ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley wrote about the Windows Phone 8.1 update that includes Cortana and my interest was piqued.
Last night I was given the opportunity to attend the Nokia More Lumia event and tested out the Nokia Lumia 630, 635, and 930 as well as the updated features in WP 8.1. The Cortana service may be the feature of WP 8.1 that brings me back to the platform and one that has the potential to bring customers from iOS and Android.
We saw plenty of leaks of Cortana before the announcement and I honestly just thought it was a Google Now and Siri voice command and search competitor. After sitting down through a detailed demo and QA session and trying it out on new Lumias, I was extremely impressed with its functionality. Cortana truly is the personal assistant that I have wanted for a few years and that make our smartphones finally as smart as they should be.
Cortana is launched with a single press of the right search icon (magnifying glass). I thought it would launch immediately into the voice command mode like a press and hold on the Start button now does on Windows Phone. A press and hold of the search button will launch Cortana into listening mode, but you can also use Cortana without enabling the voice control part. You see Cortana takes the Google Now awareness part of your life to the next level and provides a useful experience without even using the voice control functions.
You can define your interests, set reminders, establish quiet hours and rules, define your inner circle, identify your favorite places, and much more to start Cortana off. The service then learns your lifestyle over time while also gathering data as you use Bing search on your desktop computer, assuming you are signed into your account. The ability of Cortana to "know you" is very impressive and I can't wait to test it out over time and see how good it gets.
Cortana can also be used as your personal assistant without you ever having to speak commands. You can enter searches and other commands via the keyboard, which is great for commuters and those working in quiet office environments where the idiot constantly speaking to their phone is a major distraction. Microsoft has obviously put a lot of effort into Cortana and it shows, even in its current limited beta state.
I use Siri to set up reminders and perform a few basic searches. Google Now is much better for me because I use Chrome and Google, but it still isn't doing enough for me personally and has limited usefulness. Cortana looks to take the digital assistant way beyond what either Siri or Google Now do and could honestly be the service that helps Windows Phone attract more buyers.