Microsoft Shows Off Cortana, Windows Phone's Answer To Apple Siri, Google Now


Microsoft Wednesday introduced Cortana, its Windows Phone digital assistant counterpart to Apple's Siri and Google Now, along with enterprise-focused features the company is hoping will get more organizations to forget about their iPhones and Android smartphones.

In a keynote at Microsoft's Build conference in San Francisco, Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president in Microsoft's Operating Systems group, called Cortana "our truly personal digital assistant for Windows Phone." Cortana is inspired by a character from Microsoft's wildly successful Halo videogame.

Microsoft is pitching Cortana, which is powered by Microsoft's Bing search, as a technology that continually hones its effectiveness by analyzing users' search queries and other activities.

Belfiore said Cortana learns more about users' preferences the more search queries they perform. Users also designate which activities and relationships they want Cortana to track, and the digital assistant uses this to present only the most relevant information.

[Related: Sources: Microsoft In Talks To Acquire Mobile App Startup Xamarin]

Cortana works with Bing and other data feeds, such as Yelp, to refine searches for restaurants and other businesses using voice commands, and can be extended via third-party developers and ISVs that build speech-enabled apps, according to Belfiore. "We knew if we really wanted to make Cortana more personal and powerful, we needed developers to make it better," he said.

Microsoft is working with third-party vendors on Cortana integration, and users can navigate to a friend's Facebook profile using a voice command. Belfiore, in an on-stage demo, showed how Cortana can answer questions ranging from how many calories in a banana to the age of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.

But there were also a couple of glitches, including not being able to convert temperature from Celsius to Kelvin using a voice command, and one case where it whiffed when asked to make a phone call.

Cortana is currently in beta and will be made available first to users in the U.S.

Microsoft also showed off features it says will make Windows Phone 8.1 more attractive to enterprises, including a new embedded VPN function and mobile device management that prevents users from saving corporate documents locally.

There's also a new feature called Wi-Fi Sense that automatically finds and connects to free Wi-Fi hotspots whenever users are in range. Users can set up their name and email for hotspots that require this information prior to granting access, and it all happens automatically, Belfiore said.

Windows Phone 8.1's Word Flow keyboard also has been upgraded with technology called "shape writing" that learns a user' typing habits to enable them to write texts and emails more quickly.

In a head-to-head competition, Windows Phone recently dethroned Samsung for the "Guinness Book Of World Records" title of fastest typing via smartphone, said Belfiore.

PUBLISHED APRIL 2, 2014