It’s been about two and half years since Apple introduced Siri, its pleasant if somewhat neutral voice-activated digital assistant that answers questions posed to iPhones 4S and beyond, as well as iOS7 devices including iPad and iPod Touch products.
Siri—not to be confused with Suri, daughter of superstar ex-couple Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes—will finally get some new competition later this spring from Microsoft. Cortana is a holographic character from the Xbox game Halo whose voice will be added to the Windows Phone 8.1 system.
Microsoft isn’t featuring Cortana’s body or even her face; she will simply be a little circle. It’s probably just as well since lots of voice-activated applications are used while driving and one might argue that looking at Cortana’s body while driving could be a distraction.
Like Siri, Cortana is advertised as a personal assistant, but one which goes further to learn about you by analyzing data on your phone. Over time, as you use your phone, you train Cortana to act as your virtual assistant.
Siri, of course, was meant to assist and leave it there. Like Google Now, another voice-activated assistant, she does her job and fades into the background until you need more information or directions or want to call someone. Not so with the new Cortana.
According to Joe Belfiore, Microsoft’s vice president for Windows, Cortana will work hard to get to know you, far better than Siri ever bothered. She will keep tabs on you building a notebook on you which includes your interests, appointments and reminders, your inner circle, the places you visit online, and of course, your music preferences. She can even turn off your phone during your “silent hours” but activate it if certain VIPs you identify contact you when you’re napping or during other “quiet” times. The NSA would probably love to hire her.
Of course, you can talk to Cortana or type to her. Listening to Microsoft’s official video, her voice sounds tinnier to me than Siri’s and even the Google Now voice:
According to an interview Belfiore gave to the New York Times’ writer Nick Wingfield, Cortana’s phone voice comes from the same actress who voices her on Halo. Personally, I prefer the Australian woman’s voice I chose for my car’s GPS over any of them.
Cortana is not as useful as Siri for research. Wingfield found she can give updates on what President Obama is doing, but is clueless about when he was elected. Either time. Siri, though, will give you the correct answers.
Since Siri was the first vocal virtual digital assistant, anything coming after her should be an improvement. But it’s also a matter of what you want from a talking and note-taking virtual digital assistant and perhaps, how much you value your privacy.
Some people might find it a little weird for a tiny voice in their phone to know them so well, but early reviews find most don’t. You can also look in Cortana’s notebook to see what she’s got on you and keep tabs on her. Siri doesn’t give up her notes so easily.
Wingfield says Cortana has a sense of humor. Asked “Who’s your daddy?” she responds, “Technically speaking, Bill Gates. Not a big deal.” And, Cortana can sing.
Siri has several answers to the same question, including “I am not programmed to answer this question” and “Alan Turing, the father of modern artificial intelligence.” I wonder which device Turing would prefer. I suppose only time will tell which device the general public prefers.
Have you had a chance to check out Cortana?