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Allegedly called "Cortana" after the artificially intelligent character in the video game Halo, the technology is at the very least a potentially major upgrade for Windows Phone users. It also could be a validation of Steve Ballmer's "One Microsoft" blueprint, and of the company's cash-hemorrhaging Bing search engine, whose intelligence engine Cortana is expected to use.
Cortana has factored into Windows Phone rumors since June, when a lost Nokia prototype running an early Windows Phone 8.1 build showed up on Craigslist. The updated OS, which is expected in early 2014, contained only references to Cortana at the time, with no functional elements on display.
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Cortana anticipation has been building again in recent days, after several purported Windows 8.1 images leaked online. Citing an inside source, ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley subsequently reported that Microsoft is indeed readying a digital assistant technology, but that it will involve more than smartphones; rather, it will be a "shell" that harnesses the cloud to personalize and unify user experiences across Microsoft devices and services.
Apple's Siri already follows voice commands and intelligently aggregates information in response to certain user queries. Android's Google Now goes a step further in some ways; if the user chooses, it will scan emails, calendars and other data in order to learn more about the user and anticipate his or her needs. Cortana reportedly aims to outdo both competitors thanks to Microsoft's Satori technology, which is currently used in Bing.
Satori powers Bing's Snapshot feature. Snapshot functions like Google's Knowledge Graph, intelligently linking the user to content that's indirectly related to his or her search. If the query is a celebrity's name, for example, Bing not only delivers direct search returns, but also populates a right-hand column with links to the celebrity's Twitter account, Facebook page and other tangential content.
In June, Microsoft used Build, its conference for developers, to illustrate ways the technology might be expanded. A keynote demonstration illustrated, for example, how new Bing APIs will allow Windows devices to perceive the user's geographic location, and to tailor results accordingly. At the time, Microsoft VP Gurdeep Singh Pall said the APIs would allow developers to view Bing as a platform, and to bring the "unbounded knowledge" of the Internet to their apps. If Microsoft can filter the technology through an engaging digital assistant, the company could convince skeptical developers to invest more time in Bing, Windows Phone and the Modern UI, all of which trail their rivals in popularity.
Bing senior developer Stefan Weitz added fuel to the fire in late July, telling CNET that Siri and Google Now "have a fairly shallow understanding of the world," and that Microsoft will not ship a competitor until it can disrupt the market. "We could come out with something like [Siri and Google Now], but it wouldn't be state of the art," he said, noting that Satori's brain is powered by more than 50,000 nodes in Microsoft's cloud.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates and retiring Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer also have chimed in with hints. In the memo that announced the "one Microsoft" restructuring plan, Ballmer wrote that the company's technology "will understand people's needs and what is available in the world, and will provide information and assistance." He said Microsoft services will anticipate each user's daily needs and provide insight when it's needed.
"a powerful assistant" that can help society derive insights and tackle goals. Although he was speaking mostly about his philanthropic projects, Gates implied Microsoft might produce such sophisticated software in the near future.
But arguably the best representation of Cortana's potential dates back to 2011, well before the current crop of rumors had begun to sprout. Microsoft produced a video to demonstrate how TellMe, the speech-recognition technology it acquired in 2007, might evolve. The video focuses on a smartphone interface that superficially resembles the iPhone's Siri, but that is substantially more responsive to conversational language. The Microsoft virtual assistant is shown handling complex requests with ease; rather than simply aggregating Web returns, for example, it makes complex recommendations that involve the user's location, friends' recommendations, and even criteria such as whether a venue has open-air space. The video shows the virtual assistant's content being easily transferred to a TV, where users use a gesture-based interface to engage content. It also shows the content on a tablet with a vaguely tile-based UI.
The video, in other words, depicts a blueprint in which personalized information is automatically shared between Windows Phone 8 handsets, Windows 8 tablets and TVs connected to the Xbox One. It's the "one Microsoft" ideal in the flesh: Many products combined into a single, cohesive and unique user experience.
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If Microsoft releases a digital assistant that actually leapfrogs competitors, it could bolster many of the "one Microsoft" strategies of which investors are most suspicious. Even if the technology is only available on smartphones when it launches, it would bolster Windows Phone 8, which has solidified itself as the third major handset platform, behind Android and iOS, and which is making impressive gains in emerging markets. Apple's failure to meaningfully improve Siri has been one of iOS's ongoing letdowns, and Microsoft could send a powerful message if it reaches the next stage ahead of its rivals.
Indeed, if Microsoft expands Cortana into a larger, ecosystem-wide service, the impact could be immense. Microsoft has tried so far to sell Windows 8 on the strength of laptop-tablet convergence, and on mobile access to Microsoft Office. Neither tactic has worked, and many have criticized Microsoft's insistence on pursuing consumers. If Cortana delivers a unified experience that lives up to Weitz's grandstanding, Microsoft could have the killer consumer app that it needs, one that not only sells individual products but also incentivizes users to adopt other products within the Windows ecosystem.
Cortana would also demonstrate why Microsoft has resisted investor pressure to abandon Bing. The search engine has lost billions of dollars, and even its defenders credit it mostly for blocking Google's would-be monopoly. But if Bing becomes the lifeblood of other product lines and revenue streams, Microsoft's persistence could prove wise in the long run. It would blend the Windows RT kernel, Bing, Azure and a number of other disparate technologies under a single user experience, achieving the kind of product cohesion that Ballmer's critics say the company has lacked under his leadership.
It's not clear how quickly Microsoft will debut Cortana, nor how much functionality the assistant will have if it debuts with Windows Phone 8.1. There is also no known timeline for Cortana's expansion to other elements of the Windows ecosystem. But Microsoft demonstrated with its Nokia acquisition that it is serious about catching up in the mobile arena. A truly cutting-edge digital assistant could be just the weapon it needs to lead the charge.