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Cortana Beta Review: Microsoft goes in search of a better personal assistant for smartphones

Review by Andrew Kameka on Monday April 14, 2014.

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Cortana for Windows phone 8.1 Notebook
Cortana for Windows phone 8.1 Notebook

"Cortana, are you better than Siri?" I asked as I tried to toy with one of the most important aspects of the recently announced Windows Phone 8.1 software. "Not to brag, but apparently I'm going to help save the universe in about 500 years." The response forced me to smile as I recognized it as a reference to the Halo gaming franchise that inspired the voice and name of Cortana, the Windows Phone voice search and personal assistant. The answer is obviously programmed because Microsoft anticipates people asking that question, but it's a reflection of Microsoft's intention to build more than a Siri competitor; Microsoft wants to build an assistant with personality.

Microsoft knew that it couldn't merely let Cortana handle basic automation for turning on Bluetooth. Apple and Google have had that feature for multiple years, and doing so would only feed into the narrative of Microsoft being perpetually behind its rivals. So, as Windows Phone Director Greg Sullivan told me in a recent meeting, Cortana was built with the intention of giving users a more interactive experience. The goal was to be able to turn on Bluetooth and schedule appointments, but also be wise enough to let me know that I have scheduling conflicts. That's something Cortana does because it's designed to replicate a human assistant. The software monitors your reminders and schedules and stays on top of what's happening to keep your day moving properly.

A human assistant needs to do more than just do what his or her boss commands. Microsoft met with personal assistants to learn more about the demands of the job, and a key theme is that anticipating needs is crucial. It's not enough to know where to find what your boss likes; you should know his tendencies and find it before he asks. For that reason, Cortana learns from users over time and brings up interesting news. If it, or she if we follow the personal touch as Microsoft suggests, realizes that you search for weather often, Cortana will begin displaying that information ahead of time. Google uses a similar strategy with Google Now and its specialized card function.

Cortana for Windows phone 8.1 reminders and appointments
Cortana for Windows phone 8.1 reminders and appointments

It's actually more fitting to compare Cortana to Google Now than Siri. While Apple's product may have better brand recognition, it's not as powerful or informed as either of the aforementioned virtual assistants yet. Cortana, like Google Now, links with personal data, search history, and self-described interests in order to anticipate what information to share. It maintains a Notebook that contains this data and gives users control to remove certain aspects. It's too early to give my complete impressions of how effective this is, but Notebook knows my location and things about me so my recommendations are smarter. It knows how to respond to follow-up questions, track stories of events I search for, keep me up to date on my favorite teams, track my favorite places, and define contacts by titles. Cortana uses Notebook to know me so she can better serve me. And if you get uncomfortable with the amount of information in that Notebook, you can effectively rip out a few pages by disabling some features.

I'll reserve judgment of Cortana's effectiveness as an assistant because she is still in her beta phase, but she shows promise. Despite her personable foundation, her robotic nature is sometimes hard to mask. In one situation, I told Cortana to remind to pick up my mother from the airport at 1 PM but quickly realized that I should have said 3 PM. When she asked me to confirm the time, I said, "No, remind me at 3 PM" and she kept repeating the question until I answered only "No" and paused. Cortana then offered to change the date, time, or location, but I had to do everything step by step. When I asked for an update on Arsenal's most recent match, Cortana gave me the results of the team's most recent league match instead of the FA Cup match that happened hours earlier. Google Now was able to recognize the most recent results would take precedence and correctly knew that I wanted to know the FA Cup results.

Cortana for Windows phone 8.1 feature list
Cortana for Windows phone 8.1 feature list

Word choice is also important. Microsoft wants to make natural language a major strength of Cortana, but the beta is obviously not fully there yet. Until the fully-fleshed version launches later this year, Cortana will struggle with recognizing speech patterns and learning to handle intent. She won't be able to tell me "how much is $44 worth in pounds" but she will take action when I say "convert $44 into pounds." Likewise, Cortana can't "tell me a good restaurant in Newark" but she can "find a good restaurant in Newark." Discerning intent is an important aspect of virtual assistants, and Cortana needs this beta period to grasp the fluid nature of the English language and the informal syntax of its speakers.

Cortana was conceived to best replicate a real life assistant and seeks to emulate that job function, but a human assistant would recognize what I mean when I say, "Actually, move it to 3 pm" without requiring that I spell it out for him or her. I'm no Devil Wears Prada tyrant, but any employee who needed me to spell it out in baby steps would be dismissed faster than Miranda can turn a page. The good news is that Cortana is a beta, something Microsoft is quick to point out the moment you open the app, so expect to see Cortana constantly evolve. It will take time to properly train the assistant to be more than just a go-fer for our digital tasks. Cortana's not prepared yet to take the helm as my right-hand, but she's a fitting understudy with lots of room for growth. Let's just consider the next few months her apprenticeship.

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About the author

Andrew Kameka
Andrew is based in Miami, Florida.

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