Last week, on the weekly, our hosts discussed an interesting rumor that Microsoft was going to try and feed off its “cool” product, the X-Box and put Cortana on Windows Phone. “Cortana”, for those of you who are familiar with sunlight, is the sexy-in-a-girl-next-doorish-kind-of-way voice of the AI computer in X-Box’s flagship game, Halo. The theory here is that the name “Cortana” will evoke wonderful memories of death and explosions in twenty- and thirty somethings around the world, and they’ll all rush out to buy new phones.
This is not the first time Microsoft has tried something like this. Next time you pick up your Windows Phone – the three percent of you that have them – pop open that “Games” app and swipe to the left once. See that stick figure that is supposed to look vaguely like how you think you look? That’s Microsoft’s branding right there. Bringing the X-box name to Windows Phone hasn’t really done a whole heck of a lot for the platform thus far. Will Cortana succeed where your avatar has failed?
Well, for one thing, Windows Phone needs a new voice interface. I dubbed mine baby-Siri back in the day because that is essentially what it amounts to. I’ve had a fair amount of success using it – though not as much as I’d like. But it sure kicks the crap out of S-Voice. But then again, I’ve met drunken, homeless folk who would make better personal assistants than S-Voice, so it’s not a fair comparison.
I’m not so much excited about the Cortana name, nor the return of Jen Taylor starring in the role of adolescent-Siri. What I’m looking forward to most is the presence of an actual Siri-like service on Windows Phone. The current incarnation is OK. I’m not so sure I’d go as far as to call it “good”, but it’s OK. If you are sending a text while driving, or dictating a number or looking for a contact, baby-Siri’s got your back, as long as you’re willing to make a few attempts. But for things beyond that, Cortana needs to step up in a big way.
First of all, voice dictation needs to be an option anywhere, not just when you start an action with it. There needs to be a button on the keyboard, or in every text box that initiates Cortana’s dictation, similar to what Samsung and Swiftkey do on Android. There are too many times when talking is just easier. I’m not saying I wanna go all ‘Michael Fisher’ on my phone, but I’d like to have the option.
Second, Cortana needs to get all up in yo bidness. She needs to have access to phone books, texts, emails, calendar, Bing, and everywhere else Siri does. Otherwise, what’s the point? Now is not the time to not measure up. So Cortana needs to be able to search (ok fine, use Bing if you must), locate maps, add calendar entries, take dictation on short memos – all of it. Who cares if no one uses those features on Siri? They’re there, so do it, Microsoft. Better to have it and not need it.
The Halo man (girl) cometh
But what’s more, I would like Cortana to be as close to the Halo version as possible. I’d like to see Microsoft mix in a little Moto X love into that Kool-aid and have Cortana initiate by voice alone. Sure long pressing the Windows button on the phone is easy enough, but it doesn’t help if my phone’s in my pocket and I’m on Bluetooth. I want to say “Hello Cortana, give me some farkin’ Anthrax,” and have Scott Ian show up and personally kick my teeth in. It’d be ideal if the same tech that the Moto X uses to have that always on listening could be applied to future Lumias. For legacy hardware, I’d settle for screen on or bluetooth key press to bring Cortana to my beck and call.
Again, this is not the time for half-measures. This is time to go all in or go home. When you’re pinning the best brand name you can on this product, you need to have the product be exceptional. Otherwise you may as well call it Herman the voice buddy. I’m not saying that “Cortana” is the be all end all of names, but in the gaming world (I’m told) Cortana is a pretty big deal (I’m told) so let’s try not to screw her up, eh Microsoft.
Make it huge, make it ubiquitous, and make it work. Make it work with double the success rate of any other voice interface (for reference, see: Google Voice Search). Otherwise, introduce Herman to the world and pray he doesn’t schedule appointments for 4:00AM instead of PM.