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BLOG: Can artificial intelligence save Windows Phones?

Robert X. Cringely | Sept. 16, 2013
Microsoft's mobile AI assistant may put Apple's Siri and Google Now to shame, even make Windows Phones sexy. Did I really just write that?

It seems that when it comes to the mobile space, Microsoft isn't quite so brain dead after all. There is intelligence at work -- and it's artificial. According to published reports, Microsoft is preparing an answer to Apple's Siri and Google Now called Cortana that may appear on Windows phones as early as next year.

ZDnet's Mary Jo Foley, for my money the most reliable Microsoft watcher on the planet, has the scoop:

Cortana takes its codename from Cortana, an artificially 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.

As Foley notes, in his last grand strategy memo soon-to-be-ex CEO Steve Ballmer raved about a user interface that 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." Yes, that's right, he used the "m" word, formerly reserved for use exclusively by that other Steve.

So the question becomes: Is Cortana just a code name, or is Microsoft going all in on an AI assistant that looks and acts like Halo's Cortana? Heck, Ray Kurzweil has Ramona. Why not?

In the game, Cortana has that combination of voluptuousness and vulnerability that causes most men to become completely untethered from the rational centers of their brains. She is smart and sexy in every sense of the word. And sexy is something Microsoft desperately needs if it doesn't want to become the DEC or Wang of the next generation.

Let's face it: Hardware is boring. As Apple's recent iPhone introduction showed, when it comes to handsets we are looking at a future of incremental improvements — a faster processor, a better motion sensor, a fingerprint sensor. Nice, sure, but hardly worth getting up from the couch over. Nobody but a diehard Apple fanboy cares what kind of chip is inside that overpriced piece of gold-rimmed electronic bling. They want it to tell them something they don't know, to give them something they need at that very moment, to help them in ways they didn't even expect. When it comes down to form or function, function usually wins in the long run.


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