Microsoft is unsurprisingly building its own personal assistant to compete with Apple's Siri and Google's impersonal Google Now platform. The virtual assistant will be called Cortana, named after the artificially intelligent character in the Halo series who can learn and adapt. Cortana will supposedly help tie all Windows 8 platforms together including Windows 8.1, Windows Phone 8.1, Windows RT 8.1 and Xbox One.
Cortana first made an appearance back in June as an app called zCortana in a leaked build of Windows Phone; the "z" designation meant she was merely a test build. Now Cortana has returned, conveniently close to the launch of all four platforms mentioned above. She'll reportedly rely on machine-learning technology and the "Satori" knowledge repository powering Microsoft's search engine, Bing.
Sources claim that Cortana will be the central key feature in Microsoft's makeover of the entire Windows 8 "shell" experience, and will appear in future versions of Windows Phone, Windows and Xbox One operating systems. Even Steve Ballmer hinted to her virtual existence in a strategy memo back in July (opens in new tab), saying that the company's family of devices will be powered by "a service-enabled shell" going forward.
"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," he said. "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."
"It is more than what we think of as the shell today, and no current label really fits where we are headed," he added. "Neither the desktop nor the social graph describes this new experience, and neither does the search box, the pin board or the file system. The shell will support the experiences layer and broker information among our services to bring them together on our devices in ways that will enable richer and deeper app experiences."
Whether Cortana appears next month fully dressed or not until 2014 is anyone's guess, but for Microsoft, the sooner the better. Windows Phone 8.1 isn't actually slated to arrive until 2014 anyway, and the updated mobile platform seems like a likely place for Cortana to make her grand entrance. Still, it would be impressive to have a newly-purchased Xbox One to talk back in a sexy voice right out of the box this holiday season.
ZDNet reports that Ballmer has been publicly talking about an AI assistant since 2011, saying that users would be able to verbally tell their Windows PC to print a boarding pass on Southwest Airlines. This assistant would rely on Bing, Telltime speech technology, and some combination of language-plus-social graph. That indicates Microsoft isn't necessarily pairing Windows Phone with Cortana on her first date.
Yet other Microsoft execs said such a technology would not be available until 2014, 2016 at the latest. They would rather wait to have something revolutionary than something evolutionary. We'll find out next month; let's just hope she doesn't have the personality of a paperclip.