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There’s Something Important about Microsoft’s Cortana

7 April, 2014 | Article Source: Rob LaPointe  |   (No Comments) | 15,901 Views

There’s been a lot of talk about Cortana since her unveiling last week, especially in comparison to the equivalent services on iOS and Android, Siri and Google Now. Articles everywhere are claiming that it’s going to elevate digital assistants to a whole new level, or blow Siri and Google Now out of the water; but frankly, those articles have failed to provide much support for their sensational titles, and it’s not necessarily because the titles are wrong. Cortana does have something that blows the competition out of the water. It’s a game-changer for mobile technology everywhere, but I’m not going to tell you why in this paragraph because that would ruin the suspense. Cortana

At their core, Cortana, Siri and Google Now aren’t all that different. They parse natural language and utilize useful tools and massive amounts of data to answer queries. Now, Google has a clear advantage in the data department, and they’ve put it to good use with Google Now, but Microsoft has shown that it’s no slouch in that area thanks to the efforts they’ve put into Bing. But that’s old news, what new stuff does Cortana introduce?

Unique Features

Cortana can do a few unique tricks, like attaching reminders to contacts to be shown next time you contact them. For the most part, it’s all small stuff in the debate over which digital assistant is best. Great features that add up to a great product, but nothing groundbreaking.

Microsoft showed off Cortana’s context sensitivity, which gives her the ability to understand your requests in the context of previous questions and what’s currently on the screen, allowing her to answer questions like “when is it open?” which are usually too vague for computers. It’s cool, but it’s not going to convince people to give up on Apple or Google.

And then there’s Cortana’s “notebook” feature, which represents a collection of personal information which Cortana has gathered on you. It’s made freely available for you to edit, which is nice, but it’s not exactly a “new” feature. Google Now has been steadily improving its customization and privacy options; the difference is that Cortana makes it easy to locate and control that data, while Google Now’s settings are not so user friendly.

The Game Changer

The thing that Cortana brings to the table that’s most valuable to mobile technology, and which Apple and Google must replicate in their own voice-search services, is an API for third party app integration. This would make it possible for any app on Windows to use voice commands to access app features.

Soon app-makers on Windows will be able to let Cortana interact with functions within their app. Some examples shown by Microsoft: you can tell Cortana to “Skype” someone for a video call, add shows to your Hulu queue, or open up a friend’s Facebook page. Microsoft is releasing the necessary API so that every Windows Phone 8.1 app has the opportunity to get in on the fun.

What’s the big deal?

In case it’s not clear why this is so groundbreaking, let’s step back and get some context. For any mobile platform there are two essential software categories, and both have to impress users if the platform hopes to succeed: first is the operating system and the first-party applications, and second are the third-party apps available on app stores.

First-party stuff defines the basics, like efficiency, security, and a general user experience. Third-party apps are what give mobile devices the flexibility that makes them so universally useful. The sheer variety of apps is what what makes mobile technology invaluable on such a broad spectrum.

Apple and Google use their respective voice tools to operate first-party stuff only, like maps, messages, and calendars, but this completely disregards a huge chunk of our mobile experience. By allowing all app-makers to utilize Cortana’s voice commands simply by hooking up a standard API, Microsoft is giving Windows Phone apps a unique edge that no other platform offers.

Cortana could bring the power and convenience of voice commands to every app in the Windows Store. So really the question at this point is: how long until Siri and Google Now follow suit? Because that’s not the kind of advantage they can afford to ignore.


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