Microsoft's new digital assistant, Cortana, is still in beta. After a brief hands-on, however, it already appears to be just as capable as Google Now and somewhat ahead of Apple's Siri.
Digital assistants are somewhat like real assistants: They can provide you a list of their skills, but only after working with them for some time can you better assess their talents. And so it is with Cortana: Without actually giving Microsoft your data, you can't quite know for sure how it will shape up.
Nevertheless, Cortana is one of Microsoft's most eagerly awaited improvements. She — three executives, speaking separately, consistently referred to Cortana as a "she" — will be part of Windows Phone 8.1, debuting in new Lumia Windows Phones from Nokia this summer. Microsoft announced Windows Phone 8.1, as well as Windows 8.1 Update and a long list of other new or refreshed products, on Wednesday at its Build conference in San Francisco.
A few years ago, digital assistants were applications that could manage your email inbox. Cortana can — if you allow her to — read your inbox, log into your Facebook account, post tweets, and play music. Like Google Now, Cortana can sniff out plane departure times or locate the closest Chinese restaurant. And, with Microsoft's latest generation of Bing technology powering Cortana, it can listen and respond to natural language, allowing you to speak to it conversationally, rather than trying to use predetermined commands.
But she's not perfect. Inside the Moscone West convention center in San Francisco, Cortana was convinced that I was in Atlanta, Georgia (and no, executives said it was not running over a VPN). While I could text "people" listed as contacts and stored in a demonstration phone, I couldn't email them. (I didn't confirm whether they were programmed with email addresses, however.)
With Cortana, you have the option of giving her (gah!) all your information, some, or none at all. Cortana actually works a lot like a targeted ad: The more information you provide, the better she performs. At least with her, you have some choices: You can tell Cortana what you'd like her to monitor in categories like "Out and About," "News," "Daily Routine," "Sports," Travel," "Weather," and more. Cortana can also keep track of your music searches (to build a profile of what you like or dislike), offer to set reminders, and establish an "inner circle" of friends who can contact you even during time you've designated as "quiet hours." All of this is stored in the Notebook, a giant Settings menu that's open to the user.
That doesn't mean you have total control, however. Chris Weber, the executive vice president of sales and marketing for Nokia, showed me his Windows Phone 8.1 device. Cortana independently chose to monitor news about Microsoft, as well as the Seattle Seahawks, his hometown team.
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