'Cortana': More on Microsoft's next-generation personal assistant

'Cortana': More on Microsoft's next-generation personal assistant

Summary: Microsoft is working on its 'Cortana' rival to Apple's Siri and Google Now, which will be integrated into all flavors of Windows in the future.


Back in June, screen shots of an early Windows Phone operating system build leaked (via a Lumia phone allegedly purchased on eBay). At that time, next-to-no attention was paid to an app, listed as "zCortana," that was on the phone.


But that Cortana app (with the "z" indicating it was a test build) is central to what Microsoft is doing to compete with Apple's Siri and Google Now. And Cortana is back in the news this week with passing mentions by those tracking what's happening with Windows Phone as it moves toward the "Blue" release in the early part of 2014.

Cortana takes its codename from Cortana, an artifically intelligent character in Microsoft's Halo series who can learn and adapt.

Cortana, Microsoft's assistant technology, likewise will be able to learn and adapt, relying on machine-learning technology and the "Satori" knowledge repository powering Bing.

Cortana will be more than just an app that lets users interact with their phones more naturally using voice commands. Cortana is core to the makeover of the entire "shell" -- the core services and experience -- of the future versions of Windows Phone, Windows and the Xbox One operating systems, from what I've heard from my contacts. 

In Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's strategy memo from July about Microsoft's reorg, there were hints about Cortana. Ballmer mentioned that Microsoft will be working, going forward, on "a family of devices powered by a service-enabled shell."

That "shell" is more than just the Metro/Modern/tiled interface. Ballmer continued:

"Our UI will 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. 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."

The coming shell won't simply surface information stored on users' phones, PCs and consoles like a search engine can do today. It also will "broker information among our services to bring them together on our devices in ways that will enable richer and deeper app experiences," Ballmer said in his memo. (That "brokering" is handled by Bing's Satori, which intelligently interconnects entities, i.e., information about people, places and things.)

Microsoft execs -- especially Ballmer -- have been talking up Microsoft's plans to launch a new kind of personal assitant technology since 2011. At that time, Ballmer was touting publicly the idea that users would be able to tell their PCs to "print my boarding pass on Southwest" and have their systems automatically jump into action. The magic behind the scenes would be a combination of Microsoft Bing, Tellme speech technology and some natural-language-plus-social-graph concoction. (Microsoft moved its speech team into its Online Services unit, seemingly to facilitate work with the Bing team, at the very end of 2011.)

But other Microsoft execs said that this kind of assistant would be unlikely to appear until somewhere between 2014 and 2016. Earlier this summer, Bing officials told CNET that Microsoft had decided to wait until it had something revolutionary, instead of evolutionary, to debut this kind of new assistant technology.

Cortana is yet another reason why Microsoft is unlikely to sell off Bing. Bing is more than a Web search engine; it's also the indexing and graphing technology that will be powering Microsoft's operating systems, too.

Topics: Emerging Tech, Microsoft, Unified Comms, Windows


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • Another way for MS to suck up all your information...

    And integrated into everything would make it hard or impossible to avoid - requiring a nearly constant network connection.
    • All share with NSA

      Illegal not too share according to shadow government....
    • How much does Google pay you to troll?

      Come on, are you that stupid that you actually believe people think your entire "anti-MS" persona is for real?

      No body posts as many obvious lies as you do without getting something for it in return, as only a child (or a fool) would do what you do for the "fun" of it.
      William Farrel
      • Microsoft and you guys make it too easy.

        It is just hard to resist pointing out the flaws in your assumption that Microsoft has your best interest at heart.

        Do I think Google is perfect? Hell no. They do make mistakes and sometimes rather severe failures of judgment.

        But they don't carry it out as corporate policy the way Microsoft does. Google for instance, still hasn't been convicted of illegal activity. Fined for things that MIGHT have been improper, but not carried to court and convicted for illegal actions.

        Microsoft has. Several times in fact. And still under investigation for corruption practices.
        • Microsoft under investigation?

          Just post a link, this is news to me. But I know your employer Google is under investigation Google Shill.
          Ram U
          • You don't read do you.

        • @jessepollard

          "Google for instance, still hasn't been convicted of illegal activity."

          They are. Just search for "Google stealing WiFi data" in Google/Bing.
          • The data that Google is accused of stealing is the SSID of your WiFi networ

            SSID of your WiFi network

            You do realize this is BROADCAST data don't you? ANY receiver will pick this up. If the owner doesn't want it BROADCAST to every tom, dick, and harry, then they should direct their access point to NOT BROADCAST IT.

            So how is receiving something broadcast in plain text "stealing"???

            That would be like claiming that writing down the station identification from radio broadcasters is "stealing data".

            Try harder.
          • stole more than that

            They were stealing entire packages of data. If your WiFi wasn't encrypted, they were taking portions of the data you were currently transmitting at the time. I haven't seen one article worth its salt get that part wrong. I thought everybody knew that.
    • .....

      All your data are belong to us.
    • Privacy

      As of today, only Microsoft signs a Hipaa business associate agreement for the non commercial applications. They also support end to end encryption and data is encrypted at rest. I know they are not innocent, but I've asked google to sign one of these agreements for years and they refused to do so. This is for their PAID services and not the free stuff.

      I use both services, but I was actually taken by surprise that they would't do so. If Microsoft will sign it, why won't Google? They make fantastic web based apps, but the fact that will not put their assurances in writing is proof for me that Google doesn't want to take your privacy seriously.
      • Perhaps because Google is more ethical?

        MS historically has signed almost anything that they think will get them some money. MS has also been found violating those same "contracts". They seem to only obey when they get caught violating them AND convicted for it.

        Google doesn't, or at least, hasn't yet.
  • Pollard, you are clueless. That is the same as a BA under HIPAA.

    They are saying that all companies used to process information, solely to make a better experience and all the while protecting your data, MUST abide by the agreement of the Microsoft policy.
    This is not different than PHI (protected health information). Your health information is private to you, but healthcare organizations can use a thousand outside companies to process your information for billing or operations purposes, as allowed under HIPAA as long as you have a Business agreement with the vendor that states they will abide by HIPAA privacy rules.

    You are the biggest Google shill on this site and complain about everything MS does, while your mothership is busy sucking the details out of everything anyone who uses Google touches. gmail, Google Docs..Even the freaking PAID apps are subject to all data from any document to be stripped from your ownership into Google databases for use at their discretion. MS does nothing even close to this Pollard. Get your facts right shill.
    • No, it isn't covered by HIPAA.

      As this is not medical information.

      Since it is not covered by HIPAA, the rules do not cover it - thus MS can do whatever they choose to do.

      "same as" does not mean "is".
      • Really Pollard? Your that brain dead??

        Sometimes "same as" means "same as". Dosnt need to mean "is" you complete reject.

        Go get your hear read, there is something seriously wrong with you man. You do nothing but gripe about the most ridiculous things.

        You act like a child.
  • Beat Google?

    Google Search was born and raised on top of Windows machines. Without Windows there would be not Google, period.
    If Google is a real technology company, why can't the beat Microsoft in the enterprise where Microsoft crushes them in numbers of business clients.
    Why is there not a Google Cloud service even registering on the map?
    Microsoft is in line to take over the cloud market with Azure.

    Android is nothing but a clunky piece of spyware disguising as an OS that people tolerate, not like and never love (unless it's the Linux zealots who drool in their sleep about Linux). IN the past those same people screamed bloody murder when they found Windows could allow Microsoft to access your machine, due to Auto Windows update. Yeah, for something you have to choose to do. Now the same zealots are totally cool with Google accessing their "property" at all times, taking every bit of information from their phones it can get. They have no access to the system to turn this off, they can't not use Google services, it's not different than the iphone. Google has built a walled garden and They chose the apache licensing so they could lock down the parts of Android they want to control so nobody can fork it, or they won't be compatible with Google's services, such as youtube etc. Google is forcing OEMs to do exactly that they say and only install what they approve. They have gone far beyond what Microsoft ever did with it's partner OEMS. But again, the zealots don't care that Android is proprietary for all intents and purposes, because it has "some" open source, even though they can't do anything with it and can't change it, or Google will drag them to court for breaking their EULA.
    • Ya, if Microsoft collapsed and Windows stopped working tomorrow...

      Google would be in trouble right up to their eyeballs.

  • Prasad, Google dosn't need a Backdoor for the NSA , they complied.

    Google complied with PRISM and participated. It has been discovered and published by the Guardian with No Comment from Google.

    Why back a company that has locked down their "open source" OS with the Apache license and made the "gold" bits proprietary? You have to sign your life away to use Android. The OEMs must abide by the $croogle EULA or they will be breaking the contract and the law.
    Google controls all carriers and phone makers far beyond antthing MS ever did with it's partners. In fact they were only distributing Windows. They were not told what they could install on it nor what technology they could in their PCs.
    Google forces the OEMS to use all Google technology ALL of the time.

    If the shills that pounded on MS for years about "controlling the OEMs and hurting competition were speaking even one ounce of truth, they would be Totally Against the way Google is doing business today. They break every rule the zealots claimed MS did, but now they are ok with it.

    Linux zealots have no ethics and no standards. They are as bad as criminal in their aggressive libelous statements which only applied to one company while stating in thousands of rants how "criminal" the behavior was, but now with even worse behavior from Google they are praising it and finding ways to make it "ok".

    Bottom line, they are spineless creatures who have no souls.
    • Umm... so many misstatements.

      1. ANYONE that recieves a NSL will obey, or go to jail.

      2. So you think that Open Source forces you to release your own code? Nope. Not even the GPL does that, and Apache is not under the GPL.

      3. The "Android EULA" you refer to doesn't exist. What does exist are terms of service for Google services. Android can be used anyway, even without the services. It is up to the vendors - where do you think the Android knockoffs came from. Not illegal, they just can't use Google services, nor can they be called "Android" (trademark).

      3. MS did use exclusive contracts to shut out other vendors of operating systems.

      4. So far, Google hasn't shown the traits of MS, so there aren't those complaints of illegal activity. The primary complaints all seem to come from Microsoft for products/services Microsoft can't seem to sell.
      • "So far, Google hasn't shown the traits of MS"

        Well, unfortunately none of the traits one would hope they would.

        But, doing anything they can to make hoards of money, I think that is a trait shared by every major company; its just that Google is certainly testing the boundaries.