At Microsoft’s BUILD developer conference today, among other things, the team from Redmond unveiled the latest iteration of their mobile operating system: Windows Phone 8.1. The star of the show was arguably Cortana, Microsoft’s personal digital assistant for Windows Phone.
Cynics will say that Cortana is a blatant rip-off of Apple’s own Siri in iOS, and they might have a point to argue — there are certainly lots of similarities both in terms of looks, sounds and functionality.
“The most personal smartphone, is now even more personal”
While Cortana may not look quite as good as Siri, the assistant excels in some areas and Apple should take note. Calling it “the world’s first truly personal digital assistant”, Microsoft is clearly taking a swipe at Apple and the company will need to respond with the next iteration of Siri.
Siri has bags of personality and it has been one of the major selling points for Apple’s virtual assistant feature, despite its utility being questioned by some. But Microsoft has aimed to go one step further and create a truly personal assistant, and they’ve succeeded in some respects.
“Cortana is the only digital assistant that gets to know you, builds a relationship that you can trust, and gets better over time by asking questions based on your behavior and checking in with you before she assumes you’re interested in something. She detects and monitors the stuff you care about, looks out for you throughout the day, and helps filter out the noise so you can focus on what matters to you.”
Joe Belfiore, the head of Microsoft’s Windows Phone team, said that part of the development process involved chatting to actual, real-world assistants to learn how they actually worked. The aim being creating a virtual assistant that is more useful in real life. In this way, some of the things they have worked into Cortana are ahead of Siri’s capabilities.
When you first use Cortana, she’ll learn things like your name and how to pronounce it — this isn’t ground breaking stuff and Siri is perfectly capable of learning who you are, your relatives and how to pronounce names. However, Cortana goes further than this with a feature called Cortana’s Notebook.
This is where she stores everything she knows about you — your personal information like where you work, where you live, who you and your contacts are, as well as your interests and upcoming events. You can edit any of this information manually but she’ll pick a lot up automatically.
With this information, similar to Google Now, Cortana is able to offer just the right information at just the right time. Driving to work? Cortana will tell you the traffic conditions. Need weather information for where you are or details on your flight? Cortana’s got you covered. This predictive power needs to come to Siri.
Another great personalization feature of Cortana is People Reminders. With People Reminders, you can tell Cortana to remind you of something the next time you speak to a certain person. So, when you next call, text or email your dad, Cortana can remind you to ask him how his trip to Vancouver was. It’s this kind of thing that makes an assistant useful.
Siri can do more these days than when she first arrived with the iPhone 4s. But Cortana beats Siri in its integration with third-party apps, something rumored to be coming to Siri in future but still absent.
The ability to utilize Siri with apps from the App Store and not just Apple’s own apps would be incredible. Right now, if I want to use Siri to add a reminder to an app other than the stock Reminders app, I can’t. If I want to ask Siri to play a certain song in Spotify, I can’t. If I want to launch a call in Skype, I can’t.
It’s partly Apple’s arrogance towards its own offerings, a presumption that their services are the best, and partly because Siri has been a partner play since its inception — the only services available via Siri, like Yelp! or Wolfram|Alpha, are there because they have negotiate deals with the Cupertino company.
I’d like to see an API for Siri integration for developers to utilize. This would really justify Siri’s existence for users and would definitely make developers happy.
Typing, not talking
With Cortana, you can choose to ask questions or make commands either verbally or in text form — both with natural language support. This is something I’d like to see brought to Siri.
I am aware that you can type into Siri, but your first interaction must be spoken. There is currently no way to open up Siri and type straight away, you can only type to correct a spoken statement that has been heard wrong.
The ability to type instead of talk would be extremely useful in situations where speaking is impossible — where there is too much ambient noise, where it may be inappropriate or where it may be embarrassing to speak.
With Cortana, you either speak, and Cortana will speak back, or type and Cortana won’t make a sound and will respond in text. It probably wouldn’t take a ton of work to engineer this into Siri but it would make Siri useful in a few more situations.
Natural language is also hugely important here. This is evident in Siri somewhat — you don’t have to learn pre-programmed commands — but sometimes it is lacking. If I ask for nearby bars, Siri will give me results.
If I then ask how long it will take to get to the first one, she often misunderstands what I’m asking instead of knowing I’m referring to the previous question.
Similarly, if I ask where my sister is to find her location on Find My Friends, and as a follow-up say “call her”, Siri won’t know what I mean. It’s frustrating, and a real-life assistant wouldn’t get that wrong.
Sure, Cortana may look and sound (and even function) a little bit like Siri, but I feel the software shows some useful developments in virtual assistant technologies — some that I certainly feel Apple should be keeping a close eye on for Siri in iOS 8, even if Windows Phone isn’t challenging the company in smartphone market share.
How do you think Cortana sizes up against Siri? Think Cortana is a blatant rip-off or has its advantages? What do you think Apple should bring to Siri in future? Let us know your thoughts in the comments