Microsoft’s Cortana may be a game changer in the world of personal digital assistants

The future of Microsoft may very well rest on Cortana’s shoulders. Who is she? Born of a future age (a Halo game character from the 26th century), ultimately Microsoft’s Cortana is the somewhat belated competitor to Apple’s “Siri” and Google’s “Google Now.” This personal digital assistant, designed for the smartphone, is what Microsoft hopes will be “an approach that mixes the best of the competition with its own unique take,” according to The Verve.

This newcomer will debut her stuff in the new Windows Phone 8.1, the next update to the company’s mobile operating system. Although Microsoft is playing catch-up in the marketplace, this personal assistant has been in development for more than two years.

Personal digital assistants

In the smartphone world, this new trend in personal digital assistants is key. In fact, they are likely a harbinger of things to come: As devices get smaller and more difficult to type on (cue the new trends in smartwatches and other digital wearables), voice commands will become a bigger, more significant part of the action.

Cortana verus Siri

While Apple always goes boldly where no tech company has gone before, it also leaves itself vulnerable to the follower (in this case, Microsoft) who often comes behind with a souped-up version of what it first created. According to Digital Trends, Microsoft may have “taken personal digital assistants to a whole new level.”

Microsoft has taken the same (more advanced) features of Google Now and added the Siri pizzazz. It also surpasses Apple (though competes with Google Now) on the large amounts of data it brings to the table. Notes Digital Trends, “Apple doesn’t have the search engine, email system or other services Microsoft and Google do.”

Just what can Microsoft’s Cortana do?

Designed to learn daily behaviors and interests, Microsoft’s personal digital assistant is focused to filling the mobile role a real-life assistant might play: providing reminders, notifying of conflicts in scheduling, gathering information and keeping track of day-to-day business.

Among the things that Cortana can do for its users are track weather, set alarms, send messages, recognize and play music, check sport scores or stock quotes—and do it all with humor. Analysts suggest that one of the best things Microsoft’s version of the personal assistant can do is to “trigger actions based on events.” If a user asks “What’s the best restaurant near me?” the answer will be a single best restaurant (based on Yelp user recommendations). Using plural “best restaurants,” will provide more options.

Taking out the “creep” factor

While choosing such a personal name is uncharacteristic of typical Microsoft fare, the company didn’t want the name to be “too creepy” and a leak of the name (which was just a codename originally for the project) and a petition sealed her fate.

Part of what people so disliked about Google Now (despite its added features) was that their digital personal assistant seemed to know so much about them. Cortana deals with this the way actual human assistants have suggested to Microsoft they do: by keeping a notebook. Moreover, Cortana will always ask if she can store information (in the cloud) before actually doing so, giving users more privacy when they desire.

In short, the real success (albeit so belated) is that Microsoft has used its late entry to the personal digital assistant field to its best advantage, providing a more human and satisfying experience for its users.