Part Siri, Part Google Now: Microsoft Announces “Cortana” Virtual Assistant

Cortana screen shotRumored for months, Microsoft has formally announced its answer to Apple’s Siri and Google’s Voice Search/Google Now: Cortana. Danny Sullivan is at the Microsoft Build Conference and live blogging it.

Cortana appears to be sassy like Siri and can perform many of the functions that Google Now does (providing reminders and notifications regarding dates, meetings and so on). It appears to have numerous manual personalization capabilities as well. Cortana will also interact with and can launch apps on the device (like Siri or Google).

Showing Cortana’s smarts, there was apparently an example of a restaurant search where Cortana offered content from Yelp — Yelp and Microsoft have a deal — rather than Bing. There was also an example of how reminders can be tied to particular individuals:

Cortana Reminder

At its core, Cortana is “powered by Bing” and will “completely replace” the search button on Windows Phones. It thus becomes a voice-search front end to Bing’s index and capabilities for Windows mobile devices.

Siri can search the web (via Bing) but that process isn’t fully realized. Google’s Voice Search offers a generally better web search experience than Siri but Google’s “assistant” functionality isn’t fully integrated or realized itself.

Cortana appears to be quite sophisticated though I don’t yet see a clear breakthrough or differentiating feature. So far it’s mostly catch-up to Apple and Google. (Perhaps the pitch is that it offers a marriage of the capabilities of both.) However, I have not had an opportunity to use it yet. Regardless, Microsoft had to offer this on Windows Phones if it hoped to remain competitive.

Cortana is launching in beta in the US (with 8.1) and will expand to other international markets over time.

Here’s a quick rundown on features we’re compiling, and we’ll be improving this and hopefully have a hands-on to come.

cortana tile

Above, note the “Cortana” tile that appears in the middle of the phone, displaying a headline of “Microsoft announces Windows Phone 8.1.” This is a Google Now-like feature, how Cortana is learning someone’s interests and then will display notifications of them, in this case through a Windows Phone “live tile.”

cortana home

The example above (sorry for the poor quality; we’ll try to get a better one) shows how if you did a proactive search, you’d be able to speak or type you.

Cortana also will “fully replaces” the search function and button (and seemingly Bing) on Windows Phone, so that if you do a search, you’re going to do that with Cortana — and Cortana will decide where to route your search or request, to Bing, to Yelp, to launch an app or query. Suggestions also appear, and some of them are even personalized to you.

Above, a screen where Cortana lists some of the things she can do, such as setting alarms, making notes, playing music or, yes, search. Cortana can also work with apps, and if you scrolled the screen above down, you’d see things like Hulu, Facebook and Twitter listed.

cortana notebook

Cortana maintains a “notebook” of information designed to help it assist you on the phone, as shown above. Much is focused on the “interest” section of the notebook:

cortana interests

interests 2

The interests are developed and refined over time, based on searches done on the device — and importantly, from reading email on the device. Microsoft has had an entire campaign about Google doing email “reading” for ad targeting. It made a point of stressing that the reading of email to build these interests is only being done on the device itself, not stored in the cloud. What happens if you move to a new device is unclear, but it might be that the interest profiles built-up sync.

We’ll be working to add more to this as well as a fresh closer-look story to come. Microsoft has also now posted some of the Cortana info on its blog here.