduces more choice as the first Lumia with dual-SIM, targeted for growth markets like China and India.
-New devices introduce 'SensorCore', which provides innovative low-power motion sensing with Bing Health and Fitness - SensorCore SDK also being piloted with select partners ahead of public release.
- Imaging SDK 1.2 BETA is an updated Nokia Lumia SDK that will enable developers to build the next generation of imaging and social apps.
-The entire Lumia range with Windows Phone 8 will get an over-the-air update called Lumia Cyan, which will combine Windows Phone 8.1 and unique Lumia features into one update package.

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