Windows Phone, being the youngest of the major mobile platforms, is comparatively feature light. There are holes in its offerings, such as application support, no centralized notification center, and even customization options for end users. As petty as any one of these missing features may seem, together – paired with the other, tiny idiosyncrasies – are far more important and difficult to overlook.
Android and iOS, on the other hand, have received several major point updates since their launch and have both physically and visually matured an impressive amount. They’re still far from perfect, but they’re much more refined and fully-fledged.
Windows Phone 8.1 was officially announced just hours ago at Microsoft’s Build conference in San Francisco. Some of Windows Phone’s longstanding shortcomings will soon be addressed with this forthcoming update, such as home screen customization, customized lock screens, Action Center (notifications), Quiet Hours, a gesture-based keyboard, and more. That alone is a major win for Windows Phone users.
But there is one massive reason 8.1 will be an important pivot point for the struggling platform: Cortana.
Rumored for months, Windows Phone’s personal assistant service is no secret. Its announcement at Build isn’t terribly surprising – or mind-blowing. We’ve known of the personal assistant and its nickname, Cortana (from the popular Halo series), for months now.
The question was, how will Cortana compare with Apple’s Siri service, which has been around since 2011, or Google Now, a more in-depth and context-aware assistant found on Android and available on iOS via the Google Search app? What more could Microsoft bring to the table than Google? Could Cortana be a selling feature for Windows Phone, given its ties to Halo and the nerd factor which encapsulates it?
The fact of the matter is, it didn’t matter what Cortana brought to the table. The fact that Windows Phone would be receiving a voice-controlled assistant was good enough for most who are already invested in the Windows Phone platform and Microsoft services; it, at the very least, would bring Windows Phone up to speed in one of the standout areas of Android and iOS.
Let’s be honest, the voice search function of Windows Phone 8 (and prior) was a joke, by comparison, and any improvement on that would be welcomed by any and all.
Microsoft didn’t let that simple fact affect its approach to the relatively new world of digital assistants, though. Cortana is, in its own right, an impressive service – at least according to Joe Belfiore’s demonstration a Build earlier today.
Belfiore first showed off Cortana’s more playful side, alluding to the fact that it’s a lot like Siri, with some neat parlor tricks. It’s not strictly business, which is a good thing, given its core nature – a real life incarnation of Halo’s AI.
That said, the more Belfiore demonstrated, the more this digital assistant seemed to resemble the functionality of Google Now. Unlike Siri, which simply responds to voice queries, Cortana is much more like Google Now in that it’s context aware, and the more the user calls upon the service, the more it learns about its user. It learns the sports teams you like to follow, stocks you’re interested in, the places you frequent, the people you connect with regularly, and offers suggestions based on the tidbits of information it gathers over time.
In fact, we’d say the resemblance in feature sets between Cortana and Google Now is striking. And if that were the end of the story, we’d be completely happy.
However, it doesn’t end there. Microsoft’s assistant has a few more features up its sleeve, features that you won’t find on Google Now or Siri. One, it’s incredibly granular in how much information it learns. It learns the people you connect with, it learns your relationship, and it can help you build reminders around those people. Belfiore demonstrated creating a reminder to ask his sister about her new puppy the next time he talks to her, regardless of how they connect next – email, text, voice call, etc.
What if Cortana gets it wrong? It mistakes some relationship, or it picks up on a place you frequent that you don’t want or need notifications for. The Notebook is where Cortana stores the things she’s learned about you. You can add and delete information from the notebook as you see fit. You can also edit the information Google Now delivers, but the level of customization and personalization in Cortana, at least from what we’ve seen thus far, extends far beyond the capabilities of Google Now.
But there’s an even larger difference. Cortana learns its user by information on the phone, not the cloud. Google Now picks up information from your web searches – from your computer, tablet, or phone. Cortana is device-specific. That’s a major plus for those worried about privacy or Big Brother, but it also means it could be quite a while before Cortana gets to know you too well.
You can type queries, make contextual commands, such as “Give me that in Celsius,” and the most impressive feature of all: speak commands to third-party apps. With Siri and Google Now, you can launch applications. With Cortana, you can launch apps, but you can also tag commands into the query. First, state the app, then state the command. For instance, “Facebook, what’s going on with [friend's name]?” Facebook will launch and pull up your friend’s timeline without any more user input. This works for only a select set of compatible apps, but third-party developers will have access to APIs, which will expand the functionality tenfold.
Cortana isn’t perfect. It still has a beta tag, and for good reason. For one, the speech is a little jittery, as only the pre-programmed lines have been recorded in Cortana’s voice. The rest of the speech sounds a lot like Google Now – robotic. The stitching between these two voices is a bit rough. Fortunately, the voice actress behind Cortana, Jen Taylor, tweeted, “We’ve got some recording to do!” earlier today.
Yup. It’s me. Mixed in with some cool #Microsoft fanciness. We’ve got some recording to do!!
— Jen Taylor (@jentaylortown) April 2, 2014
Also, it’s powered by Bing, Bing Maps, and other Microsoft-centric services. So if you’re not fully invested in the Microsoft ecosystem, your experience with Cortana could be spotty, particularly if you’re outside the US. And the other interesting bit I noticed is each response from the user requires tapping the microphone soft button; you can’t have a seamless conversation with Cortana completely hands-free – a minor qualm, at best.
Either way, Cortana is a major leap in the right direction for Windows Phone and Microsoft. Contextual computing is the future, and Cortana is an impressive start – as a beta, no less – for Windows Phone. Not to mention, all those Halo fans are all rejoicing right about now.
What say you, ladies and gents? Is Cortana something that could pull you into Windows Phone? Was a digital assistant part of what Windows Phone was missing? Or is this just an expected, unimpressive update to you?