Cortana: everything you need to know about Microsoft's Siri rival
9th Oct 2013 | 10:33
The AI assistant comes to Windows Phone
To anyone who's played the Halo games, Cortana needs no introduction: she's an advanced artificial intelligence and Master Chief's only real friend.
And now she's coming to the real world: Microsoft is working on a rival to Siri and Google Now, and it's called Cortana.
What is Microsoft Cortana?
Cortana is currently the code name for a whole new way of controlling Windows Phone, and in the longer term maybe Windows too. It will respond to your voice, answer your questions, control your device and anticipate the information you need at particular times.
Is Cortana a real product, or just vapourware?
It's a real product. Steve Ballmer mentioned reinventing "the core shell of our family of devices" to be "deeply personalized, based on the advanced, almost magical, intelligence in our cloud that learns more and more over time about people and the world" in his enormous staff memo this summer.
We're in uncharted territory: "Neither the desktop nor the social graph describes this new experience, and neither does the search box, the pin board or the file system," Ballmer says.
"The shell will support the experiences layer and broker information among our services to bring them together on our devices in ways that will enable richer and deeper app experiences... Our shell will natively support all of our essential services, and will be great at responding seamlessly to what people ask for, and even anticipating what they need before they ask for it."
That means the ambitions for Cortana go beyond what Google, Facebook and Siri currently provide.
How does Microsoft Cortana work?
Cortana is a combination of three things: Tellme natural language processing (which Microsoft acquired in 2007), Microsoft's enormous cloud processing power, and Satori (which is part of Bing).
The Satori knowledge repository is designed to be more intelligent than traditional search. It's intended to answer your questions and anticipate your needs, not just present you with a page of links. To use Google's phrase, it's about things, not strings.
Is Cortana the same thing as Bing Snapshots?
They come from the same place, although Cortana will be much more advanced. The information US users see on Bing when they search for people or places is from Satori, and the questions they can ask (such as "what is the highest building in the world?") use the same language you'll use with Satori.
Is Cortana going to be released in the UK?
Yes, but not initially: Microsoft is concentrating its energies on US users and the US English language.
How does Microsoft Cortana compare to Siri and Google Now?
Microsoft, as you might expect, promises that Cortana will be better: it'll take the best of Google Now's analysis and Siri's user-friendliness, bring them together and then take everything one step further. Cortana won't just listen to you, she'll understand you, and she'll be aware of everything from your location to your personal preferences.
So when you ask her to book a hotel, she'll book the kind of hotel you like in the kind of area you like to stay in at the kind of price you want to pay. If you're in an airport she'll anticipate that you need a boarding card and will have it ready when you unlock your phone.
She'll be a wine expert and a travel agent and a personal assistant and anything else you might need to make your everyday life a little bit easier. The vision is of Cortana as a smart, well-informed helper or friend.
How powerful will Cortana be?
Microsoft told CNET that Satori is currently adding 28,000 DVDs of content every single day, and that it is supported by more than 50,000 nodes in a Microsoft compute cloud. The data collected so far would stretch to Venus with 7 million pixels left over.
Isn't Cortana just Microsoft Bob all over again?
Pretty much, but then Bob was years ahead of his time: he was made in 1996, when the world didn't have decent mobile broadband, let alone cloud computing and the enormous amounts of data Satori can process.
When is the Microsoft Cortana release date?
That's a good question. Microsoft says that it won't release a rival to Siri and Google Now until "we have something more revolutionary than evolutionary."
What operating systems will Microsoft Cortana support?
For now, Cortana development appears to be limited to Windows Phone 8.1 - although it might not appear on that release if Microsoft feels it isn't advanced enough. Microsoft's published Entity API, which enables developers to tap into Satori, only works on Windows 8, 8.1 and the Xbox One.
Will it be called Cortana when it ships?
27,226 Halo fans think so: there's an online petition urging Microsoft to keep the codename for the final release. You can understand why Microsoft might not want to do that, however: in Halo 4, a key plot line focuses on Cortana's increasing unreliability and digital decrepitude.