Windows Phones, Meet Your New Digital Assistant: Cortana

microsoft cortana digital assistant

Microsoft announced this week at a press conference the upcoming beta launch of their very own Siri-like digital assistant, dubbed Cortana. If you’re wondering if she’s named after the sexy blue robot from the Halo games, you are absolutely correct. (Oh Microsoft. Is there no part of you not influenced by kind of gross gamer bro culture?) Cortana will debut as part of the Windows Phone 8.1 update, the next big one for Microsoft mobile devices. This update will bring Windows phones up to speed with their Apple and Google competitors, and, Microsoft certainly is hoping, will even blow their efforts out of the water, despite being at least 2 years behind on the technology.

Cortana did not even begin to be developed until 2 years ago, and it has taken this long to bring “her” into her nascent beta stage. Cortana will be the primary way to discover new information on your Windows phone, or can simply act as a human personal assistant would, reminding you of emails, meetings, and other important information for your daily grind. Cortana has been designed to be smarter, wittier than the competition, and actually designed to be as much like a person as possible. Microsoft even spoke to some of the best executive level personal assistants they could find in order to make Cortana as human-like as possible.

They discovered that one of these assistants actually keeps a physical notebook with all of their executive’s personal information in it, and this is how Cortana’s main feature, the notebook feature, was born. It stores all of your personal information, and you can even control what Cortana can see or not see. You can store almost anything in this notebook: your contacts, interests, important addresses. All this information is stored in the cloud, and Cortana uses it to create a personal profile of the phone’s owner. The program aims to actually learn your personal habits based on your phone use, location, and habits, but it always asks you to approve that information before putting it in the Notebook.

I’m sure you’re now thinking, “That’s cool and all, but what can Cortana actually DO with all this information?” Well, once it has enough information, it can start sending you reminders and notifications about things. For example, if you’ve landed in a foreign country, as soon as you turn on your phone, you can be greeted with the correct date and time, weather, currency conversions and apps. If you put a note in the Notebook noting something specific you want to talk about next time you talk to your boss or significant other, Cortana will remind you of this note the next time you place a call to that person. If you’re reading texts or emails about meeting up with friends, Cortana will note any times and dates within those messages to make it easier to set dates and appointments in your calendar.

What makes Cortana different from other digital assistants like Siri and Google Now, is the level of personalization and detail. Microsoft worked very hard on the Bing backend services that makes Cortana tick, and uses the gathered data from half a decade worth of Bing’s information gathering. So, when you ask Cortana what the best restaurant is, it doesn’t just give you a list, it narrows it down the highest rated restaurant on Yelp that’s closest to your location. If you then ask it to give you directions, it knows that you mean “directions to this restaurant” and doesn’t need to have that spelled out. They’re even integrating third party apps, like Hulu, and Xbox services. The end goal is to make all your Microsoft devices work together, so that all you want are Microsoft devices. One day Cortana might be found in all of them, and not just your phone.

And, if you’re a Halo megafan, they also brought on the actual voice of Cortana to be the voice of the app, and it’s full of Halo in-jokes. They even brought in Halo developer 343 Industries to work on the visual elements (Cortana is currently a lively blue sphere). I worry this part might be alienating to people who are not huge Halo nerds, which is probably most people who actually need a digital assistant, but only time will tell if this has been a misstep.

So, what do you think of Cortana? Are you considering upgrading to the latest Windows phone? Or will you stick with your trusty Siri?

//Image via Microsoft.

Writer, editor, and founding member of Paper Droids. RPG-lover, baby game maker, owned by corgi. Spends way too much time on Twitter @mk_patter. To reach by email:

  • arielletje

    Idk, I have an Android and I will be sticking with it, because I like my phones to silently obey my every command. Plus, Navi isn’t special if EVERYONE has her.

  • Ardo the O-some

    This reminds me of Scarlett Johansson’s character in HER.